Growing Up in the Garden
Families turn to their own backyards for healthy life lessons
By Tessa Marguerite Outland
Two children gently plant strawberry seeds in a bed of soft earth while their mother waters the persimmon tree nearby. It is therapeutic, restorative, peaceful. During these uncertain times, many families have turned to their own backyards to create a haven of fruits and veggies while gaining healthy life lessons and skills.
In the backyard of their Arden-Arcade home, Shani Drake and her two children, 5-year-old Jenevieve and 12-year-old Desean, have created a vibrant plot of earth teeming with Mexicola avocados, fava beans, strawberries, elderberries, rosemary, sorrel and purple potatoes.
“Desean is one of our biggest inspirations,” Shani says. “He has food allergies so we like making fresh foods not from packages.” Desean agrees. “My mom makes good recipes,” he says. “Like watermelon berry mint salad with Peruvian cherries.”
Shani was recently featured in a YouTube documentary called “Sacramento Garden Tour: Shani’s Urban Food Forest” in which she explains growing up in South Sacramento without access to unprocessed, unpackaged foods. “People are lacking in nutrition,” Shani says. “So what we do here is incorporate a lot of people who come to watch us garden for our own family.” By inviting neighbors to stroll through their garden and take samples of plants, Shani hopes to inspire a healthy lifestyle throughout the neighborhood.
Although their garden has been growing since before the pandemic, Shani says her family made some changes to their eating habits to minimize trips to the grocery store. “No meat Mondays” and entire meals made with ingredients from the garden are now common practices at the Drake home.
Jenevieve likes foraging on hikes for blackberries and edible flowers, collecting seeds and planting them in healthy, rich soil. Desean contributes to the garden by carrying compost in a wheelbarrow and sifting out the rocks. Desean also built a pond in the garden as a water source for the pumpkins and corn.
Shani volunteers at the Oak Park Art Garden and aspires to one day teach classes in Sacramento on how to garden and provide for your own family.
Lee and D’Angelo Farrand live in Carmichael with their three children, 16-year-old Anée, 3-year-old Serenity and 1-year-old Malia. Growing up, Lee recalls berry bushes in the backyard that were eventually strangled by weeds. Years later, she became a wife and mother, bought her childhood home and transformed that once neglected backyard space into a place of growth (and more berries).
To eliminate the weeds, Lee blocked the obtrusive plants’ intake of sunlight by covering the ground with blankets for two months. This method takes longer than chemical solutions, but is effective and natural. Using a shovel, she then chopped up the weeds and top layer of dirt across the 8-by-35 square-foot area. She installed a Raindrip Automatic Watering System with the help of her boss and father via FaceTime. After a visit to Green Acres Nursery & Supply and farmers markets, and watching social media tutorials, soil was fertilized and seeds were planted.
“I knew that I wanted to have tomatillos,” Lee says. “We’re suckers for those in my house.” The Farrand garden is also rich with artichokes, eggplants, three different melon varieties, zucchinis, banana peppers, ancho chilies, jalapenos, tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, blackberries, strawberries and more.
Serenity runs barefoot in the garden every day to look for ripe strawberries. She watches her mom and helps pull weeds. “Her version of helping,” Lee laughs.
During the first weeks of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order, Lee says she was concerned for her family. D’Angelo was laid off from work. Malia is immunocompromised, so it was even more of a risk to go out in public, such as to a grocery store, during the pandemic. “We just started all going outside in the backyard,” Lee says. Together, they built a playground to keep the kids occupied while Lee gardens.
Lee talks to her children about the progression of growth and the importance of knowing where and how their food is grown. “The food from the grocery store tastes nothing like fresh fruit, fresh vegetables,” Lee says. “I want to be in control of what my family eats and I like to have the option to know that my food comes from the backyard.”
Gabrielle and Curt Menn have three children and live in Fair Oaks. Gabrielle’s farm-to-fork journey was strongly influenced by her youngest son, Tyler, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old. Gabrielle says before they had a garden it was a struggle to get Tyler to eat anything. Now 15 years old, Tyler happily eats eggs—in a “huge variety of different colors and shapes”—from chickens he helped raise and vegetables from the garden.
Gabrielle grew up on a farm in Napa surrounded by open air, horses and her family’s garden.
“Corn, tomatoes, zucchini, you name it we grew it,” she says. “I always wanted to be able to do that for our kids.” Now, with a greenhouse and garden shaded by a pecan tree on a quarter acre of land, she is doing just that.
The Menn garden produces dwarf citrus, peppers, sugar snap peas, radishes, carrots, broccoli and artichokes. Tyler likes peeling and juicing grapefruits and harvesting kale seeds from dried pods. While he wouldn’t describe himself as a “farm person,” he likes going outside to gather fresh fruits and veggies off the vine to eat. “It makes me feel good to pick my own strawberries,” Tyler says.
For those who cannot grow a garden of their own, there are several Sacramento nonprofits, such as the Food Literacy Center and Slow Food Sacramento, that advocate for kids’ health and education. They have continued their exceptional services to the community throughout the pandemic.
Some families are also finding relief through federally funded programs like CalFresh’s Double Up Food Bucks, which provides double the dollar amount when consumers purchase California-grown produce from select farmers markets.
For more information, go to foodliteracycenter.org and slowfoodsacramento.org. Tessa Marguerite Outland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.