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Famous naturalist’s ideals are nurtured in a prolific urban garden
Using the wisdom of her grandfather, naturalist Aldo Leopold, Susan Freeman builds a prolific garden on a simple Seattle lot.
Special to The Seattle Times
SUSAN FREEMAN learned about gardening from her grandfather, naturalist Aldo Leopold. He wrote “The Sand County Almanac,” a book that has sold more than 2 million copies and influenced generations of ecologists, at the Wisconsin property where Susan remembers visiting him. Years after she stayed with her grandfather at the “shack” in Wisconsin, Susan met her husband, Scott Freeman, at the Leopold Foundation, where she spent five years doing restoration work.
Decades later, the Freemans are busy farming their city-sized lot in Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood, where they use every inch of land to grow food and nurture honeybees. Susan was freshly inspired by Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Animal Vegetable Miracle” to dig up her drought-tolerant plantings and grow even more food.
“We try to eat from our own garden most of the year ... except we do buy mushrooms,” says Susan. They freeze, can and preserve root crops layered in damp sawdust or between newspapers in the crawl space beneath the house. “The onions don’t last too long, but that’s because we eat them up quickly,” says Susan. Their carrot harvest, however, lasts through the winter stored in the cool crawl space.
The little garden is wildly productive, from the parking strip all the way up to the house. The Freemans’ foray into urban agriculture puts to the test what they learned from Aldo Leopold’s writings and Susan’s memories of childhood gardens. The couple hauled logs home from their cabin on the Olympic Peninsula to terrace their property, layering in compost to improve the soil. They buy seeds and plants bred for Northwest conditions; vegetable and flower seed from Territorial Seed in Oregon and fruit trees and shrubs from Raintree Nursery near Morton, Lewis County.
They plant flowers to attract pollinators, and cover tender crops such as cucumbers, tomatoes and basil with cloches and Reemay cloth row covers well into July. Around the side of the house is a little nursery to start transplants waiting to go into the ground when one crop or another finishes up. “When we harvest the garlic, we plant the broccoli and kale,” explains Susan. The straw-and-wood-chip mulch hides the soaker hoses that keep the crops growing so profusely. When the couple built an addition onto their house, they saved an old apple tree and now grow lettuces in the shade it casts.
“It’s a real community-builder out here,” says Susan of all the neighbors who stop by to ask about the raspberries growing in the parking strip or the pears ripening on the recently planted trees.
In the front garden, basil and tomatoes grow luxuriantly in the reflected heat from the sidewalk. This year, they’re trying a variety of heirloom tomatoes. Standby varieties are ‘Viva Italia,’ ‘Brandywine,’ ‘Stupice’ and ‘Legend,’ which they eat fresh, and use for marinara sauce and salsa. Cherries, grapes, sweet peppers and currants all ripen here in the full sun. The family makes jelly out of the currants, and juice from the seedless ‘Thompson’ and ‘Canadice’ grapes. They harvest mint and camomile for tea, and grow herbs along the side of the house.
The back garden is mostly shady and filled with native plants. A hammock is strung temptingly between two big trees, but Susan admits these busy farmers rarely have a chance to relax in it.
“Oh, and we have an annex P-Patch,” she adds, to grow the pumpkins, onions and squashes they don’t have room for in their packed little urban farm.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.