Stories from a Slow Food Nation

A Year in Grandpa's Garden, from Tales of Thatcher Gray

Upon the birth of my son, Thatcher Gray, I became acutely aware of the emerging evidence that our industrialized food machine is taking a tremendous toll on our health and wreaking havoc on the environment. It spurred me to create a series of paintings about industrial agriculture.

A Year in Grandpa’s Garden, from Tales of Thatcher Gray

Artist name: Lee Lee

Upon the birth of my son, Thatcher Gray, I became acutely aware of the emerging evidence that our industrialized food machine is taking a tremendous toll on our health and wreaking havoc on the environment. It spurred me to create a series of paintings about industrial agriculture.

While it is important to explore the way things are, it is also important to present solutions to our problems. As a counterpoint to the work created in regards to the industrial food machine, I am working with a series of watercolors based on the development of a high desert permaculture garden built by my father and son in Taos, New Mexico. The paintings are paired with Haiku written by my father, Peter Leonard. Together, we are exploring the importance of sustainable agriculture in a way that encourages people to get their hands in the dirt of their own backyard.

Permaculture is interesting to me as it is very forward looking. The approach shifts depending on locale, responding to specific microclimates and cultural traditions. It brings traditional wisdom to the forefront and works in collaboration with Nature, which sustains us. Ultimately, we envision using this work as an educational tool for children.

You can find out more about this project at


For over three hundred years, the community along our ditch has been coming together to share the water as it runs off Taos mountain. We live on one of the oldest acequia systems in the country. The irrigation system and the form of governance was established by the Spanish. Every year, before the snowpack on the mountain begins to melt, all of the parciantes who use the ditch water come together to clean out the acequia madre, or mother ditch. They have to cut out branches and rake out leaves so that the precious water will run swiftly and not be wasted in an overflow. As the season progresses, each parciante requests water from their Major Domo, who oversees the distribution.

Living traditions like this build strong communities of people working together to nourish the land. In the old days, communities were interdependent when it came to survival in the high mountain desert. As in rural places everywhere, neighbors helped each other, exchanging food and seeds and working together for the benefit of the whole. As development fills the valley, some are letting go of these traditions. But they remain. For more insight into the Taos acequia, read High Country News, Taos’ return to the acequias.

Grandpa loves being on the acequia system. He started coming out west when he was 16 to work on a cattle ranch in the Colorado Rockies. He fell in love with the flood style of irrigation practiced on the ranch and after 50 years is renowned through the Blue River valley as the master of irrigation. Now he is able to pass his wisdom on to his grandson.


Saving your own seeds
Can choose the best producers
It’s evolution

We live in a country with an incredibly diverse range of garden plants. Because we are a nation of immigrants, people from all over the world brought their seeds, and have been cultivating a wide range of crops for a long time. Biodiversity means security for a food system. Consider Ireland’s potato famine. There was a potato blight that ravaged Europe in the 1840s. In Ireland, nearly a third of the population was entirely dependent on the potato for food, so they suffered the most. The death toll was around a million, and a million more emigrated out of hunger.

The best way to ensure diversity and safety of the food in our garden, we save our seeds. It is an ancient tradition. We generally get our start by ordering heirloom seeds through the mail from plants which were not grown regionally. After a cycle of growth, the plants adapt to our particular climate and produce seeds that grow better in our soil and water conditions.


Sacred tradition
Seed meets soil, warmth and moisture
Miracle of life

Our ancient ancestors recognized that if they saved the biggest seeds, they would be able to grow the most robust crops. The more people who maintain this ancient and sacred tradition, the more secure our food system. Seed exchanges are community gatherings where people can exchange seeds that have flourished regionally in their gardens.

For specific instructions on saving seed, visit the Seed Savers exchange: Saving Heirlooms

Cold Frames

Spinach, brassicas
Planted early in cold-frames
Reap a month sooner

Because Grandpa keeps his garden in the high mountainous desert in northern New Mexico, the growing season is short. Cold-frames can extend the growing season by offering protection to hearty plants.

