Paul Groetzinger, aka Feathericci of the illustrious band D Numbers, has a pretty sweet deal going.
Roughly once a week, Groetzinger bakes bread, setting aside one loaf to place in the bed of a neighbor's truck. In exchange, the neighbor leaves him a dozen eggs. The contact-free barter has been in place for roughly the same amount of time as New Mexico's stay-at-home public health order.
Groetzinger, his wife Cara Levick and their children were uniquely positioned for the order, anyway. They've already built up a bit of a utopia just outside town on their 5 acres, and Groetzinger says it's been a godsend.
"The bulk of [our garden] is in four raised beds that are 4-by-8 feet, but they're all kind of snug next to each other with a little space between them, and I'd say the total space that takes up is about 12-by-20 feet," Groetzinger tells SFR. "Even if you have a little yard, you could do four raised beds that produce a ton of food."
The process has been through a few iterations of trial-and-error, beginning when Groetzinger and bandmate Ben Wright co-tended a garden a few years back. Since then, he's learned a lot—including best bets for the New Mexican brand of soil—and says this year he's planted radishes, kale, collard greens, spinach and chard. Nearby, a perennial strawberry plant has provided fruit like clockwork each year, and he's also working with cucumbers, hot peppers and tomatoes; one bed is dedicated to herbs.
"We've had some other fruit production, too," he says. "Two cherry trees, two peach trees and an apple tree—although, if you're not a homeowner, they take a lot of space so it's like, do I want to plant and take care of a tree that's ultimately my landlord's?"
Groetzinger's experience and gardening activities speak to a larger homesteading trend popularized over the last decade by people looking for a simpler way of life and the knowledge of where their food comes from. It's not the self-suffiency that marked the term two centuries ago, but more of a movement away from relieance on commercial systems.
Groetzinger grew up in a gardening family and his mother, who lives near Taos, maintains a garden to this day. She also keeps bees. Still, he says, it isn't like she was a professional, nor did his early forays into the practice involve much more than flowers and aesthetic plants. For the most part, he says, his knowledge grew from personal experimentation, advice from friends and other local gardener types and the internet.
"There's a website called highdesertgardening.com that actually spells out some really specific ideas, because we're in an interesting climate with a pretty short growing season—late frosts in the spring, early frosts in the fall," he explains. "But during the grow period, the sun is so potent that if you can be motivated to put something in the ground, to learn a little bit about what plants are important…what's the expression? Make hay while the sun is shining?"
Groetzinger says he has friends who are already harvesting from hoop and greenhouses despite the mythical and oft-agreed upon May 15 planting date that New Mexican gardeners seem to regard as scripture (more on that later). He describes a large and inclusive gardening scene across the city and state crammed with folks who love to help others and love to get people growing their own food. In the summer, he says, roughly half his family's vegetables are homegrown; during the COVID-19 pandemic, however—with the extra time at home—they're aiming for 80% of their produce to come from the backyard garden.
Meanwhile, down West Alameda Streetbeyond Casa Solana and up in the hills, gardener Jason Reed is expecting a large harvest this year as well. An avid convert since 2016, Reed says he simply woke up one morning thinking about how he needed to buy seeds.
"I've been a vegetarian since I was about 22," he tells SFR, "so I've always been into eating healthier, but seeing the stuff on social media—people talking about food systems and the food supply and fast food and GMOs, I thought, if I grew my own, I'd know exactly what I was eating."
Reed works as the head engineer at Frogville Studios, the recording outfit dedicated mostly to Santa Fe's Americana set. He lives in an RV on land that belongs to studio owner John Treadwell.
"There were a bunch of empty pots just sitting there," he says. "I knew I needed to use those."
Unlike Groetzinger's more sprawling land, Reed's use of containers illustrates a handy point: One might just as easily start growing their own food in pots rather than beds. Eventually, he'll move them into one of his three raised beds, but Reed says you won't need a ton of space if you're a beginner. He creates his own starters in old dog food cans, for example, and this year, he's growing carrots, beets, radishes, salad greens, cilantro, parsley, chives, scallions, tomatoes, cucumbers and more.
"That's all the stuff that can handle the cold, and there are still frosts ahead," he cautions, citing May 15 as his goal for putting more delicate plants outside. "Last year, though, was a pretty cold spring, and I think it was almost June by the time I planted my tomatoes."
This year, once Reed gets his plants out of containers and into the earth, he predicts a healthy yield in the warmer months. Of particular interest are his cucumbers, which he grows vertically on a piece of lattice attached to the side of his RV.
"They seem to love it," he says. "You have to train them a little, but once it gets going, they cover the whole lattice, and the great thing is your cucumbers aren't in the dirt and it's a total space-saver."
