I had the opportunity this summer to visit Claire Schosser and her amazing “Living Low Acre” garden in St. Louis, Missouri. Her home sits on 1 acre in an urban setting and features a fruit-based forest, large vegetable garden, a nut forest, and a wildflower and native plants front and side yards. Claire has been gardening since 2002 at Living Low Acre, making her garden 20 years old. I couldn’t pass up this exciting opportunity to see such a mature food forest and learn from Claire. The incredible abundance that greeted me in walking through her garden was inspirational.
Claire also practices a form of ecological living that she calls “living low.” Living low privileges time over money and allows the practitioner to prioritize their wants and needs. Her garden is a big part of her living low philosophy, and thus, the interview and post today offer details on both of those things.
Claire is also the Archdruid of Water in the Ancient Order of Druids in America—thus, I’ve known her through AODA for almost 10 years. I’ve always been excited to hear about her gardening adventures and, on occasion, get a gift of the bounty of her garden, such as her home-grown popcorn. So I was so excited to have this opportunity to tour Claire’s garden and sit down and talk with her about it. The following offers ample photos and a great interview with Claire about her garden. For more on Claire’s garden and writings, you can visit her blog.
Dana: Do you have a name for your garden?
Claire: I call it Living Low Acre. It’s referred to in the name of my blog, “Living Low in the Lou.” What I call “living low” means living very, very cheaply. It’s possible to do that here. I started the blog to write about how you live cheaply in St. Louis. And I just happen to like alliteration for titles, so that became Living Low in the Lou. The Lou is an area nickname for St. Louis.
Dana: How old is your garden?
Claire: This garden is 20 years old now. We moved here in the spring of 2002. When we came here, there were about five trees and a large 3000-square-foot vegetable garden in the back. There was a row of peonies, roses, and a few other perennials, and some shrubs scattered around the yard.
Dana: So why don’t you tell me a little bit about your inspiration for this garden? When you came to start designing this and planning out what were you thinking?
Claire: When I first came to St. Louis, which was in 1984, I lived in an apartment. Two years later I moved into a condo. I eventually wanted to have a house with a garden, but I didn’t know anything about gardening then. I had always been interested in trees and flowers. I’d already learned some things about trees and flowers from guidebooks, but there was still a lot I didn’t know. St. Louis has a really good resource, the Missouri Botanical Garden. It has a lot of demonstration gardens, it offers courses on gardening topics. So when I first came to St. Louis, the first thing I did became a member of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and I started learning about native plants. I started learning about the different styles of gardening that they had represented at the Garden.
And so I started kind of dreaming about what I wanted. I knew I wanted native plants at the time. I didn’t think I wanted any food plants because I wasn’t confident I could grow food plants. It wasn’t until I met my husband and we got engaged and I moved in with him that I started thinking about growing food. He had a house on one-eighth acre in Jennings, which is another suburb that borders the city of St. Louis (south of our current location). So then I actually had a yard to play with. We had a landscape designer come in and do the landscape and then I had some garden beds, and started planting native plants in them. Eventually, Mike (my husband) started bothering me because I wasn’t growing food. To shut him up, in 1993 I started with a few herbs and tomatoes in pots. I got pretty excited when I actually had a harvest from them! The next year, I started a little 40-square-foot garden (4 by 10 feet) because we had hardly any space available that wasn’t already planted with flowers or trees. We had a pretty nice vegetable garden that first year. I had some issues with it; it turns out the site I had the garden on was not ideal. But I got interested enough to eventually put in another four-by-ten-foot garden and then another one. And by that time, several years later, I wanted a lot more land. We started looking around for a small house on a much bigger house, just dreaming almost. Eventually, we found this place. We bought it on the last day of 2001 and moved in at the end of March 2002.
By then, I was also interested in permaculture. I got a bunch of books and made a permaculture plan for this place. So the bones of this place are basically that plan.
Dana: Do you want to talk me through the plan?
