The Queen of My Self

By Tracey Baum-Wicks, Syracuse, NY

A few years ago I started to wake up to the potential ramifications of the peak oil dilemma and began to feel drawn to the notion of food security and sustainable farming practices.

As a single gal in midlife, I began daydreaming about retirement from my skincare and bodywork practice, a vision, which always landed me on some idyllic little patch of country road with some “acreage” far from my urban existence in upstate NY. But alas, with retirement still 10-15 years down the road, all I could do was study and be ready, perhaps experiment a bit so as to shorten the learning curve when I would finally become a real farmer. So, as I waited for that day to come, I began reading, attending classes and experimenting with sustainable gardening techniques on my .4 acre city lot.

My first project was to create a fenced, raised bed garden area that would be safe from browsing deer. Deer have become more and more prevalent in urban areas. Suburban sprawl robs them of wild habitat, so they are forced to cross frequently through human habitat to find what small margins of hedgerow and brush remain, often at the edges of our highways. I resolved to plant something outside the enclosed area for the deer to enjoy on their daily pilgrimage.

Utilizing 6′ steel garden stakes, expandable lattice walls from an old yurt for support and a double layer of 6′ rolled reed fencing attached with plastic ties I created a 40′ diameter circular enclosed garden space. A makeshift gate from an old carved wood dressing screen and latch provided security, and double rows of straw bales lining the inner wall save a margin for the addition of soil and compost, as well as bio-degradable raised garden beds.

This fenced-in space plays a dual role in that it provides me with 100 linear feet of easy to tend raised garden space AND a wonderfully secluded gathering space for friends, complete with a circle of seats around a fire pit.

I burn all of the dead fall from my trees in the pit and later add the ashes to my compost to build the soil. Beauty, function, and fun in one project … cool, right?! And for the first time in the seven years I have lived on this busy corner lot at a major intersection, I can be outside with friends and not feel like I am in a fish bowl. It’s my secret garden in the city.

One of the biggest imperatives of sustainable agriculture on any scale is and shall continue to be the building of soil fertility. I began to experiment with composting last winter by using an under the counter container with red wriggler worms. The “gross factor” was quickly replaced by the “awe factor.” And before long I was reveling in the bounty of rich, black worm casting that would ensure a whole planting season of nutritious compost tea for my raised bed circle garden.

Before planting season was barely underway, fly season was in full swing and my handy under counter set-up found a summer home in a shady corner of the backyard. I missed the convenience of my worm bin immediately and immensely. So, necessity being the Mother of invention that She is, I shifted gears for the warm weather and installed a traditional compost basket right under my kitchen window. When I am done prepping my luscious homegrown veggies, I simply open the kitchen window and drop the the scraps and peels into a woven willow compost basket under the window. I close the window and no flies!

Yet another permaculture experiment managed to combine edible landscaping, potential aquatic animal food production, a perpetual source of fertilizer AND a fun weekend project with my nine year old nephew Spencer. Spencer was looking for a new home for his year-old carnival goldfish who’d not only survived, but also thrived! It had grown some 6” long and had outgrown his bowl at home. So we put our heads together and decided to build an above ground container water garden. Using an 8′ diameter by 2′ deep stock tank for our container, we then imitated the graduated floor depths to bank level that exist in natural ponds

by stacking old tires along one side of the pond wall in staggered formation, filling their cavities with a combination of pea gravel and garden dirt, creating lots of nooks and crannies and mud for beneficial bacteria and pond critters to hide!

After filling the pond with water and allowing it to sit for 24 hours to de-chlorinate (the bane of the organic urban gardener – municipal water treatment!) we then scoured nearby creeks for cattails, watercress, and duckweed. We purchased some edibles such as arrowhead, sweetflag, lotus, and water celery as well as great water aerators like water hyacinth and iris. Next stops, the bait shop and pet store for crawfish and trapdoor snails. We even sent away for bullfrog pollywogs in the mail. And of course we acquired a mate for Spencer’s goldfish.

And there it was, a masterpiece of symbiotic relationships and rich bio-diversity, just like a natural pond. The fish eat all bugs on the surface and, with the aid of the snails and pollywogs, keep algae at balanced levels. All the root systems of the plants scrub the water by using the animal excrement as nutrition. Meanwhile crawfish scavenge the pond floor of fish poo and decomposing leaves. And there’s still enough nutritious pond muck, teaming with life, to fertilize the garden with. Now, truth be told, we’ve not yet made a meal of our pond critters, but theoretically, we could. I’ll keep you posted on that one!

The pond project with Spencer proved to be a great learning for me. The fun, adventure, awe, and deep satisfaction we shared supplanted the dread fear of our impending societal/environmental collapse with delight and infinite possibility. The magical experience of participating in community compelled me. I resolved to “get me some more of that!”

I began brainstorming about all of the ways I might invite and entice the neighbors to inquire, tour, and participate in my grand experiment. I ordered a child’s bee suit for Spencer so he can participate in tending the top bar hive that I keep as a Bee Guardian. I designed a living willow tunnel for the busy front corner of the property. Once established, it will invite pedestrians to cut right through my yard to the main road in enchanted style, and just maybe it will peak their curiosity about the fruit trees they will be passing. At very least they’ll be wondering how the crazy lady on the corner, who used to scold them for cutting across her grass, became such a creative and thoughtful neighbor! “Maybe it has something to do with those mushrooms she’s growing on those logs under that tree,” they may wonder.

I also had visions of building friendships with some of the older folks on the block by stopping by with some of the bounty from my garden, sitting down for a cup of tea and one of the wonderful stories from their lives. Why, a couple of times this summer, folks pulled right into my driveway and asked to tour my “magical” property! It seems permaculture is contagious!

As I write this, from the tree swing beneath the old sugar maple on the bustling corner of the main road, it occurs to me that I am actually a real farmer right now. I am doing it. I am living on that “idyllic little patch of road.” Ok, so it’s a fraction of an acre instead of acreage. But it’s teaming with life, full of possibilities and growing deep roots in this, MY community. After all, what is an organic farmer really? Isn’t it Mother Nature, with the wave of seasons and the majestic command of the elements who directs the symphony of all life? Me, I just turn the page so the music can play on. Nice work if you can get it.

Now go play in the dirt!


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Donna Henes is the author of The Queen of My Self: Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife. She offers counseling and upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity. Consult the MIDLIFE MIDWIFE™

The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to


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