I’ve been wanting to start growing my own food (or at least some of it) for the past 5-6 years — even before I got married and before I started getting knee-deep into working to promote the organic food movement. I guess I just had a tendency to like this sort of stuff even before I learned about why it’s so important. But even as I started to frequent farmers’ markets and buy raw milk, I was too intimidated to try figuring out how to start growing some of my own food. To be fair, for a while I was living in a high-rise in Chicago without a balcony, and the most I could grow were few herbs near the window. Unfortunately, they didn’t last very long. I must have over-watered (I’m not the type to keep plants starving). Or maybe it was the unpredictability of Chicago sun - who knows.
In any case, I intend to start growing some of my own food. Last year I backed the NourishMat project on Kickstarter to get me started on the process of preparing my garden. By the end of the year, hopefully I’ll already have a few plants that are producing enough to help with dinner … As you can also see from my Pinterest board called “Growing Your Own Food”, I’ve been gushing over this sort of thing even more than before for the past few years. I’ve even pinned some mythical looking gardens like these … (one can dream, right?)
So anyway, the desire is there, and so is the conviction. But the know-how is not. Lucky for me, I’ve made some awesome connections online over the past few years through blogging, and one of them is an experienced gardener and fellow blogger named Jeanne Grunert. I stumbled upon Jeanne’s blog about her farm, Seven Oaks Farm, in rural Virginia, and was really impressed with her extensive knowledge about growing all sorts of delicious food. I bookmarked some of her posts on building raised beds, and I thought it would be great to hear more about her journey and learn from her experience of moving out to central Virginia to live a simpler life. So, I asked if I could interview her for my blog – check out the dialogue below. If you’re reading this and are an experienced gardener, I would love to hear your feedback or story of how you got into gardening as well as any resources that you could recommend for getting started!
An Interview with Gardener and Blogger Jeanne Grunert
1. According to your blog About page, you left your Manhattan marketing executive job in 2007 and decided to move to rural Virginia to live on 17 acres and grow your own food. Many people dream of a simpler countryside life, but have no idea how to make it work practically. What prompted you to make this move? What tips do you have for those who have similar dreams but have no idea how to make it happen?
Well, I didn’t really leave the New York area just to grow my own food. My husband and I thought about it for a long time, and wanted to leave the New York City area for many reasons. We had always dreamed of living in a more rural, relaxed location. But we couldn’t find jobs outside of city environments. Then the internet took off, and it was easier to find work and telecommute. My big “ah-ha!” moment came when my boss told me that the company we worked for was going to do another round of layoffs. I was tired of being part of the corporate culture and really yearned to make a go of it on my own, to go back to my creative roots. I enjoyed my work as a marketing director, but knew there was no longer anything called “job security”… We were finally able to realize our dream of buying land in Virginia in 2005, but we didn’t move until 2007. It took a lot of planning to make it happen.
I would say that the first thing you need to do is be very realistic about your life situation. Take your time to research, plan and save every penny, because once you decide to freelance or become your own boss, you need a safety net! Make sure you have portable skills — skills that do not depend on a single employer or place. See if you can telecommute or find a way to earn money from home, because jobs are harder to find in a rural place than a big city. I focused on building up skills I could use through telecommuting so that I could live in a rural area yet find work. That meant refocusing on my writing, and finding ways to promote my marketing services to companies around the country.
If you move to a rural location from a very urban area, as we did, you have to be sure you can handle it — that you will love it. There will be culture shock, so you must also be patient with yourself as you learn about your new area and explore your new lifestyle. I made a lot of mistakes, but am grateful that the people whom I’ve met since moving have been so welcoming and kind. My farming neighbors have taught me so much about living and loving the country lifestyle.
2. I can think of so many positives associated with living in the Virginia countryside… but some possible drawbacks come to mind. What has been the biggest downside (if any)? What about the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge for me was getting used to the slower pace. Being born and raised in the NYC area, I’m always on “fast-fast-faster!” speed. Another challenge was getting used to driving everywhere. I was so used to walking to the store, the bank, church, whatever, that it took some time to get used to planning my trips to maximize each drive into our local town so I could complete all my errands at once.
3. How long have you been into gardening? What’s the fondest memory of gardening that you have?
Our home on Long Island had a tiny, tiny yard – I think it was 10 x 20 feet or something like that. But my dad built an incredible garden there with raised beds and grew so many vegetables in a tiny space that I grew up learning by watching him. He loved house plants too, and we always had many interesting plants growing under lights or on windowsills throughout the house. He also grew flowers for the Long Island Chrysanthemum Society Shows. Our next-door neighbor, Mr. Hoffman, had built his house when the development had been created, and he owned one and a half lots of land – a bigger piece of property than usual. It was known locally as “Hoffman’s Farm” because he grew so many vegetables, just like a farm! So I tagged along with both my dad and Mr. Hoffman, and learned how to plant flowers, shell peas and things like that along the way. Lastly, my older sister loved plants too. She even converted part of our childhood bedroom into an orchid-growing area, complete with plant lights, so she could grow her prized orchids. It was really a great environment to introduce me to gardening.
My earliest memory of gardening is learning how to collect pansy seeds. Mr. Hoffman always grew a big plot of pansies and he taught me how to collect the seeds. The picture below is of me (Jeanne) picking pansies in my dad’s tiny garden. To this day, pansies are one of my favorite flowers and every time I see pansies, I think of him! I also remember running around my grandmother’s Queens, New York City garden. She had a wonderful kitchen garden, complete with an apple and pear tree as well as vegetables, in Queens, and I loved to play there.
