You, too, can find the best of two worlds in your own backyard
Past the wall of wood, the strawberry patch, and the summer chicken coop under the maple-bough arch is the land of the jolly green giants. Twelve-foot-high sunflowers look down on rows of tomatoes (seven varieties), ferny asparagus, and potatoes. Pole beans clamber up a fantastic pine-branch trellis to make a fringed green wall between peppers and low-growing buttercup squash, onions, garlic, edamame, celery, carrots, leaf lettuce, spinach, and mesclun. Cucumbers dangle like ornaments from the back fence and fragrant herbs—basil, parsley, sage, and thyme—decorate the borders. A flash of graphic black and white interrupts the late afternoon sun on the humid greens, round reds, and swaying yellow and gold. That would be one of the five chickens that percolates with busy contentment in this bucolic scene.
St. Paulite Matt Reller goes in the front door of his neat, brick Cape Cod and emerges in the back forty. Forty meters, that is. It’s a standard city lot, flanked on three sides by similarly sized yards. Matt and his wife, Kristine Miller, an associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Minnesota, feel they’re living in the best of two worlds. “We both love being outside and gardening,” says Kristine, “yet we’ve always lived in the city. We can walk to the grocery store, and the bus stops right in front of our house. We wouldn’t want to give up that convenience.”
Even before Michelle Obama’s White House “victory” garden made headlines, urban farms were springing up like, well, like beans after a summer rain. Courtney Tchida, student program coordinator at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, started teaching a series of classes in urban farming three years ago. In 2009, there were three classes with 60 students per class; by 2010, the series grew to five classes with 80 students each. “The economy may be a part of it,” she says. “But mostly the trend has to do with people wanting to connect with how their food is grown.”
Whether it’s a reaction to a string of commercial food scares or simply wanting a sense of control over their own food, more urbanites are eyeing their spot of lawn as an under-productive ¼ acre. Tchida points to author/activist Michael Pollan’s books, Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, as seeds of urban farming. As the local food movement gathered steam, she says, more people have decided they want to participate on the front lines of the food system.
“There’s also some nostalgia there,” says St. Paul’s Egg/Plant Farm Supply owner Audrey Matson. “People are looking to do things their grandparents did, like canning and preserving.” As manager of a garden center, Matson took note when sales of herbs and vegetables doubled from 2008 to 2009. Stats like that, plus a 25-percent increase in the sale of Ball canning jars—and the fact that she had nowhere in St. Paul to buy supplies for her own backyard chickens—led Matson to open Egg/Plant in April 2010. The shop has exceeded sales predictions in most months and has a popular schedule of seminars and events.
Master gardener Barb Gasterland sees her Bryn Mawr urban idyll from a design perspective, the perfect marriage of form and function. “I view vegetables as beautiful, worthy of display,” she says. “The color and shape of an eggplant? Beautiful. Of course, they’re practical too: I have a hard time justifying annuals unless I can harvest something from them.”
To Gasterland, chickens also fall into the useful and beautiful category. Black Lace Wyandotte, Rhode Island Red, White Crested Polish—their names are as compelling as their rich patterns and colors. “It wasn’t really about the eggs,” she says. “It was my attraction to chickens, the way they look, their happy sounds. It’s like having an aquarium—the Zen of chickens. We’ve had them for over a year, and I still laugh when they run.”
Even beyond the beautifully colored fresh eggs they produce, chickens are great community builders—keeping them requires getting neighbors’ signatures on the poultry permit, and they entertain curious passersby. For Gasterland, chickens are a good way to care for the land: They eat food scraps, produce fertilizer to help grow vegetables from which the scraps come, and so on. And the chickens helped her get through the long winter. “I had a routine of letting the chickens out in the morning and shutting them up again at night. It wasn’t a chore. It gave me a reason to get out and experience a cold day.”
