Suburban Haven in Piedmont, North Carolina (zone 7b)
Meet Erica Neal, the woman behind the blog Yellow Swing Garden. Erica is a talented writer and avid permaculture gardener who recently moved with her partner and three young boys to the suburban community of Piedmont, North Carolina (located just a short distance from Durham). Having moved around a lot of as a child and young adult, Erica has been in constant search for a place that feels like home and she has been able to create that space in North Carolina.
"If I had to summarize my back story I would tell someone that I was born in St. Louis’ but grew up in a lot of places. I either moved every year or two because of corporate relocations or due to traveling back and forth between my parents after their divorce. Life was nomadic between ages 3 - 17 and there was so much change, that I remember being commended for my resilience pretty frequently. But all of that moving taught me how to adapt to new situations quickly, and offered me a lot of experiences that were both off-grid and urbane. I’ve always had one foot on concrete, and one in the mud."
The one constant in Erica's childhood were the homes and gardens of her grandparents and great-grandparents.
"I think of them as gardens because my great-grandparents didn't have enough space to be a back “yard”; but every patch of green around their patio was planted with food or flowers. On the other hand, my grandparents built and cultivated such a rich environment that it was more than just a yard. Agnostic of scale, all that mattered was that they were always in the same place, producing something beautiful. No matter where I was traveling from, or headed to, these places were always home."
In addition to fostering an appreciation of growing, Erica's parents instilled a passion for both cooking and sourcing local food.
"When we moved to a new place, we got to know it through the local food. We went out to places with no kids menus – because that just wasn’t as common in the 80’s. Also, both of my parents were creative people, and since they had “sensible” careers I think they used cooking as a way to live out their creativity. I was usually invited to help. Whether it was making pancakes, washing greens, steaming seafood, or rolling dumplings. Cooking was a way that my parents taught and connected with me. This combination of traveling throughout the country, the stability of my grandparents – the beauty they cultivated and traditions they sustained– along with an ingrained love of good food, is what seeded my passion for growing food and pursuing a rich, balanced life for my family."
When Erica and her family first moved to their new home, the 1.3 acre yard was a blank slate. As soon as their bags were unpacked they got to work transforming it into a food growing haven. They started by building a compost bin, a simple 8x16 enclosure, and an herb bed lined with rocks they dug up. Next was getting some backyard chickens to help close the loop.
"The following spring we got a small coop kit, and built a run adjacent to the garden for our first chickens. We worked with the slope of the land, and built the coop on an elevated platform which gave them shelter, and created a tunnel into the garden. When it was time to clear out the beds, they could get from their run to the garden just by scooting under the coop."
These functional designs have been influenced by Erica's study of permaculture. With dappled light and less than ideal soil, she has been experimenting to see what methods work best for their unique plot of land.
"I always describe our land as 1.3 mostly wooded acres with towering old oaks and hickory trees. We also live in an area that’s a part of a river valley; so none of our land is flat, and the soil is a mix of clay and rock. Shade, deer, sloping topography, and rocks aren’t the conditions gardeners dream about; but I’ve found that our site makes a fantastic lab. I get the opportunity to experiment with solutions for a variety of conditions. And since we have so much shade, I work within pockets of light that average 3-4 hrs of full sun once the trees are filled in. So we steward a lot of land, but only use about a cumulative 400 sqft for growing food, flowers and herbs.
Erica hasn't been afraid to attempt growing a wide variety of crops even with limited direct sunlight available and some backyard pests to contend with. She has learned volumes from her successes and failures and continues to evolve her growing techniques as goes.
"So far, my favorite things to grow are greens, roots, and herbs. We’ve had success with broccoli, collards, cucumbers, kale, arugula, spinach, radishes, chard, onions and carrots. We’ve grown some chilis and tomatoes; but I’m still searching for the spot that gets enough full sun for a big bed of paste tomatoes to thrive. Anything truly sun-loving like pumpkins, and squash, okra, or nightshades struggle a bit.
