Sustainable Living Profile: Jessica Klein
When Jessica Klein gets hungry for organic produce, she doesn’t have very far to go. “I have my own little sustainable garden,” she says. That’s a bit of an understatement, as Klein raises a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs on a bit less than acre of land. She lives with her husband on the southern exposure of Tiger Mountain, near Issaquah, Washington.
Klein has what she calls “quite a green thumb.” But from what we can see in the photos she sent us, she has ten green fingers and probably a few green toes. The photos alone are enough to start us yearning for fresh, juicy, red tomatoes, crisp green cucumbers, and crunchy orange — and red — carrots. By the time the interview is finished, we’re both ready to get out seed catalogs and start planning for the spring.
We interviewed Klein by phone from her home. We wanted to learn more about how she manages to get such lush growth and robust produce in a place where, she says, “It rains about a gazillion days a year.”
BPGL: Tell us about getting started with the greenhouse.
Klein: When I decided to get a greenhouse, first I did some research to determine what kind to buy. Then I watched the sun pattern in our backyard to figure out just where it should go. We have a lot of 150-foot trees on the property, so there’s not much sun. Location was critical.
I chose a brand called the Sunshine GardenHouse. The model is the Mt. Rainier series, which means it’s a local product — made and manufactured on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. (In fact, they drove it up and delivered it to my door.) It’s made of redwood, with polycarbonate walls and automatic solar vents.
BPGL: What did you have to do to get the property ready and then set up the greenhouse?
Klein: Our backyard was full of brambles, so we had to clear a space for the foundation. After we dug down about 4 or 5 inches, we laid a foundation of cinder blocks around the perimeter and put gravel around the outside. On the inside, we spread a permeable weed cloth to control the weeds, and unrolled chicken wire on top of that to keep the vermin from digging in from the bottom. We placed a flexible drainage pipe around the inside perimeter with an exit hole out one side.
Next, we covered the wire and most of the pipe with a layer of gravel up to the top of the cinder blocks and more around the outside of the greenhouse. That was our base.
On top of that, we built the framework and covered it with the polycarbonate walls that came with the kit. The greenhouse itself is 8 feet by 12 feet. We put it up in two days, but I think we could have done it in one. It probably took us longer than it might take someone in an area where it doesn’t rain so much. We spent a lot of time having to deal with the inevitable water runoff.
BPGL: Did you run any electrical or water lines to the greenhouse?
Klein: No. We decided not to put electricity in, because it’s a long way from the house. And in addition to costing a lot, we just didn’t want to have a long electrical line running through the property. Besides, the solar vents work automatically to let out excess heat. We didn’t need to put water in, because of all the rain. When the plants get dry (which hardly ever happens), I just pull a garden hose over and give them a soak.
BPGL: Considering the cost of the building against the cost of the food you’ve grown, what do think the return is on your investment, your ROI?
Klein: Well, we didn’t purchase the cheapest model of greenhouse, or the most expensive one, either. I think we spent about $3,000 on the kit, then maybe another $200 for the raised beds inside. We used some recycled planter disks outside the shed — they look like big saucers. Then we bought trays, buckets, tools, and hoses. We spent about $125 on the worm bin.
And I joined the Seed Savers Exchange. I bought organic and heirloom varieties of seeds from the Seed Savers in Decorah, Iowa. They have varieties you can’t get most places. They grow their own and replenish the seed stock. So that was $35 for the annual fee, plus the cost of seeds.
The total cost of everything probably came to about $3,500.
What have I gotten in return? I’ve saved probably 4 or 5 bags of garbage from going to the landfill. So, from that I saved maybe $10.00 in landfill costs. I fed all of our food waste to the worms. They gave me about $10-$15 worth of the richest fertilizer in the world, worm tea. And I probably got about $10.00 worth of rich soil from the compost. So, how much is that? About $30 or $35.
BPGL: What did you save in produce by growing it yourself?
Klein: Let’s see. In our area, tomatoes in stores have to be flown in, so they cost about $3.99 a pound. I can’t tell you how many pounds I grew! And I can grow them four, five, six months of the year.
When we moved here five years ago, we started planning for the future, by planting fruit trees and such. We’ve been sowing the seeds (no pun intended) to get more production as time goes by. In my whole garden, I have three types of lettuce, zucchini, green beans, kale, peppers, eggplant, carrots, Brussels sprouts, jalapeños, cabbages, edible borage flowers, and all of my herbs, basil, oregano, parsley and more.
We also have fruit trees — an Italian plum tree, a three-graft cherry tree, an apricot tree, a peach tree, a five-graft Asian pear tree. And then we have grapevines, and wild blackberries and huckleberries, too.
