Lessons From an East Durham Garden

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A visit to Zoë Shear’s Old East Durham garden proves fruitful in both produce and knowledge

By Amanda MacLaren | Photography by John Michael Simpson

A homemade wood trellis lined with rows of twine stands as a stark skeleton against the wilting remnants of summer in Zoë Shear’s backyard. She mimics how she utilized a technique called the Florida Weave to string up her nearly 30 tomato plants tightly and economically with biodegradable twine.

Yet even now, ghosts of the bounty that she created bring forth new life. The straw bales that once held dozens of tomato varieties this past summer are now home to edible mushroom starts. “After I harvest the mushrooms from the straw, my expectation is that the bales will be fully rendered into rich, black, beautiful compost that I can use to top off my beds come spring!” Zoë says. The multi-uses she derives from the straw bales are but one of the many methods that Zoë employs to maximize the utility of her quarter-acre lot in Old East Durham. It’s an idea that she discovered – along with the framework for her trellis – in a book on straw bale gardening by the self-described “NC Tomato Man,” Craig LeHoullier.

“One of my big considerations when gardening is, ‘What can I do for cheap?’” Zoë says. “It gets really expensive, really fast.” She previously grew her tomatoes in five-gallon grow bags, but soon realized that wasn’t a sustainable method when it came to the need to fertilize regularly and within the confines of a small space. “Right now, for what I call the ‘bougie’ dirt, I’m spending, like, $20 a bag, and it’s only 11⁄2 cubic feet,” she says. “That stinks. So if you want to garden on this scale, you have to be able to make your own dirt.

[Going with straw bales] seemed like a no contest in terms of having less disease, more control. It gave me everything that I wanted from the bags, but also the biodegradability aspect and the ability to use it year over year.”

She also makes her own “sweet, sweet ‘bougie’ dirt” by composting other plant material that’s not blighted by disease. “I would really like to get into vermiculture,” she says, “but right now I use – as if I hired them, ha! – black soldier fly larvae. They are extremely fast composters. I took a video of them the other day, just nibbling away.”

Passion Project
Zoë’s abundant enthusiasm for gardening stems from the neighbors who lived next door to her childhood home in Silver Spring, Maryland, before her family moved to Durham about 15 years ago. “We had a brick retaining wall next to our driveway,” she explains, “and they used the entire strip next to it to garden. Everything was beautiful and pristine, every single year. Some of my earliest memories were admiring that garden, pestering them while they were working in that garden and sitting on that brick retaining wall, deadheading flowers – specifically marigolds. That was one of the first places where the love of gardening was instilled in me.”

The first-generation gardener bought the home that she currently shares with her husband, Josh Baker, and tabby cat, Winston, in 2018. “We bought it because of the yard,” Zoë says. “Our previous abode was in total shade, and my early attempts at gardening were complete failures.” She admits that, even after they moved into this house, she still had a lot to learn. “We moved in the dead of winter,” she says. “So none of these trees had leaves,” and nothing would grow where she initially put her garden. Luckily, she designed it so it could be easily moved.

“That’s one of my tips for beginners – start with something portable,” Zoë says. “If you haven’t lived in your house a full year, if you haven’t had the opportunity to map the trajectory of the sun over your house, or even determine where is South, a good thing to do is to start portable. I ultimately wound up dragging my garden – anything that I could move – from that location, and it exploded.” The neighborhood itself also played a part in their decision to move in. “When we came by and looked at this house, there was a grandpa and his grandson out [across the street] raking leaves,” Zoë says. “It reminded me of my childhood where people were outside and doing things. … I give away a ton of stuff out of the garden to anybody who’s walking by. There are literally times where we will sit out on the front porch and just chat with people and ask, ‘Do you like tomatoes? Do you like hot peppers?’ Whatever I have, I just bring it out.”

Historic Roots
It’s a long-established tradition in the former mill neighborhood. “The unique urban landscape of Durham lends itself perfectly to [gardening],” she says. “It was originally designed to support homesteading, with 1⁄4-acre plots divided for use by workers at local plants.” As far as what each family would produce for their own food and supplements, Zoë believes it was likely similar or identical to what is seen today. “You’ll see evidence of peach trees,” she says. “Different fig trees are almost everywhere in East Durham, specifically. They probably planted in-ground, as opposed to raised beds, but still – beans, corn, tomatoes.” A new gardening trend that Zoë sees cropping up today in East Durham is a focus on monocultures, or just one crop. “There’s a house not so far from here that their entire front yard is full of watermelon,” she says. “Another was full of corn. I’m sure they did that because corn is promiscuous and really cross pollinates – they probably preserved that, and it provided months worth of supply.”

Zoë says she tried to do the same with her tomatoes this season, to some extent, “but of course I gave them all away instead of actually preserving them. I love sharing the literal fruit of my labor. … My friends call me the ‘Tomato Lady ’of Durham [but] personally I like to think of myself as ‘Durham’s Tomama.’”

She primarily grew heirloom cherries and slicers this year to share, but plans to freeze some whole tomatoes in order to make small batches of sauce through the winter. She also dries and preserves herbs, and pickles mostly green beans and green tomatoes. “I planted my cucumbers later than usual, but I still hope to make some cucumber pickles!” she says. “I love making hot sauces and pesto – this year, we made classic basil pesto as well as carrot top pesto to try to maximize our carrot harvest.”

