When people visit my gardens, I feel a sense of joy when I hear, “This inspires me. I want to to do this!” Each time I visit fellow gardener and friend, Antoinette Juhl, on her Little Farm in the Ghetto, I feel inspired to return home and do more in my own yard.
Tucked away in the Northeast pocket of Parkridge at the top of the hill, the Juhls have turned their historic home and double lot into an unexpected urban homestead. Purchased in February 2008, their family of six is a model in efficient living. Antoinette’s husband, Jens, an accomplished carpenter, has retro-fitted their 930 square foot home into an amazing example of smart living. The creative spirit of the entire family resonates through-out both the interior and exterior of their home and there is always a new project in the making. Located only a few miles from Center City, when I visit the Juhl’s homestead, I feel that I have walked through a portal and emerged into a quirky secret garden far far from the confines of the city.
Antoinette, a full-time college student, mother of four, and caretaker of their urban homestead, pleasantly took some time from her busy schedule to chat with me about their lifestyle.
A.U. In general, what got you into this…gardening and producing your own food?
A.J. Having kids. When I think back to 1999, we weren’t very health conscious. We purchased run-of-the-mill store brands with no concept of local or organic. In 2002, when we lived in Klamath Falls, Oregon, we got chicks and had a 10×10 garden. We did great on eggs, but the vegetable gardens failed. By 2003, we began incorporating more fresh vegetables and healthy quality foods. In New Hampshire (2007), we lived on 4 acres. Two friends, who Jens met at the hardware store, taught us how to process meat birds that we raised from chicks. We processed about 50 birds for our own consumption that year. In the past nine years, we have gone from buying generic mac and cheese, canned beans, and cheap white bread to raising poultry, growing our food…or buying local at the Farmers’ Market or organic from the co-op…to making our own bread; we also do some canning and preserving.
In the past four years since living here, we have 10-12 active [vegetable] beds, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, apples, peaches, plums, pears, cherries, and figs. We add a little each year. My goal is to create the perfect food yard: herbs; annual and perennial food gardens; and fruit producing trees and bushes.
It’s a lot of work. It’s not always easy. When I feel frustrated I ask myself, “Why am I doing this? Why don’t we just buy from the grocery store?” But now, I am conscious of quality, and it is worth my time and energy to know what is going into my family’s tummies.
A.U. That leads me to my next question. What is the inspiration to live the way you do?
A.J. Inspiration? I didn’t learn this from my family. Jens and I both had very city lives.
There are frustrations and a lot of fails. It’s hard trying to do it on a budget and on our own, but when I see my children’s relationship with food compared to others- that they understand where food comes from, that the cellophane chicken breast at the store was once alive and choose not to buy it because it was raised in horrible conditions and a toxic environment and that they don’t want to put that toxic food into their mouths- I know that I’m doing the right thing.
A.U. How do you find this alternative lifestyle to benefit you and your family as opposed to the more traditional/mainstream way of living?
Living in a small home isn’t always easy. Yes, I would like a little more space for the six of us- around 1500 square feet, a second bathroom would be nice- but two people living in 2500 square feet is not necessary. Sometimes I feel the pull to get a ‘normal’ house on a normal sized lot that is simple to mow or to move out to the country, but now, I couldn’t imagine doing that. I really like the city. It’s more ‘green’ because everything is more accessible…within a few miles of home. The only reason I would move to the country is to expand food production and have livestock, but we have such an investment here. I feel a strong connection to southern country life as opposed to other places in the ‘country’ that I have lived. It feels more old fashioned here…Appalachian.
Sometimes the kids get frustrated because their friends have this or that, but I think they appreciate it. (She turns to two of kids who are listening in and raises a inquisitive eyebrow at them. They nod in approval.) Their friends come over here and they say, “You have a tree house, and rope swing, and a loft, and a pond, and ducks, and…!” Their friends think it’s cool. It’s different.
By living the way we do, we take the time to care about our food. Many people don’t stop to think or think that it even matters where food comes from or how it is produced. We have more awareness about these issues, and the more awareness you have, the harder it is not to care. In many ways, ignorance does equal bliss. It’s easier not to know- to buy large quantities of food from [names a big box store] or to buy what’s on sale. Knowing what I know, it’s hard to go back. I prefer beans and rice to conventional food. There is nothing simple about the simple life. It takes a lot of time and research. Appalachia has generations of knowledge passed down. It’s underrated or devalued, but ‘country people’ have more knowledge than city folk. They tend to fix things and reuse things instead of buying something new when the old something breaks.
I feel joy when I learn something and pass along the information to others. This lifestyle creates community because we need to ask questions of each other and share information. It creates a support circle.
A.U. Do you have a gardening philosophy? If so, what is it?
A.J. I try to keep it simple. I’m not into real complex systems. I don’t fit into one box or one label like “permaculturist”. My perimeters are my own ethics. My goal is to grow food as maintenance free as possible- to create a yard that sustains us without a huge amount of labor. I want paths through the yard, herbs, and one small patch of grass. There is a lot of labor up front, and the reward comes later in life. Balance is important…I’m back in school. I’ve got the gardens and four kids…so I try to balance city life with homesteading.
I’m looking for simple answers not huge philosophy. There are more like minded people here [Knoxville] than anywhere that I have lived. There is a growing movement here…a “grow your own food because it is good for you.”
A.U. Do you have words of encouragement or advice for folks who are contemplating this kind of lifestyle?
A.J. Don’t let your first failure deter you. It’s normal to fail lots of times. Try to learn from failure…it’s not really failure, it’s a learning experience.
Find your own way or method that works for you. Work with what you have and use common sense. People have more common sense than they know…they simply lack the confidence to trust their common sense.
I have the same philosophy towards growing food that I do with cooking or child rearing; You don’t have to follow instructions word for word. It’s okay to improvise. Be inspired by others, then do your own thing.