Claire: Near the street, I wanted to have fruiting trees so that when people passed by the place they could see pretty flowers in the spring and fruits in summer and fall. I hoped that the beauty and abundance would inspire other people. The intent of the front yard garden is to grow fruit – it has persimmons and apples and apricots growing in it – and also to provide a habitat for pollinators and birds. And to provide beauty for passersby.
Then there is what used to be an herb garden next to the patio at the side of the house, which has been more or less taken over by some taller native perennials. I’m now growing smaller herbs in the vegetable garden area.
The middle of the yard is the social area in a permaculture context. I planted a shrub and tree border separating the front yard from the back yard; the idea for it was based on an Organic Gardening magazine article. It includes redbuds, dogwoods, spicebush, a peach tree, pawpaws, and a couple of plum trees. The function of this section is to provide a social sitting space with a little bit of fruit as a bonus. This border is visible from the back porch. A lot of people comment that when they sit on the back porch they feel like they are in a natural area. That’s due to the border surrounding it, which screens the porch from the neighboring houses and the street.
Moving back further into the property, I have a clearing where the vegetable garden is located. It’s the sunniest part of the yard, where vegetables and small fruits like strawberries grow the best.
And then behind that on the north end of the property is the nut forest. The trees there are quite tall and still growing; they are just teenagers in tree years. In the nut forest are native pecans, which are the thick-shelled ones rather than paper shell, but that’s what grows here. It includes shagbark and shellbark hickory, black cherry, black walnut, chestnut (Dunstan seedlings, which are blight resistant), ash, and two oaks in the red oak family.
Originally that area had a few shrubs and the previous owner’s vegetable garden. Later on I had a prairie area there when the trees I had planted were still small. But the trees grew tall and now it’s reverting to a forest. In the understory, true forest plants like mayapple, fern, and Solomon seal are growing happily.
A lot of things didn’t work out quite the way I planned because we have a lot of squirrels in this neighborhood. It turns out the squirrels get practically all the nuts. The persimmon and the pawpaw trees are the most reliable of the fruit-bearing trees, followed by the apple trees. The pear trees did not work out, they got blight. The apricots, peaches, and plums get eaten by the squirrels and the birds. But the vegetable garden is really productive, and that includes the strawberry bed.
Dana: So in terms of food production, how much of your food do you think you’re producing?
Claire: It’s hard to figure out exactly. I would say from June until December, the property is producing the vast majority of our vegetables, and about a quarter of our total food. It produces all the strawberries that we eat. We have pretty good fruit production starting when the persimmons, pawpaws, and apples get ripe, that’s in September and October; sometimes we get through March with the ones that we freeze. Beyond that, I have grown corn, both dent corn and popcorn. I grow potatoes and some dry beans as well as vegetables. We harvest roughly 500 pounds of food a year.
Dana: As we did the tour, you shared with me a few other resilient systems you have here. Can you share any of them?
Claire: Our water comes from the local water utility. The water isn’t awful, but it’s not great either. The water utility draws out of three rivers, the Missouri, the Mississippi and the Meramec. They have to do rigorous processing to the water, including a chloramination process, which is a mix of chlorine and ammonia, to kill bacteria. It does not result in a swimming pool odor, which is good, but it’s still really processed water. I wanted to drink higher quality water and I also wanted to store water, both for watering the garden or at least parts of the garden and for storage for us.
So what we’ve rigged up is a rain barrel system. All but one downspout on the house and back porch has at least one 55-gallon drum under it so that we collect water off the roof when it rains. The rain travels from the roof into the gutters, then into the downspouts, and then into the 55-gallon drums. Each drum or drum group has one hose attachment on it near the bottom. The rain barrels are elevated so that I can put a garden sprinkling can underneath for watering.
I water my container plants out of the drums. Sometimes I water trees, that sort of thing. There’s a much larger 500-gallon tank near the garden shed. We hung gutters on the shed, which is also the highest spot on the property and collect the rain that falls on the shed roof in the 500-gallon tank. I use that tank to water the vegetable garden, for planting and irrigation.