But I’ve learned that there are more vegetables than expected that will tolerate hours of dappled shade. The other struggles have more to do with critters than conditions. I keep seeding beets in the fall and the squirrels dig them up burying acorns, or the conditions are just right for cabbage moths to decimate my fall greens. This season, we bought some row cover that will hopefully give our plant babies a fighting chance."
Erica's advice for new growers is simple...
"Patience, persistence, and a willingness to start small, and stay small for a while. Even now that we have more outdoor space than we’ve ever had, I know the scale of our food production is still small relative to a market garden, or a homeowner who’s growing the majority of their family’s food for the year.
I get frustrated, and impatient with the process of learning the seasonal rhythms of a new region and hardiness zone. Sometimes, you just want to plant, get growing and watch everything thrive! But then reality hits in the form of nature’s unpredictability and I always end up being grateful for our smaller scale. It makes the early years of gardening a low risk, high-yield learning experience. The inevitable small losses are invaluable information when you’re able to expand a growing area. Overall, I would encourage anyone who wants to grow food to adopt the mindset of a scientist. Be willing to discover, fail quickly and recover."
During Covid, Erica has been spending ample time outside with her family and working on further expanding their growing operation.
"We built a larger garden enclosure (16 x 22 ft), and two sheds. We retrofitted the larger of the two sheds to be a chicken coop with a larger covered run, and incorporated the smaller one into the perimeter of the new garden. We expanded the rock bed into a pollinator garden, and planted some container fruit trees.
I’m using our homesite for the final project of my Permaculture Design Certification. So, after this year we’re taking a break from new projects, and focusing on forming more paths and connections between the spaces we’ve already carved out, and increasing their yield. This includes adding gutters and rain barrels to the sheds, a larger open run for the chickens, and a second pollinator garden with houses for solitary bees, and native birds. I’m a big nerd when it comes to our little ecosystem, and really excited to support/ and increase its biodiversity. Our ultimate goal is to qualify for wildlife habitat designation through the North Carolina Wildlife federation.
Although gardening and time outdoors has helped, gratitude has been the main way Erica has been weathering the turmoil of 2020.
"In spite of the heartbreak, social upheaval, and civil unrest, we have had to adopt an almost aggressively grateful outlook. That doesn’t mean being happy about everything. It means remembering that growth follows decay, that the old has to be torn down to make way for the new, and in every challenge there’s an opportunity.
Instead of focusing on what we can’t do, or how we’re inconvenienced, we save that compassion for the families, and people who have lost loved ones, homes, and jobs, or the individuals that had to lock down alone. The days aren’t always easy; but they’re still good. So, we’re really intentional about appreciating everything we can do… like preparing food, hanging with our kids, going outside, affording my medication etc.
This is why I come back to being immensely thankful for the time I spent with my grandparents and great-grandparents who lived through the depression and WW2. Growing up, they shared their stories with me, and that perspective reminds me that not only can we withstand this; but we can come out of it a better nation in some ways."
Erica feels hopeful that the tragedies this year will be a catalyst for a great awakening.
"Even though the pandemic and the protests were born out of tragedy, the global outcry and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement was one of the most hope-filled and powerful things I’ve ever witnessed. It has brought issues of inequity, and abuses of power (across a number of industries) to the forefront of public dialog at a volume that will influence policy.
On a smaller scale, the instances of collective compassion, generosity, and simple acts of kindness I’ve witnessed during lockdown have been encouraging. And really, the fact that the pandemic, civil unrest, and the destructive effects of climate change are being witnessed on a global scale is a massive reminder of how connected we are. That has the potential to be a positive catalyst for positive change. Cooperation is essential, and our successes are interdependent."
Thank you Erica for sharing your wisdom and story with us! I highly recommend you take the time to read Erica's Yellow Swing Garden blog.
Follow Erica on Instagram and keep scrolling to read her full interview.
ERICA'S FULL INTERVIEW
How has your upbringing inspired the person and life you are building today?
