Local Food: The Road to Damascus

Of late I am on a mission to reconnect (sub)urban Wisconsin to get back to their roots. Literally. I want more people growing more of their food. My Sub Acre Ag project is grand -designed to permit a family of 4 to meet most of their vegetable needs for most of a year with good canning, or to trade/sell/donate the surplus at local markets or with neighbors. But its scale and complexity will most likely turn some people off, so I am also looking for a “Starter Garden” to encourage people to grow some food in their backyards… even if it is only in 8 sq feet. As many of you know the satisfaction gained and the sheer taste difference in growing heirloom carrots, strawberries, and herbs can be a great way to change perspectives; to have the scales fall from your eyes allowing you to finally see how far we’ve fallen in two generations.

I am envisioning a program in our county that would be able to work in partnership with city based sustainability groups, Master Gardeners, and local businesses and nurseries to establish a program to get more people growing more food. To that end I am looking for current groups that are promoting backyard growing in urban areas to get ideas and advice from.

So far I like the idea of Future Farmer’s Victory Garden’s 2007+ program -be sure to check out their video to see the community and education possibilities just in the building phase of the project. Their garden is small, but would still provide room for alot of plants with a dense interplanting ala sq ft gardening. The fact that it is so small actually works in its favor: it allows the use of high grade items like wood sides for the raised bed (I would use cedar here in WI) to promote aesthetics, it could be watered by hand from a rain barrel, and it is not overwhelming. Fertility would be easily maintained by adding compost yearly from small backyard bins. Essentially the garden would be input free using resources on site.
See already we have not only grown several dozen salads worth of food, but we are integrating at home water cycling, reducing waste streams through composting, and doubtless the simple acts of growing food will spur thought on how in hell ripe tomatoes are available in Wisconsin year round and why they taste like cardboard. Gardens are a great “in” to teach sustainability!

I know that many readers are involved in local gardening programs in their areas of the country. I would love to hear your thoughts as well as any other links to programs that we can learn from.

Be the Change.


18 Responses

  1. Admirable goal. I’m working on teaching the poorest county in Maine how to live richly off our land. It’s a struggle to get people to listen but once they do they get excited. Keep up the good work.

  2. I love these kinds of projects. I’m currently on the hunt (as you know) for information on how to get something like this going in my area. Good luck to ya.

  3. That’s a great idea. Kelly and I have talked about how much of a difference could be made in buying habits, consumption, fuel use, etc., if everyone grew, say, a tomato plant. I know of lots of people who keep small plots in their backyards, but no organizations that promote such a thing …

    This sounds like something that you could find grant money for. Maybe check out Wisconsin’s website to see if they offer anything–I know that PA has given grants in the past for community garden/agriculture education type projects.

    If you contacted some seed companies, maybe you could get them to donate seeds for you to put in starter kits that you could hand out to people. You know, lettuce, tomatoes, squash, stuff like that. Nurseries might be willing to chip in some of those cheapo little plastic pots.

    Keep us posted on what you find out!

  4. If you’re looking for established programs in other areas, you might be interested in talking to these folks: http://www.fourseasonscityfarm.org/

  5. Hi
    Your link to Victory Garden’s 2007+ is broken.

  6. Evan, its fixed… Thanks!

  7. Part of my challenge is adapting my own family to my progressively deepening shade of green. I have a feeling that through trial and error alone I will find out what things will get eaten and what will get left, in other words, an alternating cycle of abundance and scarecity of certain crops. When I have it I am hoping to use my excess as conversation starters with the neighbors. Most people around my area keep to themselves, and being shy myself doesn’t help, but I have to keep reminding myself that community is a key component of permaculture. This of course hinges on a good harvest, which I for some reason feel much more confident about this year.

  8. Kory,
    That is a pretty high level problem to have! I gave quite a bit of produce away last year -peppers, tomatoes, oregano, and LOTS of basil. We are the same way with the ghost neighbors, but we’re working on it… show up at their door with Holiday Cookies and they at least have to say thanks! Some have even started to return the favor which is cool. Surplus is one of Permaculture’s major end goals, to be sure.

    One of my favorite ways to get kids bought in is to have them help pick out the veggies for their garden. This year they are getting 80 sq ft for whatever, plus a sunflower house/maze to play in. Look for posts on that as we head toward the Big Thaw! Wathcing our 4 yr old eat Dragon carrots right from the ground, dirt and all, was priceless last summer!

  9. Early price lists from the hardware store look like we may just be able to get away with a simple compost bin/rain barrel/ raised bed set up for about $125 assuming the barrels and plants are free. Hoping to cut that to $50-75 with corporate sponsorship and grants in conjunction with the county group I am part of: Sustain Jefferson.

    First stab at the 15 sq ft layout contains:
    2 Tomatoes (1 cherry), 2 peppers, 1 cuke, 24 carrots, 8 romaine, 6 bush beans, and 36 bunching onions.

    This is a BIG switch from planning a 10,000 sq ft garden!

    If we can pull this off and get 50-100 of these going it will be HUGE!

  10. Hmmm…I’m a Flash programmer…I wonder if it would be possible to do a drag-and-drop garden planter on a square foot garden. You could pick your garden size (maybe offer 4×4, 4×8, 5×20 as starter sizes) and then drag circles representing plants onto the “raised bed.” You’d learn that tomatoes are huge, eggplants and peppers are interchangeable, and you get 6 bush beans per square foot.

    Or would that be overkill?

  11. I think that would be awesome Emily! I used Excel and spaced the grid to represent 4″ cubes, but that your way sounds waaay slicker!

  12. emily that would be really awesome, better yet if you can age it, say for instance your radishes are 35 days to harvest, advance the age of the garden and have it display a list of what you could fit in there based on number of days remaining till frost and the square footage available.

    I pondered something like that myself, but I’m more of a networking guy than a programming guy.

  13. First draft of garden planner: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~espring/dragDropGarden.html Still needs a lot of work but it’s a good start!

  14. Emily,

    That is WICKED COOL! Thanks!!!!!!!!! I am very interested if you pursue it further.


  15. very cool!

    my suggestion for a next step, custom dimensions for the bed.

    keep it up!

  16. Rob and Kory-

    I’ll work on it more this weekend, probably. Planned changes: a feature where you can click on the name of a month and the garden will show each plant at that month (good for zones 5-6 only at first) – so if you click on “April,” you’d see spinach seedlings, pea seedlings, and kale seeds. In July, you’d see half-grown tomatoes and the spinach would be replaced by pole beans, etc. This will also let you “stack” square feet with more than one vegetable. Also, I’ll put in a choice of bed sizes (or possibly custom bed sizes) and hopefully as many “repetitions” of items as you’d like (e.g., a dozen tomatoes).

  17. Emily, that is so cool!

  18. Ok, the garden planner is now public at on my blog. This is probably as finished as I’m going to make it, since GrowVeg has a full-functional program that does everything I’d hoped to do. It requires a subscription, but from what I’ve seen of it, it might be worth it!

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