We also store water for our own use. We connect garden hoses to the 55-gallon drums under the downspouts and run the water by gravity into one of the eight 55-gallon drums in the basement. We use a hand pump to pump the water out of the drums in the basement into a bucket and carry the bucket upstairs to the kitchen. There we filter the water through a ceramic filter system because it’s coming off the roof and might be contaminated by whatever falls on the roof. We use the filtered water for drinking, and we can also use it for dishwashing and laundry. We’ve always got anywhere from 200 to 400 gallons of water on hand in the basement drums plus whatever is in the outdoor drums and tank at the time. So that’s one of our resilient systems.
I also have rain gardens. I do a lot of work with streams as a volunteer. And I’m really concerned about stream resources in our area. One of the things that happens in an urban area is that rainwater will run off any kind of a hard surface like roads into the stormwater system, then from there run directly into a stream. During heavy rains, streams get inundated with water really fast, which causes erosive damage. Then the water level falls really fast after the rain ends. Eventually, urban streams dig themselves into canyons, and they are not healthy that way. The purpose of the rain garden is to slow down the rain, and soak it into the ground so that now you are recharging the groundwater, which is a much more steady water supply for the streams. Thus the rain gardens are just shallow depressions in the soil that hold the overflow from the 55-gallon barrels and the 500-gallon tank.
The rain gardens are planted with plants that can handle that much water. In the gardens, I have a native iris, native sedge, lobelia, jewelweed, and grasses. I have just received Golden Alexander plants from a friend, which are growing happily in one of the rain gardens. I also have ninebark, which is a native shrub that likes rain gardens.
Dana: What would you say are some of the most unique plants in your garden?
Claire: I have the Ozark witch hazel planted here. We have two native witch hazels in Missouri. One of them – I believe it’s the same species you have, the Eastern witch hazel – blooms in autumn. The other, the Ozark witch hazel that is planted in my side yard, blooms in February, before any other plant blooms. Even in February, I see small pollinators coming to the blooms. The blooms are wonderfully fragrant. That’s the first bloom of the year right around Imbolc, so my Imbolc ceremony includes Ozark witch hazel as part of it.
I have persimmons and pawpaws both. If you ask me, these are the best native fruits that Missouri has to offer. Both kinds of fruits ripen in the late summer and early fall. They both have to fall on the ground, that’s how you know they are ripe enough. So you pick them up off the ground, which is a lot easier than trying to get an apple that’s way up in the tree! Persimmons have almost a cinnamony flavor to them. Mike says they taste a little bit like cake. He’s right.
Pawpaws taste a little bit like banana custard, or banana pineapple custard, a very tropical kind of flavor. Just delicious. They both freeze really well. So we pick them up off the ground and put whatever we can’t eat soon into freezer bags and freeze them. We can enjoy them for months that way by taking out a few at a time to thaw. Pawpaw and persimmon are wonderful fruits and pleasant small trees. The only issue is that in a small yard/urban setting, you need to keep after the suckers that want to grow up near them.
Dana: Can you tell us about your tea plant?
Claire: Let’s talk about tea. I don’t drink coffee, I drink tea, and so I thought it would be fun to be able to supply at least a little bit of my own tea. The tea plant is Camellia sinensis, which is the plant that black tea, green tea, white tea, and so forth come from. What makes black tea black, green tea green, and so forth is when the leaves are harvested and how they are treated after harvesting. I also thought it would be really great if the US had some farms growing tea and that I could help by showing how far north it might be possible to grow tea. We really should grow tea here. A lot of the southern US is in USDA zone eight or nine, where it’s possible to grow tea plants easily. One of the issues is that tea harvest is very labor intensive and people don’t want to pay for labor. But as a plant, tea should grow well in warmer parts of the US. Many of us gardeners like to push things and this is one of the areas where I thought I would like to push things a little bit. I wanted to know if it would be possible to grow the coldest hardy Camellia sinensis varieties here.