Annually, Reed hasn't kept precise track of how much his garden yields, though he's canned or preserved dozens of quarts' worth of tomatoes, sweet relish, pickled green beans and beets, cucumbers and more. Everything fresh has proved more than ample.
"This last fall I still had tomatoes from 2017 as I was canning tomatoes from 2018," he says, "and I give away stuff to my friends all the time."
As for how the veggies taste?
"Pretty much everybody I give to is like 'You should go into business!'" Reed says. "And I say no. Then it wouldn't be special."
Reed says he doesn't see his gardening behavior changing in a post-COVID world; his infrastructure is basically set and he now knows what to expect. Still, when it comes to advice for people considering a foray into growing their own food, he says, "The only logical thing to do is to just grow as much food as we possibly can. There was a time when everybody had a garden, and it's not that hard to do, we've just traded away our self-sufficiency for convenience. But I'd say you'll love it—and you'll attract butterflies and bees and it's just great. It makes you feel alive."
In the Tierra Contenta neighborhood, Sage Sommer already knows a thing or two about attracting bees.
"It wasn't a decision I made one morning, it was…my father is notoriously hard to shop for, and when my husband drew his name one year for Christmas—and my dad had vaguely mentioned he was interested in beekeeping," she says. "We were like, on a whim, 'Maybe we'll get him a hive.'"
Sommer's dad took to it immediately.
"He went crazy," she says. "He loved it."
Both her father and mother became certified apiarists within that first year, purchasing a queen online and eventually splitting a quickly growing hive in two; Sommer's family took the part that split off.
"And I've been learning from my parents how to do it since," she says. "I've been traditionally way more into gardening than beekeeping, but it's been a really amazing and symbiotic relationship between my bees and my garden."
Her already notable vegetable yields, she noticed, grew larger once the bees moved in. Similarly, she says, other pollinators started moving into her family's small backyard, including critters she'd never seen before (and for which she still has no names); bees that tend to keep within a 3-mile radius of their hives spread around the neighborhood, visibly changing the flora of the area.
Sommer says she's pretty sure other nearby houses keep bees too, and that she, like them, no longer has to settle for store-bought honey. But this isn't to say the bees pay for themselves straight away. Sommer advises due diligence and the potentially restrictive costs of equipment. There is more than one kind of hive, for example, as well as suits, smokers and other considerations. But, she says, the bee people of New Mexico are into it, and some, perhaps former apiarists or amateurs, might even be willing to part with gear on the cheap.
"There's a ton of good information and so many people locally who are bee geniuses," she says. "I don't think it's that hard to find a wealth of information."
Additionally, it's an activity for the whole family. Sommer's young son has been helping with the hive since he was 4; as we spoke by phone, he was breaking down a comb for honey, and, she says, they expect their entire small garden to "go wild this summer."
I swear I can hear Carole Goeller's chickens clucking away in the background when she answers the phone.
"I'm outside," she says. "Can you hear me OK?"
Goeller's been a self-described "crazy chicken lady" (with respect to the great Mark McKinney) for roughly two years, though with previous roots in Eldorado at a time when chicken ownership was the height of controversy, she's wanted them much longer. When she moved into town with her husband and children a couple years back, obtaining hens was a top priority.
"You don't need a lot of space," she says. "For outdoor space, chickens—and this is a conservative number, I think—it is about 10 square feet that they need. But we don't have a huge flock; you wouldn't want to have an egg farm."
Goeller's flock started at seven, but one died last year; her family plans to add three chickens this year. Locally, she says, chicks are available at stores like The Feed Bin, but there are countless hatcheries around the country that'll mail you day-old chicks. She chose the latter to assure she'd have all egg-laying hens and notes confidently that mailing chicks has become so commonplace there are protocols in place to make sure it's done safely.
"You get a box of little peeping chicks and it's really easy to set them up," she says. "But there's also been this crazy run on chickens [from hatcheries], so I'm not sure if they'll be in stock."
They've been an irreplaceable -addition to her life, she says.
"They're so much smarter than people think," Goeller explains. "They have distinct personalities, they have different vocalizations and you get to know what those mean…when they're stressed, when they're hungry, when they're about to lay an egg."
Goeller estimates her hens collectively lay about four eggs a day. A lifelong vegetarian, her main concern was in the ethical treatment of animals, as well as in knowing where her food was coming from. But their prolific laying schedule keeps her well-stocked. She gives away many eggs to friends and neighbors, but during the pandemic, she's also done a little bit of bartering for things like sourdough starters. Her family might continue down that path depending on how long the shelter-in-place order lasts.
