The pandemic-induced supply chain breakdowns were difficult for many local businesses but not for Brevard’s Leah Webb, whose business, literally, flourished.
“It was the first time that some people really thought about the fact that they have zero self-sufficiency and so you had a lot of people for the very first time being interested in having the skill set and the infrastructure to grow food,” said Webb, who recently started installing edible landscapes throughout the county.
“With hardscaping, normally you’re thinking about things like retaining walls and things to make the landscape look pretty,” she said. “With edible landscaping, you might still incorporate retaining walls but then one of the hardscaping features is going to be craftsman-style raised beds. You can really create this beautiful look that’s super unique too, but doing it with things that you eat rather than things that are just for fun or beauty.”
Examples are using food and flower gardens to accent a home’s landscape that can be consumed and enjoyed instead of just looked at, like fruit trees, berry bushes, grape and tomato vines.
“When the pandemic first started our phone started ringing like crazy with gardening and landscaping questions,” said Bart Renner, the agriculture agent for Transylvania County, who works for N.C. State University’s Cooperative Extension. “Seeds sold out quickly and it was sometimes hard to find the seed varieties that people like.”
“Most of our landscaping questions do include some component of edible landscaping,” added Renner. “Leah has a lot of wonderful ideas for ways that you can incorporate fruits and veggies into your landscaping.”
Webb is from Banner Elk, North Carolina, and received her bachelor’s degree in environmental ecology from Appalachian State University. Later, she received a master of public health degree in environmental health sciences from Georgia Southern University, where she taught environmental science youth labs. She currently gives lectures on health and nutrition, runs her own plant business and this past weekend worked to install Brevard Academy’s new educational garden.
Many plants that she uses for her installations are grown at her home. She has a three-quarters-of-an-acre organic garden which over the last seven years she has developed into over 3,000 square feet of growing space, built a 350-square-foot greenhouse and houses 11 laying hens.
Webb said she’s always been interested in growing organic food and used her scientific background to develop healthy meals plans when her two children were diagnosed with medical conditions. Her 7-year-old daughter has cystic fibrosis and her 10-year-old son has severe allergies and carries an EpiPen with him due to anaphylaxis.
“Nutritional status effects every aspect of disease, whether it’s from the development to the outcomes, and so food has always been important,” she said. “But then having two kids with medical needs, I just knew that food was going to be such an important part of their integrative care. It’s not like this is all we rely on, but this is just one piece of the puzzle.”
Webb’s cookbook, “The Grain-Free, Sugar-Free, Dairy-Free Family Cookbook: Simple and Delicious Recipes for Cooking with Whole Foods on a Restrictive Diet,” was published in 2019.
Her upcoming book, “The 7 Steps to Homesteading,” will hit shelves April 2023 and details how to become more self-sufficient and enjoy organic gardening, encouraging people to start small and build out.
“I’d signed the contract to write this gardening book right when the pandemic started,” said Webb. “And then watched this uptick in interest in gardening, watching people really thinking about their food supply. I even increased my growing space because I wondered, ‘What is going to happen?’”
The act of homesteading is to become less dependent on purchasing food and other necessary items by growing them or producing them at home.
“There are many aspects of self-sufficiency that would go beyond the garden, including hunting, fishing, woodworking, etc.,” said Renner. “From that perspective, many people in Transylvania County are homesteaders. It wasn’t that long ago that many people in this county still relied heavily on what they could produce on their own land to feed themselves.”
This has changed dramatically in the past 30 or 40 years, said Renner.
“There is still a strong tradition of gardening and self-sufficiency in this community but our time is more valuable than ever,” he said. “It’s hard for many people, especially working families, to find the time to maintain a garden and grow their own food. It’s very rarely that I find a family unit that gets more than 5 percent of their total calories from their own property. They certainly exist, but they are rare.”
Homesteading recently has become romanticized on social media, said Webb.
She said it’s important to remember that it is expensive.
She’s spent between $25,000 and $30,000 over the past seven years, and the work can be hard, boring and redundant. Only recently has she been able to cultivate enough compost and she still buys between $300-$500 of seeds annually.
“It’s easy to get on Instagram and look at what I’m doing or what other people are doing and think, ‘Oh, let’s jump right in I want that, too,’”, she said. “The reality is that every single one of these people you’re looking at, you’re looking at a skillset that’s taken decades to develop.”
“People seem to have realized that gardening is hard work, and they don’t have the time they might have had during the pandemic,” added Renner. “That being said, the pandemic was another reminder that it’s important we don’t forget skills like gardening and food preservation, even if it is a hobby. If we compare the value of food that we can grow and preserve versus what we can purchase by working for an hourly wage, it doesn’t make financial sense to focus on gardening.
“But I think a big part of homesteading is taking the time to get control of your relationship with what you consume. When our food has a story that we feel good about, our relationship with what we eat and the ecosystem and what nurtures us starts to improve and we become healthier. I think that’s the real value in homesteading. It’s not something that we can easily quantify, but it’s so important.”
To be a successful homesteader, the everyday gardener doesn’t necessarily have to grow all their own food, make their own soap or ditch the family car for a horse. There is a modern, less-intensive but still impactful way to homestead within Brevard’s city limits.
“I focus on growing the things I really like to grow and like to eat and things that are expensive in the store,” said Webb. “So leafy greens are probably one of my top things because of the quantity of those that we eat.
“If I’m going to make a soup, I would probably need four bunches of kale from the store and that’s going to be like $15, because it cooks down.”
She also grows garlic, onions, sweet potatoes, potatoes, winter squash, cabbage and dahlias.
She grows loofah gourds, which are used to make bath sponges, and decorative gourds for her children to have as fun arts and crafts activities.
“If more people do a little bit and we have more people transitioning over into these types of practices, maybe over time this can be impactful,” she said. “I think a lot of people doing a little bit is more important than a few people doing a lot.”