On one of the first cool days this fall, I walked over to my garden, pushed open the broken gate, and stepped inside. The picket fence surrounded me; the weeds so tall I could no longer see the raised beds. In every direction, I saw hard physical labor in the wood framed plots I have made (and remade) over the years — the mulch and soil that I moved by shovel and wheelbarrow, all the mowing along the edges and pathways with a heavy trimmer I can barely lift off the ground, and years’ worth of weeds pulled and seedlings planted, my knees wet and muddy from kneeling on the earth.
All I could focus on were the hornworms, shield bugs, rust, rot, beetles, moles, slugs, and wilts that I fought against season after season. Yes, there were dinners pulled out of this space, the miracle of a fresh raspberry and a refuge of quiet, but I felt closed in and exhausted. Instead of putting things to bed for the winter, I was ready to take the garden apart for good.
Growing up, my best friend’s mother had the most amazing flower beds and vegetable gardens. They were lush and ever-changing with their colors, patterns, and bounty of fresh food. If we were ever looking for her, she was always up to her elbows in these spaces. She worked on moving perennials, turning the compost, pulling weeds, and trellising fruit—always working on that garden.
As soon as I had a yard of my own, I knew I wanted something just as beautiful. I convinced my new husband to join me in gardening together — small rows of corn, cucumbers, and tomatoes at the back of our yard and perennials around the front of the house. I subscribed to Organic Gardening magazine and bought Eliot Coleman’s books as I tried to wrestle our suburban lawn into something beautiful and productive.
When we moved to a house with two acres and no garden, I couldn’t believe how much potential there was for not only a garden but also an orchard, animals, a clothesline — all the ingredients needed to live back to the land. I had young babies and no job, and embraced the identity of a homesteader with gusto. I started heirloom seeds in the basement, extended the season with cold frames, canned applesauce and tomato soup, made my own yogurt, learned to spin fiber and relearned how to knit, and of course diapered my last baby in cloth. I added chickens for eggs. Then ducks. Then guinea hens. Then rabbits. Two beehives. Then pigs. And, finally, chickens for their meat.
Some of these ventures worked, but many of them didn’t, and most of it was my responsibility. My husband was fine bragging to others about the homemade granola but wanted nothing to do with making it. He enjoyed the open space of the property but had no interest in working it with his hands. I was the sole force behind the vision and the execution because I needed something else to be besides “mother” and “wife.”
I also assumed that over time, the family would bow to my will and join in. But it never happened. Instead of accepting that all the manual labor was up to my small frame, I became full of anger and resentment. I moved animals, carried water, dug soil, pulled weeds, hauled mulch, spread straw, turned compost, caught escaping animals and buried the dead ones. That garden fence started feeling taller, the pickets sharper.
Wendell Berry reminded me that tiring my body with this work was good. The homesteading forums were full of stories of families who worked together. But I was planting fruit trees alone by flashlight after the kids were finally in bed, swearing under by breath at the physical frustration and loneliness.
I began to want a different way to spend my free time, but I didn’t know how to stop. I wanted to be a source for the local food movement, raising my fist against the evils of the corporate system. Neighbors knew me as the egg lady. We were featured in the city paper as “21st century homesteaders.” When someone asked what I did, I felt that caring for our small farm represented more of who I was than homemaker. I hung laundry on the clothesline, made bread, and educated others on how easy chickens were to care for — if I quit doing these things who would I be?
Some wise people in my life reminded me that I could support others who raised animals the same way I did. I didn’t have to do it all myself just because we own the land. It was freeing. That year, I phased out most of the animals.
Still, the garden remained. I tried to minimize the work by planting mostly perennials like asparagus, rhubarb, and berries. The rest of the raised beds and edges I filled with flowers. But between soil that was too depleted, the pests, and the weeds, I felt defeated.
This final season, I hadn’t returned to the garden after our trip to Ecuador in August. While we were gone, most of the raspberry canes had died and my suspicions about asparagus beetles had come to fruition. Seeing this eyesore with its leaning posts from the house made me cringe. I felt hot with the shame that comes from internal and completely unrealistic expectations: ‘How could you have paid for that fencing to just tear it down? Are you really a quitter? How can you turn your back on fresh vegetables from your own yard? Don’t you know how lucky you are?’
When I started homesteading, I wanted someone to ask how they could help me, what did I need them to do? Twenty years later, I still wanted someone to ask me those questions, but I know now that I have to answer them myself.
In those twenty years, I have learned that I am dynamic, that my passions can change and I continue to learn and grow. I am not a quitter, but I have new interests. I used to homestead. I used to make bread. I used to find our dinner in our yard. But now I can do things I could never do before — now I can run a 5K, travel across the world with my family, teach my children how to drive, and most weeks shop at the local farmers’ market. I am still me.
On Sunday, I found the crowbar and hammer in the bottom of the red metal tool box in the garage. I pulled on a pair of blue and white work gloves and called the dogs out to keep me company. Slowly and steadily, over three days, I removed eighteen panels of fencing measuring six feet long and four feet high. I even managed to pull some of the four-by posts out of the mucky soil. I took apart the rotting lumber of the raised beds, my shirt and pants full of sticky seeds. The dogs had a terrific time catching a few mice and voles, their coats a matted mess of burrs.
I posted the fencing on Craigslist and a few days later, a father and son carted it away. I boxed up my gardening manuals to donate to the library. My few remaining chickens are scattering the compost pile and soon I’ll use the tractor to mow it all down to a blank slate. I’m already feeling lighter and relieved, curious to see where I am headed next.
Words and image by Megan Fraser.