More than anything else, my upbringing inspired me to crave a sense of home, and belonging. The flip side is that we wanted to find our own place, and create a fresh experience for our family vs. settling down where we grew up. So I’ve carried pieces of that independent / adventure-seeking energy, as well as a desire to be more rooted and established than I was as a child. We’ve really found that in our home in Durham, NC.
What do you love about the community you’ve found in North Carolina?
We’re still relatively new to Durham; but it didn’t take long for it to feel like home. I love that it's
southern in a way that’s both warmly familiar, and progressive. I love seeing the Black history of
the region celebrated right beside a very New School vibe. There are ways that it reminds me of
St. Louis, and certain neighborhoods in Chicago; but the mountains are 3hrs west, and the
Atlantic is 3hrs East. Nowhere is perfect; but North Carolina is an ideal patchwork of the places I
enjoyed the most while growing up.
As for our immediate community, we could not have anticipated that our neighborhood would be
so… groovy. I’m laughing about using that word; but it’s the best one I can find to describe it.
We and several of our neighbors keep chickens and / or grow food. There’s a mix of transplants
and native Durhamites, original or second generation residents, and a lot of families with
younger children have moved in over the last 7yrs.
We help each other if someone needs tools, extra hands for a project or pet sitting. We get
together for big and small occasions, and keep an eye out for each other's kids walking home
from the bus, or riding bikes. We’re all different people, who have lives and friends outside of
the neighborhood; but there’s also a really genuine sense of community.
The most challenging thing about living in the piedmont is probably the soil. No joke… it’s really
rough. We get all of the rocks and clay that you’d expect in the foothills of mountains which
means flash flooding and erosion are issues to contend with, when you’re not on flat land.
You’ve recently been studying Permaculture design. Tell us about that experience - what you’ve
learned and how you implemented Permaculture into your land here?
I stumbled onto Permaculture in 2015 while researching homesteading and sustainable living. I
was a big fan of the publication Mother Earth News, and they publish so many amazing
resources covering any off-grid subject you could think of. So the first book on Permaculture I
found was Permaculture: Garden Farming for Town and Country by Peter Bane. The principles
listed were almost an exact match with our personal goals for a “green homestead”.
Although the book covered a lot of land-use and retrofitting projects, I looked to the big ideas
regarding resource management / responsible consumption and started there. Permaculture is
so much more than organic gardening. That’s one of the first things I learned. So I started that
journey with learning to observe my environment, and the relationships present within it. When
we got our first containers and started a pocket garden, I found ways to collect and reuse gray
water, and make a patio-friendly compost bin. Outside of our home, we engaged more with our
immediate local economy by buying from the farmer’s market, and getting plants from a near-by
independent nursery vs. the big box store near the subdivision. Now that we have more land,
these are still some of the core ways I practice Permaculture. The difference is that now the
interactions I observe, and support are on a larger scale.
We can design for beneficial connections between our chicken coop / run and garden, manage
the woods around our home in a way that meets our needs while continuing to provide habitat
for the wildlife that was here before us. We understand how to build with the contours, and
constraints of the land, and consider the longer term implications of changes that we make vs.
imposing our will to design an attractive landscape. When we build and buy, we’re conscious of
our waste production by shopping thrift or reuse stores, and repurposing or sharing as much
leftover material as we can.
Over the years, I looked for programs to study Permaculture formally or get certified and they
were either too expensive, too far away, not flexible enough, or all of the above. Eventually, I
found The Women’s Permaculture Guild which offered a flexible online certification program. As
I learned more about Permaculture and some of its problematic origins, I was thrilled to find a
course developed and taught by women all over the world. It was just a matter of saving up for
the course, and making time for it. The lockdown this spring ended up being the ideal time to go
for it. Aside from the certification course, they offer so many free learning tools and programs.
It’s been a wonderful resource.
Do you plan to start using your Permaculture knowledge to create food havens for others?