Jason Paschall and his family are also city dwellers with a yen for tending a plot of land. They moved from San Francisco to south Minneapolis because they could afford enough yard to produce food while still getting around by bike. “It doesn’t take all that much yard space to plant a vegetable garden or to house chickens,” he says. “It may take some creative thinking, but that’s pretty fun. We are considering a green roof on a garage remodel and putting the garden up there.” In an environment about as urban as it gets in Minnesota, Paschall has four chickens, tomato plants, raspberries, strawberries, herbs (his concession to ornamentation), beets, carrots, onions, and potatoes. He has a root cellar, he cans, and he makes salsa and ketchup. “I like producing what we eat, both for the local and the organic aspects,” he says. “It’s empowering to provide food for your family.” He combined urbanite with farmer easily. “If you already plant flowers, it’s not a big leap to vegetables,” he says. “And if you already have pets, chickens are not much different.”
Many urban farming converts are tempted rather than limited by their ¼ acre. “‘Can I do it?’ is the question that got me into this whole thing, and still keeps me going,” says Matt Reller, back in St. Paul. “Can I keep chickens over the winter? [Yes]. Can I grow hops from seed? [Yes]. I tried a peach tree and that didn’t make it, and neither did the peas, but the rookie of the year is these tomatillos,” he says, peeling the papery husk from a bright green fruit.
The dense foliage rustles and a Rhode Island Red darts by, followed closely by four-year-old Emmett, Reller’s son. Miller brushes a strand of hair from her eyes and studies the garden with the ever-forward eye of a farmer, wondering about next year’s rookie of the year. “I’m thinking of putting a bench right in the middle there, so you can sit and be surrounded by plants. Like a separate world.”
Tips for novice urban farmers
EDUCATE YOURSELF. Classes are available through university extension services, community education or, in the Twin Cities, Egg/Plant Urban Farm Supply. A simple Internet search yields literally hundreds of websites, books, magazines, and seminars on urban farming. Good places to get started: tcurbanag.com, a terrific local urban farm resource; growingpower.org, featuring the work of Milwaukee, WI–based urban-farming leader, Will Allen; johnjeavons.info, a primer on John Jeavons’s biointensive techniques; and patternliteracy.com, insights on permaculture from Gaia’s Garden author Toby Hemenway.
FEED THE SOIL. This can be as easy as raking fall leaves onto the garden, letting them decompose over the winter, and working them into the soil in the spring. Or make a compost bin for yard waste and food scraps. Or take advantage of the free compost site many cities have for residents.
TRY LIVESTOCK. Check your municipal codes for restrictions on keeping animals. Interestingly, inner cities are sometimes more lenient than suburbs. For example, the city of St. Paul allows hoofed animals, poultry (but no roosters), rabbits, and bees with an annual permit signed by 75 percent of neighbors within 150 feet. Residents of Bloomington who wish to have hens must keep them 50 feet from any lot line, making it almost impossible to have them unless the yard is exceptionally large.
Keep bees. Bees are second only to chickens as the favorite urban farm creature. Special bonus: MacArthur genius grant winner Marla Spivak teaches a course on beekeeping through the University of Minnesota extension service.
Or fish. If you’re already an urban farmer and want to do more, check out Will Allen’s aquaponics (growingpower.org/aquaponics.htm), to explore fish farming.
START SMALL. Only plant things you like to eat: Just because it’s common or easy to grow does not mean you should have it in your garden.
SAVE SPACE. If you have a really small space, consider succession planting (lettuce comes up early, take it out when weather gets hot and plant tomatoes in that space), or companion planting (low-growing early bearers use the sun before taller late bloomers take over). Utilize trellises and other vertical planting structures, or espalier fruit trees or grape vines. Ask your local garden center about space-saving columnar or dwarf tree varieties.
HIRE HELP. The folks at A Backyard Harvest (backyardharvest.wordpress.com) will help you plan, plant, and/or preserve your produce. Joan James and Coleen Gregor, the people behind A Backyard Farm, will take on as much or as little of the work as you want. Find them at abackyardfarm.com.
Sarah Barker, a St. Paul freelance writer, admits to a secret fascination with chickens.
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