Eden Now: The Nourishing Life of Richard Allen
What the Judges Say
In depth storytelling, lyrical writing, and a colorful main character combine to give this piece depth and richness. Excellent writing.
Even in the bleak midwinter, Richard Allen is devoted to his garden. Every other day, he trudges through the snow to the compost mountain in the corner of his yard, dumping on it all the detritus of his kitchen. Onion skins, eggshells, potato warts, cabbage hearts. He knows what every grower knows: Decay feeds life.
The life will not begin in his garden until April but by June you can expect it to be glorious. At 65, Allen tends what may be Northern Michigan’s most beautiful backyard array of fruits and vegetables, and it is just half a mile from busy Fishtown in busy Leland. What’s more, except for a gravel driveway on which he parks his 20-year-old Subaru, his entire yard is productive. It has no grass, but it has 25 fruit trees. It has no decorations except what he has crafted himself: trellises and fence posts of cedar he has painstakingly debarked. In the winter it is bare of anything but elegantly pruned fruit trees, and canes of raspberry and currant, stark against the snow.
It will reliably revive itself with the efforts of his muscles and his hands. No power tools for Richard Allen. No rototillers. With nothing but time, energy, attention, manure and 120 fresh bales of straw each year, Allen says he grows 90 percent of his diet.
He calls his garden “Eden Now,” but insists it is not done, never done. He is always creating it and learning from it. His story is important because it demonstrates how much can be achieved by one person without an advanced degree, without hired hands, without steroids and without artificial fertilizers, right in the middle of a town.
He says, “I’ve always wondered what sustainability looks like. Can a person or a family grow most of their food right around their house? How lightly can a person live, not only doing no damage to the Earth, but healing the damage that’s been done? That’s the driving force of my life.”
Richard lives in a modest 1,200-square-foot home on a 100-by- 125-foot lot. He figures he gardens a fifth of an acre. The lot is walking distance to the epicenter of Leland tourism, but so far from modern notions of food production that most people who happen to stroll by don’t give it a glance, he says. If they do notice, they have no idea what it holds.
They cannot guess that a 20-year-old Japanese plum he calls “the queen of my orchard” will put out 300 pounds of fruit. He will mostly sell it or give it away. “I grow far more fruit than I can personally consume,” he says. “The garden is my diet, but I grow fruit to partake in fruit’s magic. I find it to be sacred, the most beautiful thing in creation, which begins with a blossom we can smell and ends in sweet fruit we can eat.”
Summer visitors tell him his garden looks so easy. He thanks them, but chuckles to himself. “I’m flattered by that, but it’s not an easy way of gardening. It’s labor intensive on the front end, and on the back end. In the summer, though, I still have to be always paying attention,” on the lookout for pests or diseases he must leap to correct. “I can’t even go away for a weekend.”
But, he says, “There is more knowledge involved than work.”
Led Down the Garden Path
Richard Allen is not new to this spiritual practice. That’s what his gardening is, because it demands focus, devotion and discipline, and grows from his faith in and respect for nature and simplicity. But how did he become who he is?
A suburban Detroit kid, he abandoned his pursuit of an advertising degree at MSU when he was 20, heading to California and, he says, “never looking back.” He joined the Sycamore Hollow commune in rural Tennessee, where he lived with an outhouse and without hot water for years, and planted his first seeds that grew into food. He recalls, “I became hooked on the magic of it.”
Later, when the commune collapsed, he made a life off crafting bamboo flutes, over 20 years selling about 15,000 of them at art fairs and from a Fishtown shop. He sold CDs of his own music. He had moved to Leland in 1992, buying his small house in town and, a few years later, a scraggly five acres, vacant, five miles out of town. The land cost $9,200 but his buddies called it junk.
“My craft show business was waning big time,” he recalls, “but that land really saved my life. Suddenly I had projects to put my energy into, cleaning up the land.”
He cleared it of thorny underbrush, limbed up its old cedars, and planted 1,200 new trees on it. Plus, he began gardening again, inspired by John and Julia Brabanec. The Northport couple reminded him of Helen and Scott Nearing, whose 1954 memoir and how-to book, Living the Good Life, became a bible for back-to-the-landers.
The Brabanecs were legendary in Leelanau County for their offthe-grid life, their phenomenal organic apple and peach orchards and their huge, fertile garden. “They were doing the back-to-theland thing so beautifully and on a scale I’d never dreamed of,” he remembers. “I was inspired!” John has died, but Julia, at 87, remains a friend and mentor to Richard Allen.
Living then in the small house where he still lives today, he tended a small garden in what was a mostly shady yard. He grew far more on the five acres outside town. But economics forced him to sell the big land in 2010. At the same time the power company took down the four old trees that shaded his house, and Allen decided to count this as a blessing.
