Reaping Reality

I am a perpetual optimist, a forever dreamer.  Who looks at a barren front yard of an apartment building and thinks, “That could be a thriving organic oasis of a community-style garden, and while I’m at it, let’s turn the whole thing into non-profit and raise money to repeat this around the world.  Let’s hold classes, give lectures, host TEA parties and partner with UCLA, USC and Santa Monica College, in between running a business and raising an 11-year-old.”

Apparently I do.

And even though it’s hard sometimes, this life I’ve created is happiest and most fulfilling I’ve ever experienced.  I’d say I owe a deep part of this tangible drive to something completely non-tangible: my very thick rose colored glasses – ie, optimism.  Since I was very young, I’ve tended to see things as I want them to be, rather then, perhaps as they are.  This came as a coping mechanism to some of the things going on around me as a child; it was a sort of inner escape route.  That escape route has served me well over the past four decades, because where others see a dead end, I often see a “welcome” sign. 

I suppose I’m learning when to keep the glasses on, and when to take them off, both in and out of the garden.  For better or worse, I always see the best in a person, situation or circumstance.  I see potential, what I believe it could be, rather then, perhaps, what it really is.  I’m not speaking about anyone or anything in particular, just noticing how sometimes your strength is also your weakness.  Those glasses help me have vision, but sometimes prevent me from really seeing.

When I have a lesson to learn, I always turn back to the garden.  In the garden, everything is reality.  A weed is not a David Austin Rose.  Poor soil is not an illusion.  Aphids covering your brassicas are not confetti.  The garden teaches me to see things as they are – today – regardless of how I imagine they could be.

I like this duality, this dance.  It reminds me that while “anything may be possible,” I also need to work with things as they are.  For an ever-optimist (and someone who is extremely impatient), there is both acceptance and disappointment in this.  I want things be farther along then they are.  I want the garden to be more ready, or a person or circumstance to be more ready, but what I really need is (at least sometimes) to be more in reality.

I’m not sure what all this means or how it’s all meant to turn out (that’s the fun of a garden – you can plan all you want, but in the end it’s really out of our hands).  I suppose it’s about always remembering to embrace and enjoy the journey, knowing there’s never anywhere to really ‘go.’  It’s all just one big cycle.  Soil, seed, sprout, harvest, compost….and back into the soil again.  Just like us, just like the garden.  It’s a quick trip, this life, enjoy it while you can.

Happy Planting.

Jill Volat

 

 

Be Open to a New Way…Be Open to it Working Out

Yes, that's 7-foot corn in the background of our former lawn

Yes, that's 7-foot corn in the background of our former lawn

There are times for following systems and there are times for saying to hell with it and creating a completely new way of doing something.  Sometimes we do things because that’s how they’ve always been done.  It feels safe.  The outcome is reasonably predictable.  We can relax and just be on autopilot.  We are not challenged or asked to step out of how we’ve done things in the past.  But who wants to live like that?

Moving out of my old house and into an apartment was the opposite of autopilot. Nothing was familiar; my new life was not only unrecognizable, it didn’t even exist yet.  I felt deep in my heart that something great was going to come of this new adventure, but I couldn’t see any evidence of it in physical form.  Nothing! Some might call it faith, or optimism, or visualizing or just good old-fashioned hard work.  I suppose creating the garden at The Edible Apartment – and my new life – was a combination of all of the above. 

When I had the idea (rather, when the idea was dropped into my head) to personally fund the transformation of the unused 1000-square foot lawn in front of my apartment, people thought I was nuts.  I was told by countless individuals that it was a huge mistake to put any of my own money into a property that I didn’t own.  Yet something deep in my gut told me that this was what I was meant to do.  I decided that rather then buy more crap that I didn’t need, I would put my hands, heart and soul into the soil, and see what came up.