4. How did you decide on the name “Seven Oaks” for your blog? Do you have any oak trees on your property?
We actually bought a 17-acre timber tract here in Virginia and it’s all loblolly pines, which are grown for the paper industry. It was part of a larger farm devoted to growing pines for the paper mills around here. There are some wild dogwood trees, tulip trees and maples, but mostly pines as far as the eye can see. That’s one of the typical crops grown in my part of Virginia, along with hay and cattle. (We do not raise livestock here).
The real story of how Seven Oaks got its name is pretty funny. When we were building the house, we stood on the cleared field and watched seven birds soaring through the sky. We had just been talking about what we would name the farm when I saw the seven birds. I said to my husband, “Look! Seven hawks! It’s a great sign. We’ll call the place Seven Hawks Farm.”
One of the local men working on the house cleared his throat and said, “Ah, ma’am? Those aren’t hawks. Those are buzzards.”
“Yeah you know – like vultures.”
Since Seven Vultures Farm sounded awful, we decided to name it Seven Oaks after the seven oak tree seedlings we’d planted in the corner of the property. They’re descended from a 100-year old white oak tree that grew on my husband’s parent’s property on Long Island.
But yeah…it was originally Seven Hawks….or vultures, if you want to get technical….
5. What’s the best way for me to start growing some of my own food, organically, right here in Northern Virginia? Say I have a small shady 5×5 ft garden plot but I have no idea what the quality of the soil is — let’s assume that the soil is mostly eroded and has been sprayed with herbicides in the past. How hard would it be to recondition the soil for organic growing for example?
The first step would be to find your local County Cooperative Extension Office and get your soil tested. It costs about $10, maybe $20, but it’s well worth it. Collect soil from several areas where you plan to grow your vegetables and place them in separate plastic bags or containers (never metal – metal can interfere with the test results). The soil test results provide detailed information on what amendments you need to add to the soil and in what quantity, so you’ll get your garden off to a great start.
6. What are some of the easiest foods to grow outdoors in Virginia (including herbs, roots, vegetables, etc)? How about some of the easiest foods to grow indoors with intermittent shade in the summer? Do all indoor-grown foods need plenty of sun?
It depends a lot on where you live, but I find that leafy green vegetables such as lettuce, chard, spinach and others are easy to grow. Root crops such as beets, turnips, and potatoes do great in my garden too. Indoors, start with herbs; you can’t go wrong with a few pots of herbs such as basil, parsley, and rosemary on the windowsill. All food crops need full sun. At best, you can get away with partial shade for some herbs, lettuce and green beans, but most do need sun. If you don’t have great sun in your garden, but have it at the side of your house, try growing vegetables in large containers. Many adapt quite well to container gardening and you can place the containers in full sun.
7. I personally loved your posts on starting raised beds for growing your food outdoors! A little birdie told me you’re publishing a book on Amazon that can help those looking for step-by-step instructions on building raised beds. What can people expect to see in your book?
Yes, I’m compiling the information on raised bed gardening into a short booklet that will be offered for sale via Amazon. Right now, the information is on my blog, Seven Oaks – Home Garden Joy.
8. What are some of the best online and print resources you can recommend for a novice looking to start growing the majority of his/her own food?
Online, start with your Cooperative Extension Office. You can also find good resources on Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening magazine. And of course, there’s my blog – www.homegardenjoy.com. I have some free books and resources, plus tons of blog posts on growing your own food.
9. What about composting; can you give some tips on how to get started on a project like that if I don’t have a lot of space? How should I use compost for improving the quality of the soil?
Composting is great for the environment and great for the garden. You don’t need a lot of space to start a compost pile. You can purchase a commercial compost bin or tumbler, or build your own. I’ve started compost piles in a small 3 foot by 3 foot space behind my garden shed. I used recycled building materials such as bricks or foundation blocks, piled up, and then just layered the materials inside the square. You can also use pallets nailed together to make a square bin.
Compost can be added freely to garden soils once the materials have thoroughly decomposed. Compost should look like chocolate cake mix when it’s ready to be added to the garden. You really can’t go wrong adding compost to your garden, and I don’t think there’s anything like “too much compost”!
10. What are your favorite foods to grow, and why? The two first plants I’d love to try growing are mint and tomatoes — do you have any tips for me?
I’d stay away from mint, unless you can grow in a container. Mint is super invasive! I made the mistake of growing it in my herb bed the first year, and the darned stuff tunneled out under the wooden walls of the raised bed and into the lawn. It’s nice to mow the lawn now — all you smell is mint — but it’s coming up everywhere, in other raised beds, you name it. I moved most of it to the edge of the woods. I suggest growing it in a container to keep it contained!
Tomatoes are great to grow in containers. Be wary of the tomato hornworm, which seems to be very common here in Virginia. Marigolds planted around the tomatoes, especially the old-fashioned marigolds with that strong “marigold smell”, are great to keep tomato hornworms away organically.
I have great luck growing peppers here in Virginia, and have so many organic peppers that we can many batches throughout the summer. The same with my root vegetables – beets, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, onions and garlic all do very well in my garden. The raised beds really help.
Lettuce and radishes are nice, easy crops for anyone starting a garden, as are green beans. But I think that anytime you plant a garden, you should plant what you and your family like to eat. The more you love what you grow, the more fun you’ll have, both in the garden and in the kitchen when it comes time to enjoy it!
Who is Jeanne?
Jeanne Grunert is an award-winning writer and content marketer living and working on a 17-acre farm in Virginia. Prior to moving to Virginia in 2007, Jeanne led marketing departments for a variety of publishing and education companies in the New York City area. Today, she grows a life instead of just making a living. She is the author of Pricing Your Services – 21 Tips for More Profit, available on Amazon, and blogs about her exploits at her farm on Seven Oaks – Home Garden Joy. On her site, you’ll find free presentations, ebooks and more. She welcomes connections via social media.