With some attention, we recognize micro-climates in different parts of our garden. For example, the areas on the north sides of our houses stay snowy through the mud season, which is good for delaying blossoming fruit trees for a better chance of missing late freezes. Grandpa’s garden casita faces south and reflects light and warmth onto the beds along his windows. The earth thaws early so we can plant seeds which can stand some cold.

Cold Frames

It’s February
Still early to start planting
Hope springs eternal

We choose the seeds which instruct us to plant them “as soon as the ground can be worked”, which tend to be the hearty greens like chard & spinach or brassicas like cabbage, kale, turnips, broccoli & cauliflower. They need to be hearty to withstand freezing nighttime temperatures since a cold-frame doesn’t offer as much protection as a greenhouse.

The sides are constructed of wood, slanted towards the south. The top is covered by a hinged window. When the sun comes out, we open the window so that the plants do not get too hot. At night we close the window to protect the young plants from freezing night-time temperatures.

Building cold frames is a good way to re-use old windows, and can be built from materials you probably have around the house. For more information and ideas, visit Mother Earth News: Weekend DIY project


At last the harvest
Touched by frost, extra sweet
Dinner, and soup too

I don’t know how this cauliflower got so big way bigger than the others. I have a feeling it’s because I put an extra large chunk of cow manure about the size of my fist under it when transplanted from the greenhouse. I did that this year with some different kinds of plants to see if there would be any difference. Of course months later I had forgotten which ones I gave the extra to, but the individual examples of really happy plants, such as the 12′ high calibacita vine; the pumpkin that’s 3 times larger than any of the others; the eggplant that dwarfs its sisters in size, fruit and beautyit all leads me to believe that the extra manure had something to do with it.

There’s no doubt that plants really like manure. It’s got a lot of chemicals (mostly minerals) that the plants need, just like normal chemical fertilizers do. But I feel manure has something more, almost like it is alive. Actually, you could say it is alive, because of the multitude of microscopic organisms which live in it. They become part of the soil and help the plants by changing chemicals into forms that the plants can use. The plants raised on manure seem to have an aura of happiness and well-being about them, whereas I’ve noticed the plants I’ve fed exclusively with chemicals seem to be on steroids being forced to grow, and maybe not so happy. And I’ve also noticed that the fruits of manure-raised plants seem to taste better.

If you want to try this, remember to use composted manure rather than fresh, as the fresh may burn the roots. And soak it before putting it in the hole, covering with a little soil to protect the roots of the transplant until they get adjusted to their new environment.

Squash Harvest

Such a good harvest
Stored in a cool dark dry place
We’ll eat all winter
(And into the spring)

Aside from the fun of carving pumpkins on Halloween, winter squash allows us to eat fresh from our garden well into the cold winter and early spring seasons. They are easy to store and last a long time. Late in the season, we keep an eye on the temperature so that we can harvest them before the first hard freeze. Squash which has frozen does not keep as well, but they are fine to eat soon after being picked. After harvesting winter squash, it is important to let them cure. Curing allows the skin develops a firmer shell, which protects the interior fruit. Some varieties will change color as they cure, embodying the colors of autumn through rich oranges and deep greens. The best place to ripen squash is inside with good air circulation; we decorate our house with them through the fall season. Ideally, they should be stored long term in a cool, dark place with little moisture. There is more flexibility to storing squash than other root vegetables; we have successfully kept squash in cooler corners around the house.

One of the biggest challenges of eating locally in a seasonal climate is the lack of fresh vegetables in winter and early spring. Some foods preserve well through canning, freezing or fermentation, which is how our ancestors were able to maintain a balanced diet even in seasons where little grows. Winter squash is a wonderful vegetable to grow as it offers the opportunity to eat fresh local vegetables through the winter.


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