So as the realization that The Farm of our dreams 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.

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!

10 Responses

  1. Are pounds the best measure of productivity? I suppose it’s an easy measure to take, which is not insignificant. Something you might try for good pounds-per-square-foot is hard squash. If you let the vines trail out of the bed, 10sq feet of butternut squash can yield 75+ lb of produce.

  2. I guess I am not sure what the best measurement is. I would prefer to measure “nutrition per sq ft”, but as I don’t have heavy lab equipment, but I do have a kitchen scale, I chose weight. Like you said, its easy. The 2000lb figure is really very arbitrary. After the third time someone said “you’re growing a ton of food in your yard” I thought I might actually try it! It gives me something to talk about at the lunch table at work anyhow.

    Potatoes and tomatoes of course add up quick-as will the apples, pears, and peaches in a few years, but we also do alot of greens, and the 60+ lbs of romaine and butterhead we grew this year was something to see. Bushels might also be a good measure. Some commenter’s have suggested retail dollars, but I will most likely stick with pounds. Not everyone conceptualizes a “bushel” well in abstract and weight is constant. It will also allow me to track yields as my soil improves with stewardship and experience.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Rob
    Have you considered adding a beehive? Relatively small footprint, additional garden benefits (pollination), high calorific value and delicious! I’ve been reading about birdchick’s first year with the bees at her blog and it sounds a) surprisingly fun and easy, b) surprisingly productive and c) unsurprisingly tasty.

  4. I have indeed! I am a HUGE fan of raw honey, and my grandfather, and his father were beekeepers-I even have their circa 1870’s book that they learned the trade from. Our little uns (4 and 5) may be too small for one more year and I will need to find a way to keep our greyhounds out of it if we chose to do it here in the HOA. It may be something that is more destined for the market garden just outside of town until I work the kinks out.

    Thanks for rekindling the idea!

  5. Great post! I have no doubt you will exceed your production expectations. I am intrigued by your comment about sunchokes-I’ll have to do a bit more research on that one (as I am in zone 5b as well).

    I hope to have a first year with bees this year too.

  6. Thanks Gina!

    Sunchokes, along with Russian Comfrey, Chives, and Sorrel are my all time favorite plants. Sunchokes have very little needs, and are essentially perennial since you can never find all the tubers.

    We actually had out first problems this year with what appeared to be pill bugs eating the tubes. I did essentially zero prep work in the soil to see just how tough they are-effectively planting them in subsoil. That seems to have asked a bit much of them so amendments will be in order next year. They are a prairie plant and are likely used to more than 1% organic matter.

    I have already made a few contacts on the bee keeping front locally, and it is looking likely that I will have a hive up late this year, or more likely 2009 due to the significant time investments needed in getting my two prototype gardens going while still working my day job.


  7. […] stocking up with fresh fruit gleaned from “ornamental” trees. Believe it or not, some HOA’s are embracing community gardens. There’s even a campaign to start a Victory Garden on the White House […]

  8. I enjoy your blog! I call a concept similar to the one you are describing a “backyard food production complex” or BFPC for those folks who enjoy acronyms.

    My system is based on low cost, finding synergies among various sub components of the complex…simple concepts like placing grape vine within my hoop house which houses a very basic Johnathan Woods designed Urban aquaponics system powered by solar, vermiculture, citrus trees, drip irrigation, plus fruit/nuts and raised beds…all playing a roll in a 50′ x 50′ complex which approximates the 1/8 or so of an acre which can be cultivated in a suburban environment.

    The key to this concept is planning. Asking questions about the orientation, soil, climate and shade are all very important. Then the selection of appropriate components follows. In such a small complex efficiency is a critical component…where to place a component is critical to assure that every bit of capability is squeezed out of a component.

    While I am in zone 8 I am certain that we can share information which is mutually beneficial in the refinement of these “micro farms”.

    Good luck with your efforts and I look forward to reading more about your efforts, discoveries and sharing your blog with others.

  9. Reference your strawberry bed in continuing production, I would be anxious about insect damage of two kinds.
    1) Virus degeneration leading to small/ bitter fruit. This is normally avoided by replanting with fresh runners before the aphids get to them.
    2) Vine Weevil. A small longnosed black crunchy beetle whose grubs eat plant roots just below ground level. The first indication is , in Spring, when rootless plants just fall over.

    I would like to discuss homebrew methods of pest control.
    In a Yardening community, if a neighbour is negligent or gets infected …bugs will take wing.
    The Irish potato famine , which also affected a lot of Europe, hit a whole community of Yardeners who were raising large families on tiny plots of recycled organically enriched land.

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