Save Your Seeds!
Yet another way that Zoë maintains such a bountiful garden is by saving seeds from open-pollinated (meaning the seed will resemble the parent plant) varieties of tomatoes, peppers, ground cherries, eggplants, basil, lettuce, beans, corn, peas and several flowers.

“Seed saving is important for a variety of reasons – plants do ‘encode’ their DNA based on growing climate, and saving seeds locally can help you obtain more robust plants in the future,” she says. “Seeds are also a huge cost-saver, as you can continue to grow your favorites without a year-to-year investment (and it’s much cheaper than buying starts).” The best seeds to save are those with a low risk of cross-pollination and easy-to- save options such as beans, lettuce, peas, etc. (plants that dry out and produce a seed pod). “Learn from trial, error and research,” Zoë suggests. She also recommends online seed swaps like The Great American Seed Swap Project on Facebook, where you can post a list of seeds you have, as well as a list of seeds you want, and organize swaps with gardeners across the country for the cost of postage. “It’s like Pokemon for adults,” she says. “You start to learn which seeds are coveted and get you better trades.

“You will also be surprised by how generous people are,” she continues. “When I first started to swap, I only had marigold seeds, which I thought were not going to get me very far. Boy, was I wrong. So many people jumped to swap, and today, my collection contains more than 100 varieties of tomato alone!” And it’s that kindness and benevolence among gardeners – from novices to seasoned seed swappers – that Zoë hopes to continue. “It’s why I love and want to share gardening with people,” she says, “because it’s an iterative process that you can take with you forever.

Shear’s Garden Timeline

Plant your garlic for a late-spring harvest! Continue to care for and harvest your fall crops. First frost in North Carolina typically doesn’t come until late October, so you can continue to plant kales, which will only get sweeter when frost-kissed.

Hibernate! Dream of spring and summer. Make your planting diagrams, organize seed swaps with your friends and fellow gardeners, and order any supplies you will need. Seed starting will begin soon …

Start your first round of spring seeds indoors! Choose easy-to- transplant varieties like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards and spring onions. For the cost- conscious, you can use virtually anything that will hold soil – from yogurt cups to egg cartons in a kitchen window. Plastic trays and domes for these kits aren’t very sturdy and may only last a season or two. In a perfect world, I would recommend starting with a kit from Bootstrap Farmer with AeroGarden’s LED grow light. I love these because they are sturdy and are designed for years of reuse. Fill them with your own soil – I highly recommend FoxFarm Soil & Fertilizer Co. products and have had great success with both Happy Frog and Ocean Forest potting mix. They also make a seed-starting mix. You can also buy kits with peat pots and a dome set up, as well as a grow light. The downside here is the potential for mold, lack of nutrients in the peat and the unwillingness of the peat-pot to break down in the garden.

As soon as the soil can be worked, start planting your transplants. You will want to stay aware of any frosts or freezes so you can mulch accordingly. You can also “cloche” your plants by cutting a 2-liter bottle in half and placing the domes (add ventilation) over your plants outside so they can develop roots in your garden but have a little protection from the colder temps.

Preserve and plant. This includes your harvest – I am preserving through pickling, sauce making, freezing and drying – as well as any seeds you want to save for the future. I plant quick-growing, late-summer goodies such as beans, and early fall favorites including peas, radishes, carrots, Asian greens, kales and collards. It’s brassica season, baby!

Prepare your beds for the upcoming fall. There are a few ways to prep, but here are some of my favorites:

Choose a cover crop to help maintain the living ecology of your soil during the winter months and suppress spring weeds. You can till it under in the summer, treating that cover crop as a green manure for the next season. Some good cover crops include vetch, winter peas, crimson clover and winter grains such as wheat and rye.

Mulch your beds heavily to help maintain the soil over the winter and prevent spring weeds. Ideal mulches include dead leaves (they help prevent water from splashing off the soil and hitting the leaves of your plants, which is a surefire way to spread disease) and spent straw.
I am a strong proponent of leaving leaves because they break down into rich organic matter. I use them as bottom filler in my grow bags. Soil is so expensive, especially quality soil … filling the bottom half of my grow-bag with leaves helps take up space, and I can fill the top half with great soil. I also build hugelkulturs as a permaculture-derived, cost-saving method – this basically consists of layering logs, sticks, leaves, soil and compost so that the plants will grow through the layers and ultimately break down the items into rich fertile soil. I also add leaves to my compost pile, as they provide protection to the organisms hard at work and reduce smell.
The biggest thing to remember with gardening is that if we don’t return organic matter to the soil, each season just draws nutrients out. The decomposition of leaves is a good, inexpensive way to reintroduce organic matter without leaving actual crop plants behind to do the same job. (Spent crops after a garden season are better burned to prevent spread of disease and pests. That burned plant matter can be added back to your compost pile. The salts will leach out as it rains, leaving behind the valuable biochar in your compost.)

Experiment! This year, I’m trying to grow edible mushrooms that prefer cooler temperatures as a way to recycle the straw bales I used for my tomatoes over the summer into quality compost for next spring!

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Amanda MacLaren

Amanda MacLaren is the executive editor of Durham Magazine. Born in Mesa, Arizona, she grew up in Charlotte and attended UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in journalism. She’s lived in Durham for eight years. When she’s not at work, you can usually find her with a beer in hand at Fullsteam, Dain’s Place or Bull City Burger or getting takeout from Guasaca.

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