There's no mistaking Spring Warren's house along a shady residential street in Davis. It's the one with no lawn in the front yard. In its place is an edible garden. It's a very big garden, but much smaller than the one that occupies most of the backyard. That one's massive and, to any weekend gardener, intimidating.
Combined, they have occupied a good portion of Spring's life over the past three years, along with those of her family. But that's been a good thing. Mostly.
How did this happen? She explains in her entertaining and informative book, "The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn and Fed My Family for a Year" (Seal, $17.95, 336 pages).
After accumulating concern over such national headline-making issues as salmonella outbreaks, chemicals in the food supply and other consequences linked to industrial agriculture, the longtime gardener and then-vegetarian-to-be made up her mind to commit to a yearlong "experiment."
After a troubling multistate road trip ("At roadside cafes, we wondered ... how the vegetables had been grown, stored and washed," she writes), she announced to her family that 75 percent of all the food she would eat for a year would come from their garden, and invited them to "join me in this venture." The garden she envisioned would be on a much larger scale than her hobbyist gardens of the past. Closer to a mini-farm, as it turned out.
That was in June 2008. The reactions from family members were mixed. At a recent family gathering at the dining-room table in their home, husband Louis Warren, a history professor at the University of California, Davis, recalled, "I told her, 'You can't do that, you'll starve.' But she was persistent and it went really well. She makes me proud to have been wrong."
"I was living out of the house, so I was rather excited," said son Jesse, 27, who lives in Winters (where his front yard also is a vegetable garden) and works for the Harris Moran Seed Co. of Davis. He'd been in the business of setting up edible gardens, so his expertise was invaluable. "Mom had always had a garden, so I liked the idea. There's magic there."
Jesse went a step further and drew the illustrations for the book, under the name "Nemo."
"I was willing to let her give it a try, if I was not forced to give it a try, too," said son Sam, 17, a junior at Da Vinci Charter High School in Davis. "I was worried she wouldn't have enough food. The first month was the Month of Zucchini, when the summer garden produced nothing but that (because, Spring said, 'I wasn't prepared'). But as the project went on, there was a greater variety of food and more of it. Then I was really excited."
"I've been coming here for meals for about seven years, and Spring has been an inspiration," said Nicole Salengo, 28, Jesse's fiancée and the assistant winemaker at the Putah Creek Winery in Davis. "I grew up on the East Coast, eating canned corn and beans with dinner. So to grow something from a seed in your garden and have it on your dinner table is amazing."
The Quarter Acre Farm project "began in a somewhat antagonistic manner," Spring allowed, preparing to lead a visitor on a garden tour. "I thought it was the greatest idea in the world and everybody else was going to be excited. When that didn't happen, I felt like, 'I'm going to do this in spite of you.' I went through a lot of learning curves."
Perhaps inspired by her resolve, the others joined the team to make the Quarter Acre Farm an ongoing family project, with each member contributing something essential.
"I do a lot of the heavy lifting, as do Sam and Jesse," said Louis. "Spring has the vision for how things are going to look, so she tends to direct and we follow that."
Both the front yard and backyard gardens are crowded with planter boxes, galvanized-steel trellises, fruit trees and plants in various stages of productivity. Paths of carefully arranged paving stones wind their ways through the greenery, layers of wood chips have taken the place of grass, and flowering bushes pop up throughout the landscapes.
What do the neighbors think?
"We have the greatest neighbors in the world," said Spring. Some have been inspired to plant their own gardens.
"I have a lot of flowers - lavender, marigolds, daisies, volunteer poppies - because they draw beneficial insects like soldier beetles and parasitic wasps that take care of aphids, nematodes and the rest of the bad creatures that eat the garden," she said. "If you listen, you hear the bees; they're all over. I've been stung while biking, but never in my garden."
In the front garden, Spring points out fava beans, celery, tomatoes, pomegranate and fat green onions.
"We do lots of canning and dehydrating," Spring said, moving past a budding cherry tree, pole beans, black-eyed peas, two kinds of melon, cranberry beans, several varieties of squash including zucchini, lettuces, beets and rhubarb. She stopped to move aside the leaves of a bushy artichoke plant, revealing a hefty vegetable.
"It's going to have a good heart," she said.
There's more of the same in the backyard garden, plus strawberries, blueberries, two kinds of muskmelon, sorrel, chives, chard, peppers, basil, spinach, fennel, sage, thyme, borage, three kinds of eggplant, and jujube, nectarine, orange and pluot trees. Plus a massive olive tree "with the best olives ever. We dry and salt them."
Spring bent to pluck a prickly, distinctly shaped leaf off a low-lying plant.
"This is lamb's tongue," she said.
"I had lamb's tongue for the first time at Poggio restaurant in Sausalito. It was delicious," I said.
"Yes, it's very mild and good in salads. ... Oh, you mean real lamb's tongue?"
Yes, I said, and instead of being horrified, her distinct brand of humor came through: "Oh, poor lamb. Walking around having to do sign language with its little hooves ..."
At one end of the garden - past the koi pond and near the compost bins and hay bales - is the "critter" area. Eggs from the chickens and honking geese end up in the kitchen, while the "bunny berries" from the rabbit hutch are used as fertilizer.
For her planting mix, Spring mixes soil with compost and leaf mold until the mixture feels just right.
Her method of procuring free wood chips is ingenious: "I keep an eye out for tree trimmers in the neighborhood. I ride my bike over and ask the guy in charge, 'Would you dump your chips in my driveway?' We're always putting down chips."
How does the family handle all the produce production?
"I do give away a lot of what I have extra," Spring said, eyeing the fava bean bushes.
Louis added, "You can't control the (production) schedule when you're getting this much variety. When the (produce) turns ripe, you have to pick it. That means you don't always have control over your time - or your weekends - but it's worth it."
Spring is the author of "Turpentine" and is at work on a second novel. How does she find time for both the writing and the farming?
"It took five to six hours a day for 10 days straight to get everything planted and fertilized for the summer garden," she said. "But from now on, I'll just go out and pluck something or cut something back, 'pleasure-fussing' until it's time to pull up the summer stuff and grow the winter garden."
The Quarter Acre Farm has opened a fascinating world to Spring and her family.
"We've met incredible people because of this - cheesemakers and vintners, people with goats and (devotees) of the 'slow food' movement."
Beyond that, the garden offers easy availability, vegetables and fruits with superior flavor, and the emotional satisfaction of growing your own.
"There's nothing like standing under a tree or by a bush and just picking and eating lunch," Spring said.
With such a bounty, it's hard for her to choose her favorite crop.
"I have to say tomatoes. ... No, cherries. ... No, tomatoes. ... But the oranges are really good ..."
She paused, then, "Apples. When the apples come in ... I don't know. A great big tomato with a slab of feta cheese ..."
Finally, she took a breath and said, "Cherries!" And stuck to it.