Living off the land: A Free Union garden yields produce all year long

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Ryan Williamson and Laurel Woodworth keep the garden going year-round: Between trees, shrubbery, perennial vegetables, and annual plants, there’s hardly a month when something isn’t growing. Photo: John Robinson Ryan Williamson and Laurel Woodworth keep the garden going year-round: Between trees, shrubbery, perennial vegetables, and annual plants, there’s hardly a month when something isn’t growing. Photo: John Robinson
Nathan Williamson
Ryan Williamson and Laurel Woodworth’s Albemarle property spans 19.3 acres, with room for beekeeping, mushroom logs, and 450 square feet of raised beds. Photo: Nathan Williamson

The gardens around the home of Ryan Williamson and Laurel Woodworth are a bit different than your average backyard setup—food can be found almost any month of the year. Greens are grown in mini-greenhouses, called low-tunnels, in the wintertime; fruit trees, shrubs, and vines are abundant in the landscape; bees pollinate many of the crops.

Williamson and Woodworth’s work and life are connected to the seasonal production of the garden as well—Woodworth works at a local watershed protection organization and Williamson sews polar fleece hats by hand and sells them at craft shows throughout much of the fall and winter. The couple derives much of their diet from the land they live on, and can a lot of the produce from the garden.

According to the National Gardening Association, home gardens expanded 40 percent between 2007 and 2009, so when Williamson established the initial gardens around the couple’s home near Free Union in 2006, he was part of a growing national trend. He cleared several acres of pine plantation to make room for both the studio-home and extensive plantings, slowly improving soil health by adding compost, manure, and leaves to increase the soil’s organic matter and create about 450 square feet of raised beds. He started planting peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peas, and lots of melons—enough to can tomato sauce, pickles, and dilly beans. Lots of other plants followed in the subsequent years, including figs, flowers, thornless blackberries, and apple and pear trees that Williamson grafted by hand.

After Woodworth joined him on their homestead, the two significantly expanded the annual gardens and perennial plantings to include a few hundred asparagus plants, garlic, and lots of other vegetables. At the same time, they planted several diverse plants, including hardy kiwi, dozens of blueberries and figs, strawberries, cherries, mulberries, chestnuts, heartnuts, currants, and gooseberries. Additionally, they installed a rain garden planted with cranberries (to absorb overflow rainwater from the roof). They grow several hundred pounds of garlic and mushrooms, which they occasionally sell to area restaurants and at the farmer’s market. The key to keeping Williamson and Woodworth’s garden healthy? Using lots of mulch, planting cover crops, and installing drip irrigation to provide efficient and consistent water for the gardens.

Gardening runs deep in both Williamson and Woodworth’s families. Currently, Williamson’s sister Rachel runs Fairweather Farm in Afton, where she grows specialty teas, spice mixes, and makes tulip poplar bark baskets. Williamson and Woodworth’s gardens are similar to permaculture-style planting, which is a system of ecological design modeled on nature. Permaculture gardens frequently include perennial vegetables, multilayered fruit trees, shrubs, and vines, and other garden systems integrated with building soil health and storing water on the site to create diverse, productive, and integrated garden systems.

In recent years, Williamson and Woodworth have started keeping bees—they now have 45 bee hives, and sell honey and bees, as well as mushroom logs. “My favorite thing about our garden is the amazing diversity from annual vegetables to perennial plants,” Williamson said. “Our garden satisfies a diverse, year-round palate from strawberries, to blueberries, to tomatoes and peppers, as well as canned pizza sauce and roasted red peppers. Many delicious things can be eaten around the year.” To learn more about Williamson and Woodworth, see their farm’s website, sourwoodfarm.com.—Christine Muehlman Gyovai

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