HOA meets CSA

So as the realization that the farm is at least 3, and probably 5+ years out sinks in I have refused to let that get me into a funk. Those 3 to 5 years are an opportunity for me to learn, experiment, and grow in an environment that is both safe and challenging: the Suburban Backyard.

Earlier this year on a post at Groovy Green I threw a glove down by saying that I would like to grow upwards of a half ton of produce from my 1/2 acre lot in Zone 5b Suburbia. I am taking that resolution seriously and am investing heavily in both research and plants to make it a reality. But it is bigger than a number-in fact I trace it back to one of my mentors: David Holmgren. Holmgren, in his book Permaculture, made a comment that is haunting me. It can be paraphrased as referring to Suburbia as the Salvation of the 21st Century. WHAT?!! His point is that in almost no other time have so many people owned a plot of land for themselves. Right now those 1/2 acre plots are massive ecological deserts soaking up resources, but what if a few pioneers turned the paradigm on its head and showed what could be done on a sub acre lot in a subdivision. Authors like Sara Stien in Noah’s Garden, and the entire Urban Gardening (or City Farm) movement are trying to do just that. Making food and sustaining yourself on a 5 acre plot is fantastic and still the dream, but what about the other millions that will need food in the near future. We are a net exporter of food only because of oil-that will change in our life time.

I guess in the time that I have in the Land of the Home Owner’s Association I want to see what I can do to add to the Victory Garden tradition of urban gardening. When I start spouting off at work about my gardens-people ask if I have any lawn at all. In fact we still have over 1/3 of an acre of lawn on a 1/2 acre lot. My food gardens are only about 1/8th of an acre as far as space I have set aside in the Master Plan, but in reality it is only about 1200 sq feet right now-with only 2 fruiting shrubs and some brambles augmenting the veggies and strawberries. But in that we eat from our garden from May through November and once the Filberts are online will grow protein, starch, as well as fruits and veggies. We stretch our harvest by “putting food by” in sauces and storage.

We also stretch our labor around by shifting as much of the load to perennials or “come again” crops like Sunchokes as we can. Using those sunchokes as an example. They produce as much, or more, pounds of food per sq ft as a potato and take as the same amount of work to put in and harvest. But once established, from now until eternity (you can’t eradicator them!) all you have to do is harvest. No fertilizer, no watering, and no planting. Every Fall I turn the bed harvesting tubers as I go by the 5 gallon bucket load, and then I lay the stalks down as mulch and store the tubers in the buckets with wet sand in the basement (50 degrees). This saves me about 2 days in the spring of work, and about $30 in fertilizer and seed potatoes vs the annual crop. In return I get over 50lbs of tubers for free!

I want to see what else I can do with perennials. I am trying to debunk the theory of the need to rototill your strawberry patch every 3 years and replanting. How does that makes since? I have 2 berry beds: an early and a mid season. Last year on the midseason bed after the harvest I took my digging spade and turned under about 12″ every 3′ or so in the bed and let it replenish itself with runners. Into that I sprinkled some left over pellitized chicken manure, but compost would have worked as well. That was the entirety of my bed maintenance other than weeding. This year the strawberries are so thick I can’t tell where I tilled, and that bed is out producing my early bed 2:1 and they were dead even last year. This is the third year so time will tell, but I will continue my tilling strategy as it appears to be a huge success. It lets the bed reinvigorate itself and I can get by on 1/3 the space with no capital outlays.

I still have 2/3 of my “production” area to plant and even still I am planning on selling produce this year-I will have attained the permaculture criteria of a “surplus”. Sure I am still bringing in inputs in mulch and coffee grounds for compost, but they are all by products of my neighborhood. True sustainability in a Suburb is about community-we don’t live in the four walls of our plat of survey-we share in the resource web of our community.

I have about 10lbs of produce in so far in the first 10 days of the season, and I have alot of tubers and fruits to go. Agribusiness can get about 14,000lbs of corn off of an acre (200 bushels of corn/acre @ 70lbs/bushel), I would need to hit 1400lbs to beat that in my .1 acre production zone. That is huge… can I do it?

Time will tell, and I will need the fruit trees maxed out to do it, but this time next year I might have a CSA in my HOA and its a purely academic point because my strawberries beat the hell out of GMO feed corn in the taste department and I am carbon nuetral or better.

Be the Change!

5 Responses

  1. You really are an inspiration Beo.

    I really appreciate you sharing all your great experiments and trials. They really help those of us who also have small lots and are trying to maximize our growing potential.

    Keep being the change!

  2. Thanks!

    If I can hand my hat on one thing it is soil prep. Compost, vermicompost, deep mulches and green manures are what it is all about. I have almost no disease or pest pressure and weeds are lessening annually which frees me up for my hare brained ideas. If it wasn’t for Quack Grass I would have had a simple year so far. Healthy soil breeds healthy plants!

    What I am most excited about now is perrenial food crops. Stay tuned for the Guilded Orchard!

  3. Beo–
    SPIN-Farming provides a sligthly different angle to what you are trying to accomplish. SPIN measures success in dollars rather than pounds. The SPIN system provides a “franchise-ready” sub-acre farming model that enables people to earn significant income farming commercially in their backyards. If commercial backyard farming can be established on a large scale, it will help accelerate the shift back to a locally-based food system, and create a more healthy environment. Photos of SPIN in action are at http://www.spinfarming.com They may give you ideas on how to improve your operation.
    –Roxanne Christensen

  4. Thanks Roxanne!

    The Spin People are doing fantastic things and are a great resource for someone looking to jump in to market gardening. But they are just way ahead of what I am looking for right now. They call it “part time” but it is more intense than I am looking for at this time (though $40k would make it easier!) My soon to be 900 sq ft of annual beds combined with another several thousand sq feet of perrenial and tree crops will require very little labor which is fine right now. That said they can grow spinach and my crops have failed every single season for 3 years now…

    That said, for $85 when we get the market garden I might look into it-though ti appears that even the first 7 sections barely comes to 100 pages. Perhaps the 1000 pages of Jacke’s Edible Forest GArdens has me jaded, but I wonder about the comprehensiveness of it all. Still if it focuses more on harvest and marketing and lets Coleman and others teach you how to grow it would be worth it.

    Thanks for reminding me of them!

  5. How well do you think sunchokes would do with container gardening?

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