Paradise Found: Sustainable Farming on a Very Small Scale

By | July 10, 2014
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Richard and Ginny

Sustainable Farming on a Very Small Scale

Twilight, that magical time between two worlds, will usually find Richard and Ginny beginning their second, third or fourth job, depending upon the day of the week, of working in their gardens or tending their chickens. Watering, weeding, harvesting, feeding the chickens, and eventually preparing their evening meal is a normal day for them during the planting and growing season. One would guess this description is for a sizable farm—but no, these chores take place on a mere half-acre in Mashpee.

A modest Cape-style house with a well-tended front lawn and mature plantings is what the passerby sees. Closer inspection of one side yard reveals the unexpected in a sunken and generous garden of earthy delights. Immaculate, well cultivated, and bountiful, this little plot is capable of providing year round sustenance. To the rear of this garden sits a chicken coop worthy of an Architectural Digest review. Four cheerful, speckled and black hens can be found pecking at the dirt and clucking happily in their enclosed yard. A beautiful blooming rock garden cascading down from an upper pathway to the garden below completes this idyllic image. On the opposite side yard is yet another garden of equal size, abutting a fire pit with a few chairs positioned around it. The front yard also yields its own sweet rewards—a screened-in blueberry patch and several raspberry bushes, all producing luscious berries throughout the growing season.

Every arable and tillable piece of their half acre of land is utilized, and the effect is both charming and manageable. To visit this little plot of paradise is to realize that sustainable farming is possible on even the smallest scale. The idea of growing their own food as a way of controlling what they eat and also bringing them closer to the source is enormously appealing to Richard and Ginny. An additional bonus is the visual beauty of their enterprise.

Talk to Richard Sperduto and hear his passion for what he and his wife, Ginny, have accomplished and wish to accomplish in the future. Their long-term goals and vision include possibly acquiring more land (some of which would be sunnier than their current space for vegetables), more fruit bushes and perhaps a small orchard. When asked if he would like to incorporate more livestock, Richard answered that he is very interested in eventually raising bees.

As building and grounds director at Falmouth Academy, Richard is no stranger to the “green life.” He has instituted enough environmental reform at the school to garner state awards and recognition. The Association to Preserve Cape Cod named him “Environmental Champion” for raising awareness about energy and the environment at Falmouth Academy; he earned the Institutional Recycling Award from Mass Recycle, the Commonwealth’s award for Excellence in Environmental Education; and he helped Falmouth Academy be named an Energy Superstar, and arranged for them to install the town’s first 10K wind turbine.

His wife, Ginny Edgcomb, is no slouch, either. She is an associate scientist at WHOI with her own lab in microbiology, a widely published author, a sought-after speaker throughout the world, the recipient of scientific awards (including the coveted Seymour H. Hutner Prize in Protistology), and teaches science part time at Falmouth Academy.

When asked what started them on this venture, they both agreed that the little garden plot they tended together at Falmouth Academy when they were first dating convinced them that they were destined for this agricultural pursuit. Richard knew that chickens would also be in their future since both of them loved eggs, believed the best tasting eggs would come from their own hens, and that it was an animal protein they could easily supply. As a vegetarian, Richard has no plans for slaughtering his “layers” and Ginny echoes, “We’ve developed relationships with these hens and know their personalities well.”

From their years of gardening experience, Ginny offers several pieces of horticultural wisdom that she and Richard have gleaned, “You can’t always grow what you want—certain vegetables, such as broccoli and the cabbages, are really difficult on the Cape because they are high maintenance if you’re not using pesticides, which we don’t.”

Richard added that healthy soil is a prerequisite since it produces healthy plants with less susceptibility to disease and insect invasion. Both agreed that overcrowding is a definite no-no in gardening, and Ginny explained that a too-densely planted garden can invite mold and mildew problems. Not only are flowers beautiful in vegetable gardens, but they also help fight insects. Not surprisingly, she concluded that over the years they’ve had to adopt a more scientific approach to their gardening practices. They prefer growing tomatoes in containers because it keeps them from taking over a garden, and likewise for growing certain vegetables on a trellis or string. Cucumbers and squash climb up and over fences, while freeing up more space and creating a charming visual effect.

When questioned about their use of fertilizer, Richard shows the enthusiasm of a true organic disciple. He uses a combination of chicken manure (from the chickens he keeps at Falmouth Academy); seaweed gathered from local beaches and left out in the rain to remove salt; ashes from their wood-burning stove; and his secret ingredient — compost from Falmouth Academy. He also tests the soil each year and makes adjustments accordingly, thus insuring an optimal growing environment. For Richard and Ginny, watching seedlings growing under lights in the basement is as exciting as the actual gardening process.

So what about those long, cold, dark, snowy days in February, when gardening seems almost a mythical fantasy? That is their magic time, says Ginny. She and Richard gather their seed catalogs, start sketching garden plans, and place seed orders. It is during that process that they discuss their crop rotation, which must be done yearly, and then make any changes in their produce selection, which varies about 20% from year to year, and usually involves choosing different varieties of potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and greens.

An invitation to dinner at Richard and Ginny’s home is coveted since it is always a casual, and most often impromptu affair, peppered with both local and international friends and guests, all comfortably seated in the kitchen and enjoying the collaborative culinary skills of their host and hostess. Guests are welcome to pitch in and the result is effortless, easy and delicious.

Richard and Ginny’s goal of becoming self sustaining is evident from the various foods presented at any given time, ranging from the always-present salad of fresh greens, baked squash, roasted potatoes, beets, carrots, peppers, onions and garlic, or frozen eggplant parmesan, green beans, pesto, tomato sauce for pasta or homemade pizza, to the delectable finish of a blueberry or blackberry pie or crisp. The satisfaction of eating food almost exclusively harvested from their garden, while sitting near their warm and welcoming wood burning stove with a foot of snow lying outside, is both comforting and life affirming.

Together, they have created an organic model for all who ever dream of pursuing a sustainable existence on a small scale and creating a unique kind of magic. The actual time spent on their gardens is approximately 30 minutes to one hour a day, which they consider time well spent.

Ginny sees gardening as a kind of metaphor for a marriage and notes, “Gardening is very therapeutic for a relationship—working side by side outdoors, pulling weeds and reaping the rewards of your joint efforts. It can also release a lot of frustration and anger, but in a healthy way!” Evident throughout their property and home is the love they share for this life.

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