While I can't commit to physically implementing Permaculture systems for other people, I would love to serve in the role of a design consultant and educator. The magic of Permaculture really kicks in when those who will be interacting with and/or living with the design engage in its creation. The organization, or individual client for any project is the nucleus of the design, and the key to its success and longevity. So I look forward to facilitating the process for others, and helping them navigate the stages of observation, discovery and development. Permaculture is a design system for sustainable living and land/resource utilization, and it works best when we share the knowledge, and methods giving others the agency to carry it out, and pass on what they've learned to someone else.
Do you have any books, podcasts, websites, etc. that you would recommend to people wanting
grow their own food and become more sustainable and self-sufficient?
Pathways to sustainable living are going to be as unique as the individuals that pursue them.
And now it’s a much more mainstream conversation than in the early 2000’s when I was reading
about slow living and the transition movement. Rather than sharing what I enjoy, I would
suggest that anyone who’s interested start their content search with a medium that resonates
with them, then mix it up. A simple search for documentaries, blogs, articles, hashtags on
instagram, and publishers will turn over more resources than you can imagine.
Beyond growing food, search out local farmer’s markets, co-ops, zero-waste supply shops, and
thrift stores. Learn how to cook enough of your favorite things that you can cut back on dining
out. Consider whether or not you can downsize anything in your life to conserve utility energy,
and your personal energy. I also highly recommend learning basic repair skills for clothes, and
The one thing I will always encourage folks to do is approach all research with a critical lens,
and gather from diverse sources. Unfortunately, we have to be really specific and intentional
about finding intersectional and BIPOC voices in the sustainability movement; but doing so is
critical to developing a perspective that reflects and is inclusive of our broader communities.
You run the blog Yellow Swing Garden, can you tell people what goodness they will find there?
Full disclosure, Yellow Swing Garden, is much more of a gardening journal than a traditional
blog. I wanted a space to write and share ideas; but I’ve never had the goal of it following a blog
trajectory, and gaining sponsorship or advertisers. It’s a platform where I’m finding my voice as
a gardening writer, offering some helpful tips, lessons I’ve learned in the process, intersections
of personal growth, and growing food.
I look forward to spending more time with my writing when our youngest starts school next year.
For now, I’ve made peace with the inconsistency, and am grateful it’s always waiting for me
when my schedule lightens up. Until then, I’m always glad to know that the content is helpful to
whoever finds it.
You were recently diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis - how have you been navigating through making changes to your routines to manage this autoimmune disease?
Since being diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, the biggest changes I’ve made have been in
my internal life more so than daily routines. We already ate a healthy, real food diet, with
minimal sugar and alcohol. I was physically active, and spent most of my day in motion. It’s also
not a prevalent family condition; so I had to be real about what stress was doing to my body. I’ve
stopped pushing through pain to get things done, confronted my perfectionist tendencies, and
become intentional about making time for quiet, prayer and meditation. The most recent change
is not starting my day by checking anything on my phone except the weather. Stress is sneaky
Being totally honest, the pace of our lives prior to moving to our current home was exhausting.
Between 2010 and 2017, I had three challenging pregnancies and two surgeries (one being an
emergency cesarean). We moved six times between being renters and three home purchases.
We also relocated over 1000 miles twice. I transitioned from a demanding career, to working at
home with our first child, to being at home full time after our second, and coordinated each
home sale, interim rental, new purchase, and relocation for my husband’s job.
I basically ran on adrenaline for seven years, and would cycle through burn-out and “powering
through” the next transition. So being diagnosed with RA was like being forced to slow down
and genuinely prioritize myself, and my health for more than a weekend at a time. Fortunately,
my husband has always been an amazing partner, and never hung up on traditional gender
roles. When I need help with kid-wrangling and household work or cooking, he doesn’t hesitate
to step in. It really balances the days when I need to rest more. I’ve also had to hand over some
of my power tools, and the building projects or more physical yard work that I enjoy. Now I focus
more on designing our projects in a way that he/we can build without too much strain.
For example, the 8x4 shed we bought for the chicken coop, has a full sized door. So I can clean
it, and turn over the deep litter while standing. I don’t have to hunch over or lift an awkward litter
tray. With our rocky, clay soil I designed a no-dig post anchoring system that utilizes