Normally, most of these camellias are only hardy to USDA Zone 8. At best, St. Louis is borderline zone six and seven at this point. But I did find a variety that actually grows into at least the colder half of zone seven, maybe slightly into the warmer half of zone six. So, I thought, could I actually plant this variety and make tea out of it?
I thought about where I could plant my tea plants where they would be most sheltered from the coldest weather. It seemed to me like the most sheltered microclimate is on the eastern side of the house. Where I planted them they receive rain but they are close enough to the house to be blocked from cold west and northwest winds in the wintertime.
One of the two plants is doing much better than the other one and the one that’s doing better is the one that’s closer to the vent from the furnace. I didn’t really plan it that way. But that warmth is enough to help keep it from dying back in the coldest weather; by now it’s grown probably five feet tall. I don’t shelter them anymore. I used to for the first few winters, but at this point I just said all right, can they take winter conditions unsheltered? It’s worked out better than I thought it would. I’m very impressed with these plants. Now I want to learn how to make tea from them! Even if all I can sustainably harvest is enough for one cup of tea, it’s still significant for me. I might even get some more plants to add to a free bed in the vegetable growing area, just to see if they will grow there and if I can make more tea from them.
Dana: Do you want to share some of your philosophies about living low?
Claire: I live low for at least two different reasons. One is environmental and one is economic. It so happens that most of the time, if you’re living low economically, you’re also living low environmentally.
First of all, you need to decide what’s most important for you to do. Then you don’t do things that are needless or that don’t further your own goals. These extraneous activities and goods just cost you money and time, the hours of your life that are finite. Once those hours are spent they are gone and you never get them back.
Time really is money. Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez wrote the book where I learned this, Your Money or Your Life. That book changed our lives completely. It turns out that you need to spend time working at a job because you spend money. The time you spend working to buy things is time you don’t have to spend on the rest of your life; you’re buying your job with the hours of your life! All those ancillary things that you’re having to do to go to work, like the clothes you buy, or the commuting time, they cost extra money and take extra time, so they lower your hourly wage. Once you realize that, you can usually start to change some things even without changing your job so that you actually have more pay than you thought you did. But you can also decide that you can change a job or maybe do a job that doesn’t pay you as much but is more satisfying and doesn’t require as many hours or other things that you need to pay for. You end up with more money than you had before and more satisfaction. If you don’t spend money on things you don’t want and don’t need, you have more time for what you want and what you need.
So that’s part of living low, figuring out what it is you really, really, really want to do with the precious hours of your life. And what you don’t want, so that you can stop spending money on the things and activities that you don’t need or don’t really want. For what you do want and need, start looking around to see if you can find ways to get them without spending money. One of the things that Mike and I find is because our friends and family know that we’ll take stuff off their hands, they give us things they no longer want. Some of what they give us are things we want. If we get things from them we don’t want, we usually hold on to them until we find somebody else that wants them so we can give it to them. So some of our stuff around here is just waiting to be rehomed.
The thing is, when you use stuff that already exists, you’re doing much less environmental damage than when you buy new things. It’s a bonus to living low. So if you care about living more lightly on the earth, spending less money is a really good way to do that. Because you’re spending less money, you’re bringing less stuff in, and less stuff means you are taking less resources out of the earth: energy, materials, transportation, and so on. If you’re not needing to buy something, then all of the energy and materials that would have gone into that something get to stay in the earth.
And the other thing about living more lightly on the earth is making it better for all the other creatures that we share the earth with. So, a lot of what I grow is not intended for our mouths, it is intended to serve all the other creatures who live here (sometimes it goes into their mouths whether I intend it or not!). So we have a thriving yard. We have a lot of different bird species that come through here, especially during the migrating season, but also many birds that make homes here such as cardinals, hummingbirds, and robins in the summer, and white-throated sparrows and juncos in the winter.
So in sum, what we are really trying to do here is living low economically, but also living lightly on the Earth at the same time.
Thank you Claire for sharing your incredible garden as well as your philosophy of living. I am grateful for what I learned from Claire both in terms of tending plants as well as in sustainable and ecological living!