This was the handout I gave to the DIY Del Ray’s “Urban Farm Tour” groups who visited my back yard last weekend:
Our micro-farmstead started out as a large brick patio in the back yard. I don’t know why the previous owner, or the original builder, felt like red brick floor in the middle of summer would make a great place to socialize. We knew we had to do something to break up the “pizza stone” effect during the hot summer months. Our raised beds run along the perimeter of the old patio – my husband built them as a Mother’s Day gift. The raised bed in the middle was added a few years later – another Mother’s Day gift. Some women get breakfast in bed. I get to hear a table saw going all day, and a lot of digging.
1) If possible, be married to an incredibly strong person (our new shed is a mini CrossFit gym). Digging is functional fitness!
2) Compost: The soil in our area is a thin layer of top soil over solid clay – not a hospitable environment for most plants, especially ones whose roots go deeper than six inches. Clay in the topsoil causes an impenetrable shell to form by mid-summer and prevents drainage, which causes root rot in the winter. Soil amendment is the way to go. We compost (deluxe double-barrelled composter was yet another Mother’s Day gift). But when we replaced the chain link fence along the side with a wood fence and wanted to plant asparagus, we needed to buy compost – a lot of it. We dug 960 pounds of compost – 24 40-pound bags – into the bed that runs the length of our back yard along the fence. Because asparagus is a) labor-intensive to plant and b) dies if it’s waterlogged over the winter.
3) Scale: More is Different
To people who have one or two raised beds with herbs and a couple of tomato plants, I say: enjoy it! Be happy where you are! It’s too late for me – save yourselves! But seriously, the pleasures of a small kitchen garden are different than those of a nano-farm in your backyard. Small kitchen gardens are easy to weed – you can keep them looking pretty with minimum effort. When you go from dozens of square feet to hundreds, you make peace with the fact that a certain amount of crabgrass will get to enjoy the lovely compost you laid down. It’s not going to be perfectly weeded and pretty because it’s not a dollhouse.
4) Harvesting: Be Careful What You Wish For
I thought it would be great to have five kinds of beans in the garden – an heirloom foodie cornucopia of haricot verts, yellow wax beans, purple beans, bush and pole beans. Harvesting these beans became a nonstop, daily field-hand chore. I did learn my lesson about too much zucchini (after four seasons of family and neighbors dutifully accepting bag-fulls of it). Now, zucchini is a baby-vegetables-only proposition. But I totally overdid it with beans. Which leads to:
5) The Slippery Slope: Preserving. You are lucky I’m not slipping a Ball jar of dilly beans through your open car window as we speak. Damn you, Del Ray Variety Store canning-and-preserving section!
6) Bird Net is a Double Edged Sword: We net our tomatoes because if we don’t the critters get them (they don’t eat whole tomatoes – they take small bites out of multiple tomatoes). The bird net makes it harder for critters to get the tomatoes. But it also makes it harder for people to get the tomatoes, or tend the tomatoes. It’s a trade-off.
7) Fruit is More Delightful Than Vegetables
But fruit is more fun than vegetables, especially if you have kids. We have figs ripening up on the big tree to the left of the porch, and blackberries along the side fence in the front yard. Scuppernong grapes grow on the tall trellis against the west (driveway) wall, and passion fruit vines grow sort of wild on the other side of the house.
The tree in the middle of the strawberry patch in our front yard is a sour cherry tree – this year we harvested enough for a pie (it’s a young tree). Half of our front yard (between the driveway and the path) is strawberries – we got 11 lbs of strawberries out of that strawberry patch by the end of the strawberry season. And by “we” I mean the kids, 8 and 4. There is something primal about children foraging for fruit. And fresh-picked strawberries that have been warming in the sun are a different fruit than the kind you buy in stores or even at a farmer’s market. The moment that strawberry is picked, the aroma of it, and the warmth of it as you bite into it, is unlike anything else. People talk about the difference between a vine-ripened tomato and a store-bought tomato. But the difference between a store strawberry and sun-warmed, just-picked strawberry is even bigger.
