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Lessons in Suburban Farming from Holistic Gardener Aja Yasir

How to transform your backyard into a veritable food forest!
Written by
Haley Nagasaki
Topic:
In the Garden
August 25, 2021
August 19, 2021

On her eighth-of-an-acre plot in Gary, Indiana, Aja Yasir and her husband and children have transformed their regular suburban property into a dynamic ecosystem that provides nourishment for their family and for the local wildlife. Aja’s named her garden A Rose for Yaminah after her infant daughter, Yaminah, who passed away shortly before they family moved there. The garden offers more than fresh, organic food — it serves as a source of inspiration for their family and for the community at large.

“I think the garden saved my life,” she says.

“Our daughter passed away in 2016 and we closed on the house in the same year; we were both in a daze. I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. But every single day I would work in the garden, even if it was just moving the woodchips around or planting perennials – just sitting on the porch looking at everything was very therapeutic. Even now, if I’m feeling any kind of way, I just go out to the garden and see beauty: beautiful flowers and bees and butterflies.”

Before officially moving to the property, Aja traveled daily to go work on the garden. During her time of grieving, she found that this was the only activity that gave her solace.

“Gary is a very blighted city; however, when I pull up to this house, it looks nothing like anything else around. So mentally it helps me to stay focused on beauty. It allows me to focus on the truth that we have the opportunity to create our own reality and we don’t have to live in desperation. We get to create our reality and I think the garden definitely shows us that.”

Aja has some native fruit trees on her property, such as plum and pawpaw, and just this year she planted an import hazelnut tree she hopes one day will provide the nut milk and cheese that are staples in their plant-based diet. Hazelnut milk is a decadent dairy alternative that is expensive and difficult to come by at most conventional grocery stores, making its home-grown reward that much sweeter.

A Rose for Yaminah looks like a flower garden to the average person, but the flowers we grow are edible; even the squash have beautiful flowers. So it looks like a flower garden, but it’s actually a vegetable and mushroom garden. I converted the front, backyard and side yards into garden space, and native plants and herbs are the foundation of what I planted there.

Once the foundation of native plants was established, Aja introduced a variety of other exotic plants such as Japanese Ichi persimmon trees and even wasabi root, which she is growing for the first time this year. The food she produces is for home consumption by her family, and she recycles all their organic kitchen waste back into the garden soil via composting.

How Compost is Key to Regenerative Farming

Aja learned regenerative soil practices growing up with a family who composted and produced their own soil in outdoor heaps. While she now uses a fermenting Bokashi composter in the kitchen, growing up Aja had no idea plastic composting bins even existed.  

These days, after collecting the Bokashi compost from her kitchen bin, Aja buries the contents in a paper bag, two-to-three feet underground, where it decomposes into humus-rich soil. Gary’s sandy soil was a definite learning curve, but she has adapted to the environment by working a bit harder to build up the soil with organic matter.  

“When we first got here, we did sheet mulching, so we put down cardboard and then we put a lot of woodchips about two feet up over the lawn. The place was overgrown when we got here, but it was overgrown with mulberries, and mulberry leaves are great for chopping and dropping.” (Chopping plant matter and allowing it to decompose naturally on the ground.)

“My parents started regenerating their soil over fifty years ago in Chicago. My mom has a comfrey plant that’s about fifty years old. She gave me a piece of it, so I’m always chopping that down for the soil. I don’t pull weeds at all. I’ll cover them up with some cardboard, more leaves, and I plant right over them so everything becomes soil.”

The Chicago area receives the same amount of precipitation as Seattle, so Aja seldom waters her garden. But when she does, she uses rainwater rather than city water. Between the compost, kitchen waste and the collection of rainwater, Aja tends to a constant living cycle where water and organic matter are recycled back into her land — the way nature intended it.

From Journalism to Folk Herbalism and Holistic Gardening

Aja was born in Chicago, although her mother and father hail from Brookhaven, Mississippi; a town with a mixed rural feel and a population of about twelve thousand. Many of the agricultural techniques she learned were passed on down her family line, and now Aja and her parents are experiencing a yearning to this ancestral land.

Aja has recently taken on a new familial project as her father purchased acreage in Mississippi. While she intends on keeping the home in Gary, Indiana, she is developing future plans and projects such as homesteading and business building, in response to this “deep ancestral pull” to the land in Mississippi.

The family will continue cultivating and expressing themselves through this creation of life and stewardship of land, honoring the native flora and fauna, and introducing an array of other beneficial and exotic plants.

The diversity found in her garden speaks to the allure of home cultivation, offering more variety than what you might find at the store. Aja marries her practical and therapeutic home cultivation practices with her love of education by hosting a podcast called Abundant Living and Gardening, and speaking at conferences in similar fields. She also rallies behind the cannabis plant and personally started a NORML chapter this year in Gary, Indiana, as part of the national organization to reform marijuana laws.

Aja is also a writer and writes for a sports magazine. “It’s been really fun, and I’m just enjoying the ride. I’ve also been asked to come to the loyalist classes on regenerative agriculture to speak to the students,” sharing her knowledge and inspiring the next generation of farmers — urban, suburban, and rural alike.

How to Grow a Rose (for Yaminah)

The keystone plant of Aja’s nourishing home garden, the plant after which the garden was named for their daughter Yaminah is, of course, the iconic rose. With all of its breathtaking beauty, the rose also demands our respect with its unforgiving thorns. The rose might come across as an intimidating or complex plant for personal cultivation, but Aja assures it is easy and appropriate for all home gardeners to grow.

Don’t be afraid of the roses! People are so intimidated by roses, but my advice is to understand that roses and raspberries are in the same family. Often time they call for the same woody materials, like carbon-rich soil. So just like you would with raspberries, get your woodchips, use your leaves, and don’t plant a rosebush by itself. Go ahead and plant some herbs around it; they like to have companions. And that’s all, it’s very simple!

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