Hello, my name is Cyril Johns. My wife and I have been growing vegetables organically for about 18 years, in Lyons, Wisconsin, USA. We are in USDA Zone 5B. Though our winters are extremely cold, we get four good months a year for gardening. This blog is to share some of our gardening experiences with you all. Thanks for visiting.
We bought our house in 1999 and started planting a few tomatoes and peppers, in pots, the year after. We weren’t all that serious about it initially. Everything changed after our son was born. He started showing serious food allergies as soon as we started feeding him solid foods. Tests showed that he was allergic to all dairy products, egg, wheat, meat, sugar, salt and many other foods that we commonly eat! Doctors told us he may eventually grow out of some of them, but there was no quick cure.
We started feeding him store-bought ‘organic’ labelled vegetables that were shown as safe in his allergy tests. However, even some of those caused him severe reactions! There was a long period of time when all he could eat were organic rice and a few organic vegetables, all without even salt added. He became so malnourished that by the age of seven he could not walk, as his knees were too weak. In addition to his regular doctors, we consulted several alternative medicine practitioners too to see if they have any solutions to offer. One naturopathic doctor from California told us to feed him home-grown vegetables. She suspected that perhaps it’s the pesticide or preservative residue in them, and not the vegetables themselves, causing some of the allergies.
Though we already had a small garden by that time, we weren’t that successful at growing. Neither of us had any prior experience in gardening at all. Wife’s parents had a farm back in India, and her parents had excellent gardening skills too, but she wasn’t involved in the activities much. In my family, my grandpa used to grow edible and ornamental plants, and was very good at it. I had the opportunity to watch him do, but had never grown anything myself. We did not even know our favorite Asian veggies could be grown in the US until we saw them in our friend Thomas Palakeel’s garden in Peoria,IL and cousin John Muckom’s backyard in Denver, Colorado.
A friend from church, Bill Neu, whose son was our son’s classmate at that time, came to our rescue. He taught us the basics of successful gardening in cold climate, gave us seeds that grow well here, introduced us to foliar spraying, vertical gardening and a lot of other techniques. He even brought half a truckload of manure from an organic farm 30-40 miles away! Then we met Donald, an organic farmer, at his farm ‘MoonStar’. He too was a godsend for us. Not only that our son was fine with the vegetables he grew, he gave us some seeds and tips to grow them too. He introduced us to some of our all-time favorites, like ‘Barq’ squash and ‘German Giant’ garlic. Our neighbors and a few colleagues also were of great help. I learned so much from my co-worker John Herzog and his wife Laura, who are both great gardeners. Our next door neighbor Jim Deluca brought us truckloads of organic compost from a worm castings producer. His wife Gail bought bags of worm castings for us from miles away, and carried them all the way to our backyard. Another neighbor Todd Mitsch taught us how to use a tiller in the garden, and how to pressure can.
We started expanding the growing area each year. From pots to two small raised beds, then an open area, then another, then two more. All together about 2000 square feet (185 square meters) now. Failure was not an option for us at all. Our son’s survival depended on us producing chemical free food. Our growing season is very short; from June to September. The winters here are extremely cold. Almost nothing can be grown outside during our winters. So, we had to produce all the vegetables for him for the whole year during that time, and store them for the rest of the year. We had to learn everything we could about organic gardening and long term storage. There was no Youtube when we started. Websites and books were what we relied on. One TV show that we learned quite a lot from was ‘Growing a Greener World’. The host, Joe Lamp’l, is an excellent gardener himself and had some amazing guests too.
We had many failures along the way, but we kept learning and improving. These days we are fairly good at it. Our strategy is to grow plants that give multiple harvests, plant them very close, and grow them vertically as much as much as possible. We dehydrate, pressure can or freeze quite a lot, and use them throughout the year.
Son’s health also kept getting better. He is now a completely healthy young man, enjoying his first year in college. We believe the healthy, organic foods we fed him all these years was a significant factor in improving his health. We are thankful to everyone who helped us during the challenging times we had. Now it’s our turn to share what we learned, and to help others. Hope you will find this blog useful, and enjoyable too!
Town of Lyons, in South East Wisconsin, USA. USDA Zone 5B.