At about 4 a.m. on New Year's Day, Wes Powers stared up at the stars in his backyard and decided that this was the year he'd grow his own food.
Nine months later, he's standing in his kitchen, stuffing a tray full of just-picked green peppers with rice, sausage, tomatoes, and corn. Powers calls his backyard Bur Clare Farms, named after the street his house sits on across from the Hot Wheels skating rink on Folly Road. As cars zip by, there's a sense of peace amid the watermelon vines and corn stalks in his roughly 5,000-square-foot plot.
Powers plays drums with local band Sol Driven Train, and their out-of-town tour schedule complicated his gardening pursuits. After hiring a neighbor with a tractor to turn his soil, he was forced to move his indoor seedlings to the ground in early April before most Lowcountry gardeners typically plant. He didn't test his soil or add any nutrients or fertilizers, and his watering system is just two sprinklers that his roommate turns on and moves around when Powers is traveling.
Results were varied. Cucumbers, corn, and tomatoes never reached their full potential. Zucchini grew like baseball bats, and peppers abounded well into the fall.
"My roommate would go to the beach all summer, and I'd be out in the garden," says Powers. "There is always something on the to-do list, and I'm always dealing with the immediate demands like weeding."
Across James Island from Powers, photographer Andrew Cebulka also made the decision to pursue his farming aspirations this year. His backyard near Woodland Shores Road is now a cluster of raised beds, climbing vines, and fruit trees.
"My garden was a response to what I saw as rising food costs, coupled with a desire to get back into the kitchen and back to the earth," says Cebulka. "I've got to really care for the plants. It helps me to slow down, which, in my busy world, is huge."
Cebulka hired local farmer Rita Bachmann, who founded a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in 2007. Now she runs Rita's Roots Backyard Harvest, a consulting business for would-be farmers.
"I help guide people more than doing it for them," explains Bachmann. "I want to enable them to be self-sufficient on their own by spreading the knowledge of how to grow your own food."
In Cebulka's case, Bachmann laid out a plan for his yard, maximizing sun exposure for particular crops, conducting pH tests of the soil, and designing a drip irrigation system that could run fully automated when work demanded time away from the garden.
"I needed something that was efficient and wouldn't take too much time away from the rest of my life," says Cebulka. "I didn't have any idea what to plant or when to plant it."
Just half a year later, he's roasting peppers in his backyard fire pit, while a sweet potato bisque simmers on the stove inside. Nearly 1,000 square feet of tilled earth and raised plots in his yard are producing much of the produce he and his fiancee consume.
"When I'm eating within 100 miles — eating with my own hands — it's a totally different vibe," says Cebulka. "There's a spiritual aspect — how it connects you back to the earth. You can't put a value on putting your fingers in dirt, or seeing the joy of a kid pulling a vegetable out of the ground or sharing with your neighbors."
In fact, since establishing his plot, two of the homes adjoining Cebulka's yard have begun their own gardens. His next-door neighbors raise chickens, and they've made plans to remove part of the fence and expand their grazing range into Cebulka's backyard.
While Bachmann admires the "cute little turnips" coming up in the garden's corner and inspects a white powdery mildew appearing on some greens, Cebulka returns from inside with a fiery red pepper in his outstretched hand.
"Try it," he implores me. "It's not hot. Take a bite."
The flavor is staggering. Somehow, I'd never realized that a red pepper is simply a green bell pepper, left to ripen three weeks longer. Of course, that raises the cost for commercial farmers and increases the risk of damage from insects.
"For every one I get like that, I lose two. But they're so awesome, it's worth it," Cebulka exclaims.
Growing a vegetable garden simply doesn't fit everyone's schedule, but the rewards are so great that it's a hobby exploding with popularity. Even though initial costs may not be recouped within the first year, a garden full of fresh produce encourages people to eat at home more often, saving money on restaurant dining.
Since beginning her consulting business last spring, Bachmann says she's worked with about a dozen gardens, five from scratch. One experienced client had been shoveling 100 pounds of rich mushroom compost into their garden each season, yet were seeing diminishing results. After a quick soil test, Bachmann recommended adding potassium and magnesium to rebalance the pH.
"They say their garden has never been better. It saved them hundreds of dollars and hours of backbreaking labor, and they're more or less independent now," she says. "It's so rewarding, because everyone who gardens is just so happy. Some people have said, 'You're like my therapist.' I'm like, 'No, I'm just a gardener.' "
Rita's Roots Backyard Harvest operates much like a CSA, with a spring and fall season offering instruction in soil preparation, planting, watering, pest control, weeding, harvesting, food preservation, organic fertilization, and crop rotation. Bachmann makes at least four visits to a garden over the season and is always available by phone and e-mail to her clients. Reach her at email@example.com.