I only buy organic produce, so the cost of that is even higher than in a regular grocery store. Without my garden, I probably spend about $15 or $20 a week for produce at the grocery store. But I certainly wouldn’t have consumed $3,500 [the cost of setting up the greenhouse] in vegetables. This year, I probably saved $400. That doesn’t seem like much, but this is just my first year.
BPGL: Do you see other benefits to growing your own produce?
Klein: Yes. The most important thing here is not the money. You have to remember that all of this food was grown organically. That means I know there are no poisons in them, no fertilizers or herbicides. There’s huge psychological ROI in knowing where our food came from, who handled the produce, how the plants were cared for. And I didn’t have to drive to the store to buy any of this.
I get a ton of exercise working in my yard. I get to plant seeds and watch them grow. I get to pick a ripe, red tomato from the vine and eat it. How much is that worth?
I do this for my family. I get to give my dad bags full of fresh tomatoes, which he loves. My mom loves the zucchini. And my sister loves the green beans. There is no price tag on that.
I don’t consider myself an earth-shattering change-maker. I just try to do my part. I support the locavore movement, which means eating food grown in a certain radius near your home. The point is to get to know your local farmer. Farmers’ markets are huge out here in the Northwest.
BPGL: Isn’t raising your own produce a lot of work?
Klein: Getting it all started was a lot of work. And at planting time, yes, it’s hard work. After that, it only takes about an hour a day. And during the long winter, when I’m stuck inside, I’ll be thinking about what I’m going to plant, just waiting to get outside and put in those long days again.
It’s such a labor of love, pure joy.
BPGL: Tell us about your worms. How did you get into that part of the gardening?
Klein: I read a couple of books. Amy Stewart’s From the Ground Up, which tells about how she grew her first garden when she knew nothing at all about gardening; and The Earth Moved, which is about vermiculture.
At the time, I thought, This sounds like something I could spend a lot of money and time doing, and I know I’m the type to jump into a project and then let it slide. But then I thought, What the heck? I want to do it. So, 15 minutes after I finished The Earth Moved, I was on the phone buying a worm bin.
The worm bin sat in the entry to my home for the winter. We fed them all our food trash and it didn’t smell at all. It was so easy to maintain, I couldn’t believe it. Then when summer came, I got the message from my husband, and I moved it out to the deck. A neighbor helped me take the bin apart. We scooped out the compost, drained out the worm tea.
Our worms are red wigglers. They’re quick movers, those little guys. They really do compost everything right down to black gold. There’s not much discernable that’s left when they’re done. I found one avocado peeling, but when I touched it, it disintegrated.
I’m so glad I did this. I’ve always been into recycling, and this kind of recycling is easy enough. Well, maybe I think it’s easy and for others it’s hard, but it’s what I can do.
BPGL: What about eggshells? Can you feed the worms eggshells?
Klein: They love eggshells. They compost them down to nothing. In fact eggshells are good for their tummies. And coffee grounds, too. They’re just crazy little munchers! It really is very easy to take care of them.
BPGL: Do you ever find that you run out of food for the worms?
Klein: No, right now, I find that my worms keep up with my food and my food keeps up with my worms. They just turn all my food scraps and garden scraps into beautiful compost. It’s great! If we ever run out, we have loads of leaves and yard waste we could feed them; but, so far, we haven’t had to do that.
BPGL: With organic gardening, where you don’t use any herbicides or pesticides, what are your biggest problems?
Klein: My nemesis is the slugs. The greenhouse tends to take care of the plants inside [because the slugs can’t get in], and they can’t crawl up into my round planters, but they’re everywhere else. I tried to put out dishes of beer. I heard that would work, but my dog drank them all. [She laughs.] So, I can’t do that anymore. And, I planted marigolds to attract the ladybugs to eat the aphids.
BPGL: Any other pests?
Klein: Oh, yeah, the deer. The dogs keep them way most of the time. And I had a bear walk through my yard last spring. Then there are all of the possum, raccoons, and coyotes. We also have occasional bobcats, and puma.
And, of course, with so much rain, we have mold. In fact, besides slugs, my biggest issues are with the climate. There’s not enough sun and too much water.
BPGL: What’s next for you?
Klein: It’s my hope that as I learn more, I’ll be able to teach other people.
BPGL: What advice would you give people about starting their own organic garden at home?
Klein: Start small, say with an herb garden on your deck. Or grow even just one vegetable to begin with. Just do what you can do. The hardest part is to make the decision to do something. Once you take the first step, everything else is reward.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home)