With the additional sunlight, he was able then to turn his entire yard into food production. He dug out tree roots thick as his forearms, hauling in topsoil and pampering the new beds with lots of chicken and horse manure and his own compost. The first season on that new patch of garden, he doused every single plant with a cup of compost tea (made by soaking compost in water for a day.) He says, “In a month they went from really wimpy to thriving, and without a bug hole. It’s really impressive what you can do with concerted TLC.”
Today, spring after spring after spring, he works to build the soil. If you ask why his onions are so much bigger than yours, he says “I have more dirt under my fingernails.” And, more important, it is better dirt.
Here’s what he grew last year. He has either already eaten it or will, before his next harvest begins.
Veggies: 400 pounds of potatoes, 150 pounds of white and red onions bigger than softballs, 100 head of garlic, 300 pounds of heirloom tomatoes, 30 heads of red cabbage, miscellaneous lettuces, kale, chard, broccoli, zucchini, eggplants, sweet and hot peppers, sweet peas, green pole beans, shell beans, black garbanzo beans, edamame and a few herbs, like tarragon, sage and chives.
(Never corn, the candy of coons and deer. “Planting corn,” he says, “is just asking for it.” And never beets: “I don’t like beets.”)
Fruits: Strawberries, red and black raspberries, red and white grapes, red currants, gooseberries, Asian pears and various varieties of plums, apricots, peaches, pears, apples and melons.
“This is the best garden I’ve ever had,” he said in August, with delight. “But I’ve pretty much said that for the past five years running, because I always just step it up. It’s my aim every year to improve.
He made $1,000 off his harvest last summer, selling gourmet greens to local restaurants, and plums and other fruit to customers at the Leland Mercantile grocery. That’s plenty to cover his costs, which are minimal: about $40 for seeds from Fedco and about $300 for straw. The horse manure is free for the taking from a local farmer.
Amortized costs include his small chest freezer—filled each summer with five gallons each of strawberries and raspberries, and packed each fall with broccoli. Also still working for him is his 10- year-old Excalibur Food Dehydrator.
On the hot, dehydrating days of late summer and fall, he sits at his picnic table, shaded by his house and grape trellis, with the hulking dehydrator on the table, and a five-gallon white bucket between his legs. He trims and thin-slices his tomatoes, and pits and slices his pears, peaches, plums and apricots.
Birds sing. Bees hover. He works steadily, popping tastes into his mouth every few minutes, marveling at how juicy his fruit is now, and at how surprisingly different it will taste when dried. “I run my dehydrator probably 25 or 30 times in the fall, typically 18 to 20 hours at a time,” he says.
He freezes a roasted tomato and vegetable sauce that will delight him all winter (see recipe, page 47). Later in the fall he loads big cardboard boxes with his potatoes, onions, garlic and dried shell beans, to keep cold in an unheated room off his toasty living room. Cabbages, too stinky for the house, spend the winter in a shed, their stems planted in soil in big buckets.
For a real treat, he pulverizes some of his huge stash of dried tomatoes. Friends consider his tomato powder the best of gifts. Might he produce it to sell? He calculates that at the price fresh heirloom tomatoes fetch at a farmers’ market, and how many it takes to dry a handful, a small jar of Richard Allen’s Tantalizing Tomato Powder would cost upwards of $50. Nobody, he says, would want to pay that.
Of Aeration, Broadforks and Compost
He’s happy to walk any visitor through his basic methods and, if you ask, through more detailed tricks, too. But first he makes plain that his methods aren’t intended to make him—or anyone—a living.
“To work for money I would have to treat the soil and the land more harshly,” he says. “I’m able to use techniques that aren’t efficient enough for a farmer. I don’t have to worry about how long anything takes. I’m treating my land in the most gentle, kind way I can.”
That is because, he says, “The soil is a living, breathing thing, the skin of the Earth.” He will not wound it by rototilling or even turning it by hand. Instead, each spring he begins preparing his beds by sprinkling them with compost and manure, then using a broadfork he bought years ago, inspired by revered organic grower Eliot Coleman. The broadfork is almost two feet wide with nineinch tines. Gripping its two handles, he inserts the fork into the edge of a bed, then—with his foot on its crossbar—rocks the fork, not so much turning the soil as fluffing it.
“I prepare each bed like a loaf of bread. There will be a microbial explosion, and air will get in” and, once planted, things will grow.
Each bed is mulched with old straw, so weeds are rare and moisture is held in and the decaying straw will transform into soil. The paths, which are also lined with landscape fabric, get new straw. Most summers he has to water only occasionally.
In the fall, he pulls all the garden debris out for the compost pile, rakes off all the straw and rolls up all the fabric. He leaves his garden bare in the winter—a taboo to most organic gardeners taught never to leave soil bare. But he is unwilling, he says, to give haven to overwintering slugs or other pests.
