This Saturday I am honored to be a part of a 3 person panel at Madison’s Bringing Bioneers to Wisconsin conference that will be focused on “Beyond Backyard Bioneering”. My fellow panelists and I will be attempting to give some ideas to the attendees wishing to move beyond gardening, composting, and driving a hybrid. I will have the suburban side, and the urban sustainablitlity will be covered by James Godsil of Sweet Water Organics, a new Urban Agriculture enterprise in Milwaukee that is attempting to take Will Allen’s aquaponic principles and scale them up to a commercial size using an abandonded warehouse. Awesome! Covering more rural solutions will be Chamomile Nusz of Artha Sustainable Living Center – an incredible diverse and interesting farm that houses gardens, a B&B, and is a training facility for the MREA for renewable energy technologies. Heady company indeed!
I was asked to talk about the transformation that we are working on here in our little piece of HOA paradise. We are heading into our 6th year here and I must say it has been rather fun to go back through the posts from the early years, reliving my first reading of Gaia’s Garden and my growing understanding on how to build soils and start permaculture, but most of all it is healthy to remind oneself on just how far we’ve come in so little time. The picture at left was taken the week we moved in – almost exactly 5 years ago. The “soil” was in a wretched state – no topsoil, and so little microbial life that barely even weeds could grow. It is amazing looking back to think that within 3 yeas I was harvesting 500#’s of food from this desolation. And it is that story that I will be telling and teaching on Saturday.
When we moved in, the guilt of literally being Urban Sprawl weighed very heavily on me, and over that first winter I read David Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways. In the introduction Holmgren said something that grew into a stark commitment for me: that the suburban landscape that we on the environmental left so often lament, is actually one of our greatest resources. In no other time have so many people owned land – fertile, irrigated, arable land. In true Permaculture style, Holmgren was challenging us to take the “problem” of Suburbia and turn it into the Solution. Thus my quest to push our property’s productivity.
The project has had some simple guidelines. First, it was to be “normal” – no rows of corn in the front yard. In fact, due to our being in an HOA, the front yard was mostly off limits and even out back the edible landscape needed to conform somewhat to normal suburban aesthetics. Secondly, as we had small children and rather large dogs we decided to leave more than a bit of lawn. In fact over half the backyard was given over to the playground and grass for frolicking. That left about 4500 sq ft for our little experiment.
We started with 2 raised beds, about 80 sq ft each and discovered very quickly just how depelted our soils really were. Even with 4″ of store bought soil amendments, our corn was a whopping 24″ tall the first season back in 2005. This was when I really started to dig into fertility management and started to read books like Gaia’s Garden which taught me about the soil food web. Up went our compost bin, but with no trees or landscaping, there wasn’t much to put in it so we talked to our local coffee shop and have been composting 100#s of their slop a week for the past 4.5 years– that’s about 12 tons of organic matter that dodged the dump and is now living a new life under our gardens. With adding not only that organic matter, but more importantly the microbial life from the compost the stage was set for me to begin putting my growing knowledge of temperate permaculture into practice. We planted a small 500 sq ft garden of prairie plants, and 80′ of fence line went into red clover. I went to the local nurseries and paid attention to what flowering plants the pollinators were swarming, and then bought them by the dozen. In went nitrogen fixing shrubs and mulch making plants like Russian Comfrey.
By the end of our third year the garden was beginning to “pop”. The soil was becoming richer and we could now actually find a worm or two when transplanting. Our harvests were finally coming in – the raspberries and strawberries were producing and we were now up to 4 vegetable beds. We had built 2 rain gardens and were considering putting in larger, more permanent plantings like a small permaculture orchard. In 2007 our total harvest from those 4 beds with the 2 additional beds of small fruit netted us an impressive 500#’s of harvest – from about 500 sq ft– and even began to sell produce to the coffee shop that we got the slop from forming a nice resource circle.
The next year, 2008, we decided to try our hands at Market Gardening, growing potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, and peppers at a permaculture designed farm 10 miles north of our home. This was fantastically successful at not only allowing us to grow 1500#s of potatoes, but also at completely burning me out. I found it very hard to divert my attention between the two projects and our home gardens suffered. Still, the addition of 5 fruit tree guilds to the 2 in front and 3 more vegetable beds at home meant that our harvest was still increasing – this time to about 750#.
Current readers will be fairly abreast of our current situation. In 2009 we continued to expand our Market Garden – this year harvesting about 2500#’s of potatoes and another several hundred pounds of tomatoes despite the blight. The home gardens were mostly on hold with no significant plantings other than a massive expansion in our compost crops (60 comfrey plants) and the addition of several black locust trees.
After 5 years we now have 7 annual vegetable beds with more than a foot of rich topsoil, 7 fruit tree guilds deeply mulched with vibrant soil food webs, and with the exception of quack grass weeding, very little maintenance needs. This year we took our first harvests from the orchard – with both our peach trees producing, and two of our pears as well. All told we now have 11 kinds of fruit from the exotic hardy kiwis and paw-paw to the typical strawberries and raspberries. We have harvests from mid March’s spinach through to the last green sorrel of fall, and the potatoes and garlic last until late February. By the time the last pint of jam is eaten we are within weeks of the first strawberries – late May in warm years. Our children are growing up to know that its the rare plant they can’t eat in the backyard, and those they can’t they understand play a vital role in our mini ecosystem – fixing nitrogen, attracting “good” bugs, or providing food for the worms.
We are likely within only a year or two of obtaining our goal of growing 2000#’s of food in a suburban backyard with very few, if any, sacrifices from a “normal” yard. We live in a small town of about 1200 and have about 500 homes in/near our borders. In about 5 years, or less, we could be producing 1,000,000#’s of food within our borders – from protein crops like sunflower seeds and hazelnuts to calorie crops like potatoes and corn in addition to the nutritional vegetables and herbs. If every 3 blocks were producing 50 tons of food we would be a long way towards re-localizing our society and a lot closer to transitioning to a less energy dependent tomorrow. The problems of our age are daunting when viewed from afar, but as Bill Mollison is fond of saying:
all the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.
We can do this.
Be the Change.