Fresh, Affordable and Hyper-Local
Farmer Sue White Shares History of in.gredients Garden and Tales of Farming in Austin
Almost every day, among a buzz of butterflies and bees, Farmer Sue White can be found planting, weeding and harvesting the in.gredients garden. Out in front of the store and in our produce case, you can see (and taste) what Sue has worked to build over the last four years.
Sue began gardening 40 years ago when she was living in Clarksville next to a vacant lot.
“I squatted on it – I just started to garden there,” she said. “Nobody noticed; nobody threw me out. I had a giant garden.”
When Sue moved to Cherrywood, she continued to garden – growing a wide range of produce without the use of chemical enhancers or toxic pesticides. Four years ago, Sue expanded the size and productivity of her garden with the help of Urban Patchwork, an organization working to create small farms on underutilized or abandoned spaces throughout neighborhoods in Austin with the goal of increasing local food production.
“I got involved with Urban Patchwork – we were a group in our neighborhood of people who wanted to create a patchwork farm of several backyards together. We produced kind of like a CSA,” Sue said. “We had members, and some of the members contributed their land, their backyards, and some contributed work, and some contributed money. We harvested and shared the harvest among all of us; there were about 12 members.”
Urban Patchwork initially helped build the garden in front of in.gredients to act as a community space that exemplified sustainable growing techniques and water conservation. The Urban Patchwork team chose to create a hugelkultur garden because of its ability to retain water, even during times of drought.
“You have to dig a deep trench,” Sue said. “You have to dig down quite deep and dig out the soil, and then put in logs. The logs absorb and hold onto moisture, and the roots get down into the rotting log and get the moisture that’s being held in the logs. On top of that you have to put some nitrogen source to counteract the carbon breaking down, and then you pile your soil along with your soil amendments on top of that. It should be between 18 inches and two feet deep; it won’t work if your trench is too shallow. The soil here does seems to stay moist for quite a long time, and that’s also due to heavy clay content. I have the drip irrigation set up on a timer, and during a rainy period I come and turn it off.”
Urban Patchwork helped in.gredients complete the garden in April 2012. Initially, a team of Urban Patchwork volunteers maintained the garden, but after about a year Sue took over the responsibility of caring for the space.
“Most of the members were on the other side of the neighborhood, so they didn’t have enough people willing to come by and keep it up – but I live right down the street, and in.gredients wanted it to become more of a provider for the store,” Sue said. “Since I had been part of that group, they asked me if I would take it over. That’s how I ended up doing this. I sell to them from the garden the same way I sell from my own backyard garden.”
Sue supplies in.gredients with hyper-local produce grown in our front yard and in her garden just down the street.
“I can harvest food every single day, and that’s how fresh it’s going to be,” Sue said. “There’s no transportation of the food. You can come in here and buy produce that was harvested ten minutes ago, at the most 24 hours ago, and it’s really good. It’s so fresh. Food, the fresher it is, the more nutrients it has in it. It’s not possible yet for everybody to eat locally, but the advantages are that you really cut down on the transportation of the goods, your carbon footprint. There’s always the possibility and probability that we’re going to have transportation interruptions in the future. It could happen any time, so the more we depend on things locally, the better.”
Sue helps set the price of the produce she sells to in.gredients, which has allowed in.gredients to have its own in.house supplier of affordable, chemical-free, hyper-local produce. Produce loses its nutrient content over time after being harvested, so freshly-harvested, local produce has a much higher nutrient density than produce that was picked in other states, or in other countries, weeks in advance and then shipped in, as is the case with most grocery store produce. Sue believes fresh food also just tastes better.
“If you compare my broccoli that I grow in my backyard to the broccoli you buy at most grocery stores, it’s so much greener,” Sue said. “It has long narrow stems like broccolini, and it’s so green and tender; you hardly have to cook it. And the spinach is just incredible. It’s the most delicious spinach you’ll ever eat. It’s just so fresh, and it makes a big difference. Also I know how organic it is. I can’t label my stuff as organic — it would cost way too much to get organic certification — but I know that I am way beyond organic certification.”
Sue starts most of the food she plants in the in.gredients garden from seed at her house. When planting, Sue utilizes companion planting strategies to create natural pest deterrents, and she always keeps the health of pollinators in mind.
“I rarely buy seedlings; I can’t afford that. Sometimes I’ve had some seedlings donated,” she said. “You have to plant some veggies directly from seeds. The carrots that are growing there now are from the seeds that were on the carrot flowers on the carrots growing last year. I let them go to seed because they’re really pretty flowers, and bees like them. They make giant flowers, and the seeds just fall all over the place, and they just grew.”
Volunteers have had a huge impact on the in.gredients garden since its start, helping with everything from initially building the garden boxes and beds to repairs to the never-ending contest with the weeds. When the “wicking bladder,” a structure buried deep within the garden boxes designed to retain water, collapsed, a group of volunteers helped Sue re-design and rebuild a sturdier structure.
“We decided how we were going to rebuild the box and decided we wanted rocks in the bottom. We went to my house and got old pieces of concrete I saved when my neighbor’s concrete driveway was replaced and dragged those over here, filled up the bottom, and rebuilt the box,” Sue said. “The really cool thing was that in that group of people we had one person in their twenties, one person in their thirties, one person in their forties, one person in their fifties, one person in their sixties and one person in their seventies. There was one person from every decade.”
Beyond helping supply in.gredients with affordable, delicious, local produce, Sue believes that there is a lot that volunteers can gain while working in our garden.
“I think it’s just plain interesting, and it’s fun. You can enjoy your food more when you see it growing,” she said. “Just seeing it growing, you appreciate the earth, and you may come to learn how important it is to take care of the earth. It’s hard work, which is good. Hard work is good. I mean people go to the gym for hard work, why don’t they just start a garden instead? It makes you appreciate how much creative work and gentle care go into growing vibrantly good food, and then you’re willing to pay the price that it really costs to produce good food.”