What was in one moment an inner urging, a passion, a yearning to find a way to grow my own food, is now a thriving non-profit and an amazing TEA-M of individuals committed to talking this project all over the world.  Universities are coming to visit and asking to partner with us.  Students want to donate their time. Local farms are bringing their crew and driving down to come visit and help.  People are sending us seeds form all over the country.  And we get letters all the time from all over the world expressing appreciation for getting to watch this process unfold.  All because I wanted to grow my own lettuce.

You have to understand that this garden is not even a year old.  We only broke ground on May 9th, 2015. We received non-profit status at just 6 months.   And we are just getting started….

Do not neglect your inner urgings.  One more time: Do not neglect your inner urgings. It may work out the way you expected, or take you in a totally different direction.  It may work out even better than you could have imagined.  Don’t play it small.  Nobody benefits from that, least of all, you.

Signing off now from The Edible Apartment. It’s 6am, the sun is coming up, and it’s time to greet the garden.

Happy Planting.

Jill Volat

Do You

IMG_5524.JPG

I am an unconventional farmer.  I don’t own my own land.  I live in an apartment.  And that apartment happens to sit right in the middle of Los Angeles.

While my world is a world away from ‘traditional’ farming, I still find myself doing a lot of the same general things a farmer might do a few hundred miles north on a hundred acres, just in a completely different way.  I wake up at 5am every day without an alarm; the first thing I think about (besides gratitude) is when the sun will come up so I can go downstairs and see how things are growing; and I think, talk and plan for growing and cooking food all day long.  Oh, and I have a Farm Dog.

Sara just turned 13 (aka 91) and she’s still going as strong as ever.  She’s definitely the urban Farm Dog here at The Edible Apartment, and she keeps a close watch on everything.  Most nights she sleeps under my bed, directly under my body and I can hear her snoring through the mattress.  When I wake up and turn on the light, she emerges from under the bed like she’s coming out from her nightly cocoon and seeing life for the first time.  She wags her tail, starts dancing around next to the bed and even smiles (if you’ve seen Sara, you’ve seen her smile).

I’m not one of those crazy pet people, but when we are having this brief daily greeting with each other, I like to say good morning to her and ask her what she’s going to do today.  And (maybe because she’s a hound and hounds always have this inquisitive look) I always picture her answering: “What do you mean what am I doing today, I’m doing SARA!

It’s a funny reminder to me that each day, I only have to do ME.  I don’t have to do anyone else’s life, just my own.  That is a huge relief.  I had an old life, and it just wasn’t ‘me.’  This life I’ve created for myself after my divorce has been the most positive, happy and fulfilling daily adventure I’ve ever experienced.  And I’m just getting started…

When I say I am a ‘farmer’ of course I think of the traditional practice of cultivating food, but there is a more ephemeral connotation to the word.  I think we are all farmers, cultivating our own lives.  Creating what feels authentic for each of us.  Growing our dreams, patiently waiting them out, weathering storms, enjoying and sharing the harvest.

For me, I love that every day I get to do “JILL.”  I like that on a planet of 7 Billion + people, I am the only one who has ever started an organization solely to grow food on apartment building land. I like that I am the voice for a massive group of people who want food freedom – and community - but don’t own a house.  I like that every day I get to wake up and, simply, put this mission into action, on a local, and eventually global scale.  My farm dog Sara does Sara, I simply have to do me.

When you wake up today, just remember that you only have to Do You.  Not anyone else.  Not what you think you are supposed to do.  Not what pleases other people, but what pleases you.  Maybe the hard part is to get real about what you want and who you are, but once you go through that, the rest is kind of easy.

You sort of just wake up, wag your tail, and Do You.  Oh, and don’t forget to eat your greens ;) 

Happy Planting.

Jill Volat

Starting from Seed, Facing My Fears

We all have fears. Some are bigger than others, but they all pose some perceived threat to our safety, be it physical, emotional or even financial.  FEAR = False Evidence Appearing Real, or so they say….

