The first time Lisa Zerkle, 43, discovered the "endlessly fascinating power of a seed" was when she was in the fifth grade.
She found a seed in a grapefruit she was eating and planted it in a Dixie cup. Each time her family moved, Zerkle replanted the seed, marveling at its tenacity and what had come of it.
"It was a four-foot tree by the time I left for college," Zerkle recalls, crediting that simple seed with the genesis of her green thumb.
Several years later, when Zerkle and her husband, Andy, 44, were living in California, she lived next door to an enormous lemon tree that, unlike her grapefruit tree, bore large and plentiful fruit. Her neighbors were happy to share the bounty, and Zerkle relished the opportunity to simply pick a lemon if she needed one for a recipe.
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Many years, moves, and three children later, the Zerkles now have a garden of their own in their Cotswold home, one so expansive and productive it provides the vegetarian family with the bulk of their meals.
"The only produce we buy in the summer is bananas," said Zerkle. Everything else comes from the garden, and it has become a labor of love and a year-round endeavor for Zerkle, a writer, and Andy, an OBGYN with Bradford Clinic.
The Zerkles tried their hand at gardening when they first moved to Charlotte in 1997, digging up the expansive backyard of their rented home in Cotswold and planting it with "a crazily overly ambitious crop," said Lisa Zerkle. It was a big bust, with very little yield and huge sunflowers its sole success.
The Zerkles regrouped when they moved into their current home, planting a more modest crop of tomatoes, lettuce and basil in a simple raised bed. They happily tended their small garden until August 1998, when several factors inspired them to plant more.
Signing up for a weekly box of vegetables from a local farm cooperative helped them learn the seasons.
"You don't know what's in season by shopping at the grocery store," said Zerkle, "because everything is available all the time."
From the weekly farm deliveries, the Zerkles learned what they liked and began to grow those things themselves.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Lisa Zerkle, an avid reader, read two books that were extremely influential.
Michael Pollen's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" encourages readers to think through the moral ramifications of their eating habits, while Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" chronicles her year of procuring as much food as possible from neighboring farms and her family's own backyard.
"It was like a light bulb went off," said Lisa Zerkle. "I thought, 'We can do this.'"
Zerkle backed up her new fervor with classes offered by Mecklenburg County on native plants, the safe use of pesticides, and how to compost.
She started a compost pile at home and then, after taking a master composting class, started composting at both Elizabeth Lane Elementary and Randolph Middle School, where her children - Jackson, 15; Ivy, 14; and Eli, 11 - were students.
Armed with the knowledge that her composting would transform the dense clay into soil much more conducive to healthy plant growth, Zerkle decided to expand her garden again.
"Compost magically makes all soil better," she said. "It invites beneficial microorganisms into the soil and makes water available to the plant roots while also helping excess water drain away. And it gives lift to the soil so that plants can easily get their roots down."
For Andy Zerkle, who did not initially share his wife's gardening fervor, the transformative book for him was Wendy Johnson's "Gardening at the Dragon's Gate."
Once their garden became a shared passion, it took over both the front and back yards and yielded everything they received from their farm box - and then some.
"We knew it was time to make a choice," recalled Lisa Zerkle. "Can we live entirely off of what we produce ourselves?" The answer was a resounding yes.
The Zerkles have an extensive herb garden, and their fruit crop consists of strawberries; three kinds of raspberries (black, red and yellow); apple, plum, peach and fig trees; blueberry bushes; cantaloupe; and watermelon.
As for vegetables, the Zerkles - who credit their garden with expanding their palates - have a smorgasbord that includes, depending on the season: eggplant, assorted varieties of peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, squash, okra, potatoes, lettuce, kale, greens, onions, garlic, turnips, arugula, radishes, black-eyed peas and cow peas.
The planting, maintaining and harvesting of their garden requires a significant investment of both time and effort, but the Zerkles do not consider it a burden.
"It's not really work," Lisa Zerkle says. "I find it relaxing and endlessly interesting, because you never know what you're going to find."
Both Lisa and Andy pride themselves on the fact their garden is "the ultimate local food," because what they consume travels from their yard to their kitchen and then, thanks to their compost pile, back again.
"It is deeply satisfying to know that the only amendments to our garden are compost, sun and seeds," Lisa Zerkle says. Even the water they use is recycled rainwater they capture from the roof.
Zerkle also appreciates the lesson this imparts to her children, she said, who "think twice about throwing food away because they appreciate how much work went into getting it onto their plates."