Fawn Pea: Show & Tell Garden Tour

Fawn Pea
For today's garden tour, we're heading to Raleigh, North Carolina, to visit the garden of one of my friends, Fawn Pea. Fawn is a new mom, a crafter, and a lover of all things good for the Earth. She writes a wonderful blog called f. pea. I think you'll agree that Fawn and her family have some great gardening tips.


Tomatoes and peppers just getting started in our square beds. You can tell that mowing the lawn is not among our frequent weekend gardening activities.
Tell us a little about your family and your garden.

I live in Raleigh, North Carolina with my husband, who is known on my blog as "He Who Wears L.L. Bean," or HWWLLB for short. We have an 11-month-old daughter, the Little Pea, and a very large, elderly, cranky cat called Simon. Raleigh is a small city that seems to have a very high rate of gardeners per capita, as far as I can tell. Our neighbors all garden, even the very elderly folks, even if it's just a few pots of begonias on their porches. But just about everyone around here plants a few tomatoes and some flowers for the long summer.

My fig tree is an honor student at Ficus Elementary.
HWWLLB and I garden together. He is really into flowers and getting the perfect color combination.  I'm really into vegetables and herbs, though I have to say that this year he's in charge of just about everything out there. Our first spring with a new baby around has meant that the extent of my gardening has been the occasional burst of weeding while the little one creeps in the grass nearby. 

We are organic gardeners because we want gardening to be a safe activity for the whole family (and for the birds and the bugs). For the vegetable garden, we use a method called Square Foot Gardening that I think is great for small backyards. It was popularized by a guy called Mel Bartholomew, who I think had a show about it on PBS and everything. In our case, we have plenty of space, but HWWLLB wants it all for flowers, so the vegetables have to be very efficient to compete. Square Foot Gardening is a great way to maximize your space and avoid wasting water and nutrients by having unused rows between your plants. 

Texas Sage is probably my favorite garden plant. It's hardy, heat and drought tolerant, smells great and blooms all spring and summer long right up til the frost.
We've also got a little habitat bed next to the patio that is my project. It features native, drought-tolerant plants, plus a few treats I throw in every year for the butterflies, like kale or dill. Right now in that bed the Texas Sage and Butterfly Weed are blooming, and the Green Coneflower, eastern Horse Mint and Joe Pye Weed are getting tall and thinking about making buds for later in the summer. This bed is always loaded with pollinators, and I love it because other than an afternoon of weeding in the spring, I put very little labor into it for what feels like a huge reward.

Radishes and lettuce in one of the square beds.
What's your gardening background? Did you grow up with a garden?

I grew up with a huge family vegetable garden. My grandparents had a fairly large city lot that they divided into three -- one for their house, one for my uncle's house and one for our house. In the middle of it all was a big fenced-in garden as big as any of our backyards. My grandfather was a passionate vegetable gardener, and in the summer, we all worked together in his garden. One summer he built tomato cages that everyone jokingly referred to as "oil derricks," but the tomato plants filled them awfully well. I think the secret to that garden's productivity was the fact that our family also did a lot of fishing (I grew up in coastal New Jersey), and the fish-cleaning table was located in the garden. Those vegetables feasted on fish guts and fish scales, and we also had a very big bin of leaf mulch and veggie scraps from three households. 

The Little Pea playing with a sundrop.
One really formative experience for me was the flower patch that my mom gave me when I was little. She is a raging green thumb and loves all living and growing things. She always planted lots of flowers in our yard, and when I was probably about five she made a little triangular garden patch between the driveway and the front door, and told me it was mine to plant whatever I wanted there. I grew zinnias (of course). I was really proud of that bed, because it was right in front of the house where everyone would see it, and I remember spending a lot of time weeding it and digging for worms in it. Anytime I found a worm somewhere else in the yard, I'd always bring it over to my flowerbed because I wanted to have the most worms there. I think that's probably why I still adore zinnias (and worms) today.

The California poppies were one of the highlights of the spring garden this year.
Share with us a gardening tip you've learned.

