How I Became an Organic Backyard “Urban Farmer!”

I should have been born with a green thumb! My grandmother is a natural in her flower garden and she passed the skill to my father. He has had gardens, really spectacular ones, for as long as I can remember. My earliest memories of my father are of him in the gardens he set up for the commune we lived on in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. We lived off of that garden. Dozens of people lived off of that garden. He went on to start the first co-op in that part of Vermont and eventually worked at both Organic Gardening and EatingWell magazines. It was his calling. Apparently the gardening gene skipped a generation. I inherited a deep appreciation for the food he was growing, but absolutely no abilities to create my own backyard garden.

This summer all of that is changing! My friend Barb told me about a program that would pair me and my tiny urban yard with a farmer, who would help me set up an organic backyard garden. I called the folks at the Backyard Harvest Program and asked them to come see if my rather pathetic yard was worthy of their project. Krista and Stefan came to the house and assured me that they could transform my space into an organic garden, full of over 30 varieties of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. The one thing my yard does have is sun, which is the one essential element.  They also promised to teach me and my boys every step of the process.

I signed up and now Stefan, the ever patient urban farmer, comes to my house about twice a week to garden with me and whoever happens to show up to help. This is what we’ve done so far:

(Here I am with Fran, Patricia (my step-mother) and Barb, the day before the action started.) Fran and Barb are co-farming with me, because their urban dwelling has even less of a yard than mine. It is our intention to share the bounty of our garden in lots of meals together this summer.

April 23rd – the before shot

In the humble beginning there was NOTHING! Just an ill kept lawn of grass that I resented every year by July when it turned brown.

Day 1: April 24th – prepping the beds

Stefan and Gracie came over to prep the land for my organic “farm!” I just love calling my minuscule city lot a “farm.” We had to even out the earth and take up some of the plants that had been in the space. Honestly, I didn’t even know what they were, which means I probably won’t miss them!

We had to aerate the lawn with pitch forks.

After the ground was aerated we covered it in a carpet of cardboard boxes, which had been soaked in water.

This is to keep the grass and weeds from growing up into my garden.

After we soaked the cardboard again we dumped a bunch of gorgeous black dirt on top of it. They brought in all new organic soil.

Stefan laid out exactly where the raised beds would be. We created 5 2-foot beds about 6-inches deep with about 12-inch paths between.

Because of the heavy April showers we were expecting over the next week we put down a thick layer of hay to prevent the rain from washing away all of our work. These are the details that I NEVER would have thought to do.

Here we are after a tough, but very fun and satisfying afternoon of work. The next day was even better:

Day 2: May 2nd – first day of planting (and a visit from Jake at the Southwest Journal)

Stefan came to the house early on Saturday with his garden maps. They are as intricate as architectural drawings. He explained to me that they plan out exactly where all the plants should be positioned in the beds based on height, their ability to repel insects, how they partner with the other plants around them and when they can be harvested.

He also brought a bunch of plants and seeds to get started. I have to say I was surprised that we’d get to actually plant this early. I had always heard that it isn’t safe to start until the end of May in Minnesota, because we are likely to get a few feet of snow, or at least a frost.  Who was I to argue with Stefan, so I didn’t!

(sugar snap pea and spinach seeds)

Some of the seeds he brought over were soaked and inoculated with a bacteria that helps the peas absorb nitrogen, which in turn helps them grow. He said he did this so they would grow better and faster. (The picture at the top of the post are the sugar snap peas after 2 weeks.) He also brought lettuce seeds, beets, radishes and carrots. All the seeds and plant starters came from the University of Minnesota’s Ag program.

Some of the plants he brought as starters were cauliflower,

cabbage and leeks.

Here are Charlie and Henri planting the spinach. It is my greatest hope that Charlie will love spinach now that he planted and will be taking care of it. I am lucky that they are great eaters, but Charlie still has a rough time with spinach and broccoli. Fingers crossed that he will LOVE them by the end of the summer. But if all he will eat is kale and chard, I’ll be happy with that too! 😉

As we plant new things we brush aside the hay, otherwise it stays to protect the unplanted soil from rain and weeds. The hay also keeps the moisture in the soil in the hot sun.

Here are the cauliflower all tucked neat in their bed. In order to confuse the insects Stefan had us place groups of cauliflower and then one starter plant in a random spot, to throw the bugs off the scent. I guess “confusion” is  what we have to use to avoid chemicals! I can’t wait to see if this works.

Stefan brought over a watering system set on a Digital Watering Timer. This has got to be one of the best ideas going. I always end up killing my plants because I forget to water them in the heat of summer. Now it has a mind of its own. Genius!

The next day was all about vermin:

Day 3: May 5th – rabbit proof fence

Stefan dug a 6-inch deep trench around the garden, secured posts and then buried the rabbit proof fencing around our garden. I’ve always rather liked all of the rabbits that call our yard home, but now that I’m a farmer they, and their buddies the squirrels, are just pests!