Gathering fruit and eating it out of hand is what I want my kids to remember from their childhoods. Strawberries are hardy in this area – they survived this year’s harsh winter like champs. And they reduce the amount of yard you need to mow. Highly recommend as a ground cover. Note: there’s a fence and a lilac-bush buffer between the sidewalk (i.e. the neighborhood dogs) and the strawberry bed.
8) Children’s Garden Beds: Our kids have had their own garden beds starting at age 4. We plant tulips for the spring and the child’s choice of flower or vegetable in the summer. My daughter’s bed has popcorn and marigolds. My son decided he wanted to be an edamame farmer, since that’s his favorite food. It’s great for kids to choose what they want to plant, bury the seeds, and have some basic responsibility for watering. Better still, they get to decide when to cut the flowers and who they’re going to share them with, and they get bragging rights at dinner or during winter when we pop the popcorn. It gives kids ownership and a real sense that they’re contributing to the family in a way that’s real, that doesn’t patronize them.
The children’s beds won’t be dutifully weeded, watered or harvested, but that’s OK. It’s important to teach the importance of watering, weeding and harvesting to keep flowers and veggies producing. It’s also important to let kids fail. Untended plants will croak. Let it happen.
9) Bees: A New Adventure: You’ll notice a beehive along the side fence in the back yard, almost parallel with the back porch. We’re raising them a) to support the honeybee population, which is cratering across the country, b) to pollinate our own fruits and vegetables, and c) because my husband has seasonal allergies and local honey is supposed to alleviate that. Our bees are Carolinian bees – they’re very docile, and we’ve only had one sting (a bee flew into my son’s hair, and my attempt to push it off his head frightened it – little Jack turned to my husband, pointed an accusing finger and cried, “She made it sting me.”
10) Don’t be afraid to mix flowers and veggies. We have dahlias and cosmos, and sunflowers mixed in, or alternating with melons, okra, and everything else. Tall, bold flowers are fun to throw into the mix – they reinforce the “garden-ness” of an urban farm, and they create a luxuriousness of backyard bounty. After all, if you didn’t grow vegetables, you’d buy them at the store. Armfuls of flowers? It seems extravagant, almost Victorian, to have flowers in every room. But if you grow them, that’s what your kids (especially little girls) will cherish: being able to cut flowers, arrange them, and put a vase in everyone’s bedroom. It’s very gratifying for little girls (and grown-up girls) to be able to do that.
11) Hazelnuts: Time Will Tell. We have some very young hazelnut shrubs along the front fence, which will hopefully pollinate the corkscrew hazel in front of the porch (they’re grown for their ornamental branches, but do make nuts if pollinated by other hazels). Who knows? The urban farm motto is, “It’s all an experiment.”
If I had one wish for the neighborhood, it’d be for people with enough space in their yards to plant hardy pecan trees – they get tall, create great shade, and pecans are really tasty. Willis Orchards sells hardy pecans, from yard-high saplings that cost around $10 to 8’-9’ young trees that cost around $100. We don’t have the space for them – but if another derecho wiped out the big maples in our back yard, I’d want to plant a couple of hardy pecans.
2014 Year To Date Garden Harvest:
31 bouquets: tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, roses, irises, peonies, sweet peas, dahlias
1/2 lb spinach
7 lbs. radishes (French breakfast, purple daikon – eaten fresh & pickled)
11 lbs strawberries
4.5 lbs spring peas
1/2 lb arugula
7.5 lb beets (chioggia, Touchstone gold)
3 lbs Sungold cherry tomatoes
6 lbs baby(ish) zucchini
22 lbs heirloom tomatoes, vine ripened
13 lbs green tomatoes
14 lbs string beans, five varieties (“Velour” and “Capitano” are favorites)
2 lbs shell beans
4 lbs okra, Clemson spineless and Red Burgundy
2 lbs edamame
3 lbs leeks
1/2 lb cucumbers
1 lb figs
Still growing or ripening: sunflowers, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, dahlias, one tomato plant, grapes, leeks, okra, edamame, beans, popcorn, figs
Fall planting: brussels sprouts, chard, beets, kale, arugula, cauliflower, romanesco