For Jason, such moments with his mother would help shape his own career in landscape design, which fittingly celebrates the earth's beauty and bounty. Three decades hence, he has become the teacher, sharing his knowledge of organic farming and sustainability with his mother and others, as well as his belief in vegetarianism, a lifestyle Bari since has adopted. Their garden collaboration, averdant oasis in Montgomery, is firmly rooted in their mother-son bond.
"I began realizing maybe a garden could actually be enjoyable," Bari says. "A place where I wouldn't have to worry about work, and everything being so perfect." Jason was happy she'd seen the light, but a simple flowerbed didn't make complete sense to him considering Bari had begun following an organic vegetarian diet. A kitchen garden made more sense—one with Southern styling, like Bari imagined. "Most people think vegetables aren't attractive," Jason says. "What I wanted to help do was prove otherwise."
"It really brought us closer together. It's a thread that leads us to still talk almost every day." The garden would enlist locally sourced materials, water-saving techniques, and organic products. The mother-son phone calls were nonstop. "Jason kept saying, 'It'll be fine. There is a method to the madness,'" Bari recalls. To which Jason says with a laugh, "You can't imagine how fun it is doing irrigation long distance."
Tending the land and harvesting its bounty also has taught her a lesson: "I like things in order and always have," she says. "My careers have trained me to be that way. But gardening has helped me to relax. It's a living thing that you just can't control. I'm now more accepting that some things just happen."
Jason echoes his mother's positive sentiment. "I love that this has been something we could share," he says. "It really brought us closer together. It's a thread that leads us to still talk almost every day." Except for one thing. Since she's become more comfortable with the garden and the ebb and flow of planting seasons, "she now has Auburn University and the Montgomery County co-op on speed dial," he says with a sly smile. "Not me."
To extend the growing season, Bari Levin protects her vegetables with metal hoops and frost cloth, a medium-weight permeable row-cover fabric. These protective hoop houses trap warmth near the plants, giving 6 to 8 degrees of frost protection on cold nights (or a few degrees more with a double layer of fabric). They keep out wind while letting in sunlight and moisture. Bari explains how it's done:
1. Cut 10-foot lengths of "ladder" reinforcement wire (sold at building-supply stores for reinforcing concrete-block walls) in half so that each section is 5 feet long by 6 inches wide. Bend each section of wire into an arch.
2. Place the arches 4 to 5 feet apart along the length of the bed. Insert the wire ends 4 to 6 inches into the ground for stability.
3. Cut a rectangle of frost cloth about 6 feet wide and 6 feet longer than the bed. (The cloth is also sold in large rolls, but Bari says the ease of working with smaller pieces of material far outweighs the cost savings of a bulk roll.) Drape the frost cloth over the arches, leaving sufficient material on all sides to secure it to the ground.
4. Use clothespins to clip the frost cloth to each section of wire. Hold the fabric edges snugly against the ground with wire anchor pins, stones, or lengths of pipe. Unclip and raise the frost cloth to harvest plants and when the weather conditions are more favorable.
Soft on Worms
Bari Levin uses a three-layer Can-O-Worms vermicompost bin—a holiday gift from her son Jason—to produce liquid organic fertilizer from the castings of well-fed red wigglers. This self-contained composting bin has stacking trays where the worms turn food scraps into fertilizer. Coconut fiber serves as worm bedding, and newspapers help maintain moisture.
Note: Some soil scientists recommend freezing worm castings before using them as fertilizer to avoid introducing nonnative, invasive worm species to the garden.