Regardless, the true joy of chicken ownership for Goeller has been in their value as pets. Her family purchased a coop and built a run for their birds; her kids and their friends loved helping raise and care for the chicks. But, like bees, there are so many resources in the community available to budding enthusiasts it's kind of ridiculous. Still, Goeller says, the assumption that picking up a few chickens will be a cheap alternative to store-bought isn't correct. Between cleaning, bedding, maintaining the coop and run, plus potential vet visits—not a common practice according to Goeller, but one she advises all the same—it's been slightly more expensive than she imagined.
"They're far from free," she says, "and this is something people need to know—chickens only regularly lay eggs for two or three years. People need to make a decision. We would never eat our chickens, but some people do when they stop laying; some people want to re-home them. People who want chickens should know that."
And it obviously doesn't stop at gardening, bees and chickens.
Santa Fean Corey Ponder-Sutton recently returned to town after years spent in San Francisco and Denver. Upon learning of the stay-at-home order, one of her first plans was to start cultivating mushrooms.
"I was always talking to the mushroom guys at farmers markets, like Far West Fungi in the Bay Area when I was in college, but at that point, I was a college student, so shelling out for a mushroom kit seemed a little too much," Ponder-Sutton tells SFR.
Now, however, that $25 for a ready-to-go fungi block (which, by the way, she ordered from the same Far West Fungi people) doesn't seem so silly. Ponder-Sutton lives with her stepfather, and says she "wanted to be sure we had some kind of plan besides our deep freezer—so I bought them, set them up and it was so much easier than I imagined it being."
Ponder-Sutton chose three varieties: shiitake, yellow oyster tree mushroom and lion's mane.
"I imagined there would be all these complex things to take care of, but as long as I'm just checking twice a day and making sure they're getting enough light and water, it's fine."
Each block will reportedly produce three or four complete harvests, the first of which Ponder-Sutton has already reached. In fact, she says, the first fungi were ready to eat in about a week, and she estimates the shiitake block alone came in at roughly two pounds. In case you can't picture it, that's a shitload of mushrooms. And it didn't take a greenhouse or hoophouse—Ponder-Sutton literally placed them near some south-facing windows in her home.
"Really, they just need indirect light and 70- or 80-ish degrees (and you can probably err a few degrees in either direction), and your mushrooms will be really tubular," she says with a laugh. "That's what [mushroom people] call it, I think."
She also says she'll continue with mushrooms—she's got the bug. As a preschool teacher at Children's Garden Montessori, though, she says she might never have tried to cultivate her own fungus had she not found herself in the midst of isolation orders. She always assumed she was too tired from the day's labors to mess with mushrooms in the evening, but has since realized that's not an issue.
"Plus," she concludes, "it feels good to know my step-dad and I are safe and healthy."
Those Lowdown Nursery Blues
"So nurseries aren't exactly open," Agua Fria Nursery's Shane Pennington says. "The law they put forward says that we're open for curbside pickup and delivery. You can't come in."
Pennington says the new provisions, enacted some weeks after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham initially identified small local nurseries as non-essential, have proven a challenge from multiple angles.
"It's one of the hardest things we've ever had to do," he explains. "The phone doesn't stop ringing and for every call we answer, we probably miss 10 others. There's just this crush of people calling, there's this crush of people who come over and try to rush the gate. We literally had to take a day off—and we've been open seven days a week, year-'round for 45 years—because we were so exhausted."
Pennington says there's been a rash of potential customers shouting at him, sometimes obscenity, over the last couple weeks. Still, a part of him understands the rush. The weather is warming up, the widely agreed-upon grow season is fast approaching and "the magic bullet date of May 15 is coming," he adds.
But not only does he advise a return to calm and rational thinking, -especially as it applies to gardening, he points out that lumping all of one's expectations on May 15 is silly.
"It's not like that's the only possible time to put something in the ground," he says. "There are still probably some frosts ahead, there's even the possibility of snow."
In the meantime, Pennington says he's enlisted friends to help create an online store for the longstanding local nursery. This comes with its own challenges, however.
"It's hard to catalog the stuff, but we have people who are putting a lot of effort into making that happen."
The Santa Fe Seed Library and local master gardener club kicked off a number of free mini seed -libraries across town last weekend with a plan to run through June 15, but Santa Feans snatched up the seeds so fast, they've now become more of a while-supplies-last kind of thing.
County Fairgrounds, Santa Fe, 3229 Rodeo Road
Saturdays and Sundays, 9 am-5 pm
Southside Library, 6599 Jaguar Drive
Saturdays and Sundays, 9 am-5 pm.
Reunity Resources, 1829 San Ysidro Crossing
Monday through Friday, 8 am to 4 pm; Saturdays from 9 am-noon
Call to confirm: 490-1047
La Tienda, Eldorado, 7 Caliente Road, Eldorado
Monday-Saturday 10 am-5 pm.