One thing I learned this spring is don't be fooled by what you read on product labels at the garden store. Or perhaps more succinctly, don't buy commercial fertilizer for your garden. HWWLLB came home earlier this spring with a bag of fertilizer that sported a big "For Organic Gardening!" label. He took this to mean that it was some kind of "organic" or all-natural fertilizer. But when I looked it up on Washington State's fertilizer database, it turned out that the fertilizer had off-the-charts levels of arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury. Not something I wanted in my garden.

The truth is that fertilizer is an essentially unregulated product, and because it's often made from industrial and agricultural wastes, it's notoriously contaminated with hazardous pollutants. Lots of companies are trying to exploit the green/organic craze by putting meaningless jargon on their packaging, but "organic" is only a meaningful term when it applies to food and is backed up with the USDA "certified organic" label. Better to make your own fertilizer from backyard compost -- food scraps, leaves and grass clippings will do the job. We also like to beef up our beds with composted horse manure in the fall. If you are an apartment gardener who can't make compost, or for some reason feel that you must buy a commercial fertilizer product, try something like seaweed/fish emulsion and look the product up on Washington State's fertilizer database to make sure that you're not unwittingly turning your veggie patch into a hazardous waste dump.

The Little Pea helping her dad in a front flowerbed. He's pulling weeds, and she's looking for maple seeds to chew on.
What's on your must-grow list this year?

Sauce tomatoes are always on my must-grow list. I tend to try a different variety every year.  This year we have Jersey Devil (I couldn't resist that name), and Polish Linguisa. Zinnias, of course. Parsley, cilantro, basil, tarragon, oregano and marjoram for salsa and tomato sauce. A very hot, very beautiful little pepper called "Fish" that comes from the Mississippi Delta and makes awesome Vietnamese hot chili paste. Poblano peppers for making chili relleno, and we always have some kind of mystery melon coming back as a volunteer from recent years. Two summers ago we had a mystery melon that I think was the unholy spawn of a french Chanterais melon and a pumpkin. It didn't taste very good.

This year we bought most of our seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Many years we've bought seed from sources that grow in colder or wetter climates, and we're thinking that seeds from Southern Exposure (which is located in Virginia) might give us plants that are better adapted to our long, hot Carolina summer.

I love how butterfly weed looks like a ripe fruit just before it pops into bloom.
What garden blogs or websites inspire you the most?

I am very inspired by Slowly She Turned and Smell Like Dirt. I like to read about how other people garden and what they do with the fruits of their labor, especially if the climate is similar to ours. 

Willow Blue Star. I love how these look with the orange poppies.
Any must-have gardening books?

I struggle with garden books, because it seems that most are written by people who live someplace much cooler, like England or Vermont. Plant wisdom is a pretty regional kind of wisdom, I think. But we read a great book last year (one of those books that HWWLLB kept reading out loud to me) by a woman who collected plant names and lore from the free classified newspapers that many Departments of Agriculture published throughout southern states in the last century. It's called Gardening for Love: the Market Bulletins by Elizabeth Lawrence. North Carolina still publishes one -- it's called the Agricultural Review, and among the classified ads for fencing or hogs, you will find ads from farm ladies offering to sell or swap their special varieties of purple runner bean or sweet melon that's been handed down in their family for generations.  

But recently HWWLLB got a book on pruning that I found I couldn't put down: The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy diSabato-Aust. Since reading it, I've become a merciless pruner, and to my surprise have found that our garden plants all seem to really appreciate a good trim. I've enjoyed delaying bloom times, creating more dense and compact plantings, and hacking the heck out of our immense fig tree -- so far, no casualties. I never thought of myself as the kind of gardener who would mess much with plants once they are busy doing their thing (they always seem to know what they're doing), but gardening is nothing if not a way to learn something new about yourself.

Fawn Pea is a professional environmentalist by day, a wannabe knitwear designer for kids in her spare time, and an organic gardener. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her family.

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