Another key to his success is his compost, a huge operation that occupies a thousand-square-foot corner of his yard. Each spring he builds a gargantuan composter from about 40 bales of straw, forking into it all last fall’s garden debris plus a winter’s kitchen scraps, plus leaves he begged in the fall from neighbors.
That sits for two or three weeks to cook, whereupon he builds a new container from the same bales. He transfers the compost into it. He considers it done after another three weeks or so. But instead of using it right away, he lets it sit in the same container until the following spring, when it is finally sprinkled on his beds.
He keeps no garden journal. He plants when he thinks it’s time. He says, “It’s all in my head.” Every season is a new challenge. Flying pests come and go: Robins will recklessly rototill his onion bed unless he covers the sprouts with netting. Aphids will suck on his cabbages unless he hangs yellow sticky strips to catch them. Baldfaced hornets will nip his peaches, allowing brown rot in, forcing him to harvest early.
Coons will climb a trellis and eat his grapes unless he aims his radio out the window and plays NPR on low. His melons will grow until they fall from their vines unless he cuddles them in small homemade hammocks.
Richard Allen’s rewards are many.
When he volunteers at the Leland Public School, reading to children, he brings dried fruit as a treat, and their eyes light up. He wishes their diets were as healthy as his own.
Most winter mornings he eats potato pancakes (see recipe below). Most evenings he foregoes protein for potatoes stir-fried with his cabbage and onions and peppers and mushrooms, topped with the roasted tomato sauce he froze in the fall. He buys mushrooms from the local grocery, also the source for other foods he likes but does not grow: eggs, dairy, bread, coffee, olive oil and beer.
His goal each winter is to eat all of last year’s harvest before the next begins.
Winter is not long for him. After fall’s first frost, he breathes a sigh of relief that food production is behind him, and heads to his workshop, where he builds elaborate light fixtures of painted silk and maple plywood. He has sold only a dozen in 10 years, but continues to produce them. Ninety are displayed in his home. “I hope,” he says, “to be discovered some day.”
By April, he is eager to get his hands dirty again, in his own yard, and in junky woodlots owned by others that he is now cleaning up and restoring for pay. He calls it “forest restoration,” and says it heals not only the land but also his own spirit.
He has many ardent fans for his gardening, but gets no glory— gardeners rarely do. Last summer he put up posters inviting everyone to free tours of his garden every Sunday between 11 AM and 1 PM. One Sunday no one showed. One Sunday three people showed. In all about 45 people came, and all were impressed, he says.
But he doubts any will transform their pristine lawns into agriculture, or decide to eat only (with small exceptions) what they can grow. And, who would choose to live on $1,000 a month, as Richard Allen does?
“I honestly want for nothing,” he says. “Years ago I learned the difference between what I need and what I want.”
He wishes only that everyone would grow something, to know its mystery and power. Start small, he warns, on your porch or in your yard. “If there’s something you like to eat, grow it. Do it, and do it well.” Better to keep a small and beautiful plot than a big weedy one.
“In growing our own food,” he says, “we engage in the most fundamental way with the natural world, which we seem to grow more distant from with each generation.”
Keep it small, he advises.
Plant what you like to eat.
Tend well what you’ve planted.
Pay attention, to it and to yourself.
RICHARD’S MORNING POTATO PANCAKES
Boil 2 large unpeeled potatoes until barely soft. Cool. Grate into a bowl, adding a small onion and a couple cloves of garlic, each finely diced.
Add an ounce or 2 of fine-diced Parmesan cheese, and 2 lightly beaten eggs. Stir with a spoon until combined. Season to taste. Add olive oil to a skillet, heat on medium, then dollop scoops of the potato mixture into the pan, forming about 4 shaggy pancakes. Cook until browned and crispy, then flip to brown other side.
Top with diced, dried heirloom tomatoes, or salsa. You may also add sour cream and/or diced avocados.
RICHARD’S ROASTED VEGGIE TOMATO SAUCE
Save this recipe for the abundance of summer. In the meantime, allow it to inspire you to plant your own garden full of sun-loving Mediterranean vegetables.
Preheat oven to 350°.
Lay cut branches of sage and tarragon atop a cookie sheet.
Gather together onions, tomatoes, eggplant, sweet bell peppers and hot pepper in a ratio that pleases you. Peel the onions, then coarsely chop all the vegetables and place into a big bowl. Drizzle well with olive oil, add salt and pepper and mix well. Mound it all on the herbed cookie sheet and roast for about 90 minutes.
Remove sage and tarragon. Dump the roasted veggies into a food processor or blender, then add a whole head of peeled and minced garlic cloves. Process until smooth. Freeze in several small plastic storage containers.
Susan Ager, a former Detroit Free Press columnist, lives in Northport where she is a beginning gardener, now in the market for a broadfork.
This story was originally published in the Winter 2014 issue of Edible Grand Traverse.