Spiders, heights, dancing in public, telling someone you love them, leaving a "for-sure" job for something that actually brings you joy.

I’ll tell you mine: starting seeds.

Whew.  That’s a weird one, I know. Like being afraid to wear corduroy or something else completely obscure and random.  This fear is extra strange for someone who has gardened for fun for over 30 years, done it professionally for over 15 and founded a non-profit based on....gardening.

Let me explain.  When you plant a garden, you have two options: go to the plant nursery and by what are called ‘starts’ or buy a pack of seeds and ‘start’ the plants in trays of soil yourself.  My entire life, I have gone to the nursery to purchase plants.  I could say that it’s for ease and that it’s because I am by nature an extremely impatient person (both are true).

But the fear is something much deeper (they usually are):  I’m afraid of failure.  I’m afraid that something I’ve put love and effort into might not work out.  Seeds can be very tricky.  You have to be patient (I hate that); they may or may not ever even pop up through the surface of the soil; once they do, they may not grow; and even if they do grow to the point of being able to transplant in the garden, they may die after you do.  I know it sounds like I’m way over analyzing this, but there’s a metaphor in here for me, so maybe there’s something in here for you, too.

When I buy ‘starts' at the nursery, I feel like I’m getting a ‘sure thing.’  It’s easy. It's predictable.  It’s extremely rare for me to kill a plant that I’ve purchased in a 6-pack from a nursery.  In fact, I’d say my success rate is at about 98%, which is pretty darn good.

But I’m missing out.  I’m missing out on rare, heirloom seeds that were grown 200+ years ago.  I’m missing out on trusting nature.  I’m missing out on practicing dealing with disappointment.  I’m missing out on the ‘win’ when it does work out.  And I’m missing out on this more subtle, ephemeral practice that dates back thousands of years and connects me to every person who ever has or ever will live on this planet: the simple act of putting a seed in the earth, watching new life take root and putting that life into your body to sustain your own.

My work as founder of The Edible Apartment “TEA” is completely unconventional.  Taking apartment lawns and turning them into community-style urban farms is, um, ‘different.’  Yet this is the most rewarding, ecstatic, playful, important, I’m-just-getting-started work I’ve ever done.  The mission of our non-profit, besides creating a community and creating a healthy food source, is, simply, to give the finger to traditional ways of doing things.  It’s about saying: “I know you do it that way, but there’s an alternative way to getting to the same destination, too.”

If I’m buying plants at a store whose seed has never touched my own hand, I feel I’m cheating, like I'm taking the easy way out.  Also, financially speaking, you can get 100 kale plants inside a $2 pack of seeds versus buying a six-pack of kale starters for $3.  So, since we’re also about frugality and DIY here at TEA, I want all of our practices to mirror our mission.

And even though all those reasons sound great, it’s also time, frankly, to get over my fear.  My fear of it not working out, my fear of putting effort and love into something that may or may not come to fruition, and my fear that, well, it might actually work out.  These fears sprout up in me both in and out of the garden, and when they do, I just keep putting one seed in the soil, on step under me at a time.

A few weeks ago I put out a call for seed donations to our non-profit and I am overwhelmed with what we've received so far.  A million thanks to each of you for your generosity, diversity of gifts and letters sharing your own stories and passion for starting and saving seeds. Please keep it coming!  I promise to keep starting the seeds, sharing the harvest and showing up fully for each step along the way, regardless of where the garden path leads me.

Happy Planting.

Jill Volat

TEA in Ojai

Cali in her magical Edible Apartment garden, which used to be a parking lot.

Cali in her magical Edible Apartment garden, which used to be a parking lot.

When I'm not working or tending my own TEA garden, I've decided to travel the world to document edible gardens and the wonderful people who cultivate them - especially those in apartments and shared spaces.

And so we begin!