Over the next several months I will keep a journal and once or twice a month share with you what I am learning. I really wish I had done this years and years ago, but I’m so excited to be part of the Backyard Harvest’s pilot program. Soon I will start baking with what I have grown. 🙂

Part two, how it grows!

33 thoughts to “How I Became an Organic Backyard “Urban Farmer!””

  1. It looks wonderful! I’m still amazed at what a great program that is. It would be great if they had them everywhere to help people that might not plant just because they weren’t sure how.

  2. This is so awesome! We didn’t have a big enough sunny area to be part of this program so we are diving in on our own with two smaller raised beds. It’s been so fun for us to watch everything grow, I bet your kids love it.

  3. Totally amazing program! You are so blessed to have this connection. And I’m all giddy for you and excited to watch your garden grow. Thank you for sharing this experience.

    I’m totally stoked to work my side yard now. *sigh* I lurv gardening.

    You rock, as always.

  4. I have parsley, sweet marjoram, cilantro and basil growing in little pots on the counter in my teeny NYC kitchen. To me, your garden DOES look like a farm! I really look forward to your monthly garden updates.

  5. I wonder if they come out to the ‘burbs to make a garden for you? (I live south of the river) What a great program!! You are going to love it!! I grew up gardening with my parents. Now, I do tomatoes and herbs on deck pots. I am planning to do raised beds incorporated into the landscaping, maybe next year! Best of luck!-Chris Ann

  6. This is amazing. So cool to see how much you can do with your ‘urban’ garden! I have a ‘patio’ garden – and have high hopes for strawberries, herbs, and peppers. your garden is inspiring! Hope it all survived with the change from 30 degrees a few days ago – to 90 today!

  7. Great blog – I too have started a garden – of gargantuan proportions according to Bret. I decided that I needed to get myself involved in something besides my computer all summer so I have taken on the task of beautifying the neighbors yard. She’s an elderly soul who can’t get out and do much. We’ve planted over 40 hostas along her house and I’ve taken over 1/3 of her back yard to plant a vegetable garden. She is thrilled at the fact that she can now look out her back window and start to watch things grow. Of course there’ll be plenty to share I’m sure. I haven’t gone to the extreme of “planning” things out as much as you have but I’m hoping that the way I have things planted will produce something! Will forward pictures soon to share!

    Hugs, Jon & Bret.

  8. How great that you’re doing this! I have my first proper garden this year as well. So exciting. Look forward to following along with yours.

  9. this looks great! i made my side yard into an organic vegetable garden a few years ago and love having the fresh food right outside my door! hope everything grows well for you.

  10. This is a fantastic post. I’ve been trying veggie gardening for a few years now, and it’s been fun, but I feel like I’ve learned a ton just reading this post. I can’t wait to read more.

  11. We took over the neighbors yard for our vegetable garden as we didn’t have enough sun in our backyard. Happy Gardening to you. Let’s all hope for many delicious veggies come late summer.

  12. Great photos of your yard and your boys!

    I wish I had a green thumb too but it seems not just to have skipped a generation but to have skipped my family entirely!

    Cant wait to see what you make with some of the results!

  13. This is so inspiring! I love the way you’ve involved so many people! A real community effort. Good luck and I’m sure you’ll have many healthy meals from it! Thanks for sharing.

  14. Nice! But use caution when recycling cardboard boxes. I would suggest checking the glues used in constructing them; some are water based only with a little “mr. ed,” others have iky chemicals and inks that would leach into the ground.

  15. Over 30 varieties of veggies,herbs & edible flowers,and that too in the city…Wow!

    All the best to your farming endeavor,Zoe

  16. Thank you all for the great encouragement! I’m in awe that things are actually coming out of the soil already.

    Margaret, You are so right, I’m totally addicted already!

    Thanks, Zoë

  17. So cool Zoe! I have just recently become interested in starting a garden, but my apartment gets no light so I have to move somewhere with light. I will just live vicariously through you in the meantime 🙂

  18. What a fabulous post. You DO know that you’re going to make each and every food blogger completely jealous with this fun project, don’t you? Wish I had LAND to play with… such is the life living in crowded California! At least we have the weather. Can’t wait to read about your garden’s progress.

  19. What a cool program! How lucky you are to have such a thing to help you. I have a little garden in the back yard that I cram full of all sort of things but I’m sure I could use some help!!!! Did you know your type of garden (with the cardboard/soil/hay layers) has a food name? They call it Lasagna Gardening! I hope you keep us up to date on the progress of your little farm!

  20. I’m growing snap peas for the first time too! Very exciting! I have to watch out for bunnies and slugs – they already demolished some of my cucumber starts.

  21. I am excited for you, and what a great program to help people start backyard veggie gardens! We sure would have appreciated something like that when we were prepping all the edible garden areas in our yard. We also have a whole family of bunnies that were eating the produce right and left til we put up a fence.

  22. this will be fun to follow! Our land is too sloped and too tree-shaded to be useful for a vegetable garden, not to mention the deer, the deer the deer. I will home-farm vicariously!

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