Mad as a Gardener

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Scribner


A few years ago, Manny Howard was coerced by New York magazine to try growing food in his Brooklyn backyard and sustain himself on it for a month. Manny wasn't really committed to exploring the meaning of "locavore" (the magazine's tack); he loves wild challenges of just about any kind (hunting boar or bear, making a film in Afghanistan ...) and New York knew they had their sucker.

In trying to create "the farm," Manny got SO deep into something he had no clue about that he almost lost his marriage (and a finger). He spent months preparing land that had not grown a thing in decades, nurturing seedlings under makeshift grow lights, rigging chicken coops, building an irrigation system, trying to get rabbits to breed—learning on the job. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, including a hurricane landing in Brooklyn, right on the farm. He lost 29 pounds.

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Andrew Eccles

In a recent interview in Elle magazine, Manny described the biggest challenge:

"Well, I could break it down to most miserable, or most discouraging, or generated the most self-loathing. Those are probably the categories. I was so crazy and myopic. I was dedicated to finishing the project. I really became a lunatic. Fix what's broken, heal what's sick, feed what's hungry—which was the real gift of the whole project: Apply work to a problem and the problem would be gone for, you know, seven hours. Nothing ever actually got fixed or healed."

The article Manny wrote for New York was great, and his book about his year or so spent farming in Brooklyn, which came out at the end of April, is even better—riveting actually. My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into a Farm is a strangely escapist sort of read: you get to vicariously experience starting a farm, and you get to witness follies, mistakes, and passions as big as your own.

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Sally Schneider writes The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog about improvising as a daily practice. Her cookbook The Improvisational Cook is now out in paperback. More

Sally Schneider is the founder of The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog that inspires you to devise, invent, create, make it up as you go along, from design and cooking to cultivating the creative spirit. It's been called a "zeitgeist-perfect website." She is a regular contributor to public radio's The Splendid Table and the author of the best-selling cookbooks The Improvisational Cook and A New Way to Cook, which was recently named one of the best books of the decade by The Guardian. She has won numerous awards, including four James Beard awards, for her books and magazine writing.

Sally has worked as a journalist, editor, stylist, lecturer, restaurant chef, teacher, and small-space consultant, and once wrangled 600 live snails for the photographer Irving Penn. Her varied work has been the laboratory for the themes she writes and lectures about: improvising as an essential operating principle; cultivating resourcefulness and your inner artist; design, style, and food; and anything that is cost-effective, resourceful, and outside the box.
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