My first visit was to Ojai, CA to the garden of my beautiful friend, Cali Picc, who I met before she moved away from LA to this magical oasis.  We spent most of the day together, working on a farm in the morning (in trade for veggies and other bounty) and sipping homemade iced Matcha-Elderberry tea together at her charming apartment veggie garden in the afternoon.  I asked Cali how the garden began, and what cultivating the land means to her.

Cali on her CA Garden...

JV: How long have you lived in your apartment?
CP: I moved to Ojai in June 2014. It's been a little over a year now, and it's absolutely incredible to see a year's progress in the garden! 

JV: Did you know right away when you moved in that you wanted an edible garden, or did it ‘come to you’ after living there?
CP: When speaking with my landlord about renting the apartment, he mentioned that I could do whatever I wanted with the rock covered parking area. I immediately went to work, planning my little would-be garden in my head, before I even knew if he would rent me the place! 

JV: What were your reasons for putting in a veggie garden? (fun, leisure, community, food, beauty?)
CP: For me, food is the answer to a lot of the problems we face today as human beings. The garden is a place for me to experience the magic of watching something grow, connect with the food that nourishes me, its a vessel for compost, a chance to save seeds, host potlucks, and challenge the idea of using land for parking! It has also evolved into a talking piece for friends, family and neighbors. I love to share and gift the food right off the vine. It’s similar to bringing a 24 pack of beer to a party where you don't know anyone! I guess what I am trying to say is it's just a great way to connect with people. 

JV: How did you approach the design?  Did you know what to do or did you figure it out as you went along?
CP: My garden went through a ton of rebirths. It was exhausting and more than a little discouraging at times. The extreme heats in Ojai, gophers, and a few excited cats got the first phase of my garden. This was of course because I did not observe the landscape and just jumped into it! I believe in trial and error though, that is how I learn best. There's only so much you can learn in a book and only so much you can plan ahead for! Just got to get out there and do it. I failed, A LOT, but at least I was failing doing something I loved. I was actually embarrassed at the sight of my garden for a long time. Since it was just me, progress was slow. I felt bad for my neighbors, who had to look at it. But in my mind's eye I saw what my garden could be and kept trying until my efforts paid off. 

JV: Did you purchase materials or find them?
CP: Found all the rocks
Mulch the dry compacted soil with hay- $10 for a bale
Built beds from rock- found
Layered bottom of bed with card board to build soil- found
Filled beds with compost (from my own pile)
Supplemented the rest with store bought bags- about 6 bags total 
Sprinkled seeds everywhere - Most I got from friends, family (my aunt used to run a nursery in Humboldt) and SLOLA (Seed Library Los Angeles).
Transplanted plants I got from my propagation class at Santa Barbara City College. A lot of those plants would be composted so I took them home to give them a second chance! The tomatoes are absolutely ridiculously happy! 

JV: How has the garden changed the way you live and also for your neighbors?
CP: The garden helps me to ground. It gives me a chance to break a sweat, enjoy the sunshine, and plenty of reasons to try new recipes. My neighbors get to marvel at the progress of the garden as we wander in and out of the cul-de-sac for our daily lives. I leave little gifts by their doors, because it is just so much for one person! They all think I am some kind of magician! We all had no idea how productive this garden would be. Its success gives us a chance to trade stories. 

JV: Any fun garden stories or advice you’d like to share?
CP: I am so grateful that I got to turn this bare land into a little food oasis. It’s helped me understand the miracle of transformation that lies with in each of us. In planting and tending to this garden, I have nourished a part of myself I never knew I could reach. ADVICE: Join SLOLA, build soil, MULCH, sprinkle seeds everywhere. Plan to be WILD. Share the bounty, no matter how small it is. But I have a feeling you will be amazed by how much you will get from your input!

Thank you Cali!!
Xx Jill Volat/THE EDIBLE APARTMENT

 

Cali gave me a tour of Mano Farm, where she volunteers when she's not working, at school or tending her own garden.

Cali gave me a tour of Mano Farm, where she volunteers when she's not working, at school or tending her own garden.