Tulsans are getting back to basics.
Gardener John and Marley Dawson with neighbor and creative sewer Sacha Matheos
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Making clothes, raising chickens and growing gardens, Tulsans are digging deep into do-it-yourself projects. These are not the activities of the typical modern family, but many urbanites are eschewing convenience for the adventure of self-reliance. Whether they are seeking to reduce their budgets or their impact on the environment, these brave souls are jumping in and getting their hands dirty — and loving every minute.
John Dawson is the avid gardener who reads about ecosystems and permaculture for fun in his spare time.
“In my 20s, my friends were watching football and going to the bar,” he says. “I would tell them that I had a lot to do over in my garden.”
Dawson, who has been gardening for about 12 years, has a garden unlike most you’ve seen. He built it to “mimic nature,” with a series of keyhole gardens — mounds of rich soils — dotting his yard. For example, a tomato plant will give shade to basil, and a root vegetable planted nearby will help push out weeds.
He enjoys using his garden as a sustainable way to feed his family of four. A grocery tab can get expensive, especially if you are buying organic produce, Dawson says. By growing their own, his family sees a drastic impact on their budget.
“I remember last summer we had a $60 month at the grocery store, versus our friends and family who were spending $400-$800,” he says.
And the payoff isn’t just a monetary one for his family. Meals filled with carrots, bell peppers and potatoes mixed with fresh herbs not only have a nutritional advantage, but also reduce the trash they produce.
“We didn’t throw out any trash this week because we didn’t eat any food in wrappers. We love skipping the trash day,” he says.
But for hardcore gardeners like Dawson, there is a thrill that goes deeper.
“Almost more than the sustainability idea is the adventure of it,” he says. “For $3 I can buy 200 seeds of a plant that no one I know has ever eaten.”
One of the obstacles of having a successful garden is not wasting the harvest. John and his wife, Tara, find ways to preserve and store their veggies to last, no matter the season.
“One year we had a chain of garlic over 6 feet long,” Dawson says. “We thought, wow, that lasted us all year. And it just clicked.”
They also can their vegetables, turning tomatoes into sauces or cucumbers into pickles that will last year-round. After harvesting a bumper crop of tomatoes, he may even invite friends over for an afternoon of canning tomatoes and drinking wine.
Garden parties and wine drinking aside, a garden is work and the possibility of reaping a harvest of disappointment is big.
“Your successes have to be so much greater than your failures, because the failures are so plentiful,” he laughs. “Think about how many people try a garden and never try again.”
For Dawson, the failures don’t discourage him. Perhaps the real secret to his garden is his ability to see the bigger picture.
“It’s like society looks at dirt with this negative connotation,” he says. “We call it ‘dirt’ instead of ‘soil.’ I look at dirt as this ecosystem, and everything we’ve ever really needed lives in there.”
Dawson’s gardening tips
“Even if you do live in an apartment, consider guerilla gardening,” Dawson says. “There are spots around your apartment complex that could support a cantaloupe (plant) or climbing vines.”
Want to keep weeds away? Plant more plants.
“Basil loves to grow next to tomatoes, which provide shade and will prevent another plant from taking over,” he says. “Then, plant a root plant next to that.”