Tag Archives: urban farming

Converting Lawns to Gardens: Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Urban Farm

Design of Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Design of Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm – Beautiful, biointensive, productive.

Over the years, I’ve done quite a bit of coverage about lawn issues, as I really do believe that the lawn can be one of the primary sites of transformation and change for ordinary Americans and others in the Western industrialized world. Not only can the lawn be transformed from a consumptive space to a productive one for growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers to benefit humans and other life, but it can be a site of personal reconnection and healing with our landscape.

 

This is because the lawn is the single piece of nature that the bulk of people, living outside of big cities, encounter on a daily or weekly basis. If we can transform the lawn, we can transform ourselves.

 

This is why I am so excited about this post–through the example of Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm, a new creation of my dear friend, Linda Jackson, I will provide an introduction to how to convert a front yard to a vegetable garden using permaculture design principles. This is Linda’s story, but she’s asked me to report on it for you here to get the word out. I’ll also say that I’m only telling part of the story now–I’ll provide more updates later in the year and talk about what she planted and how its all doing–and more responses from the community.

 

Impetus for Change

Linda was a certified organic farmer, a farmer’s market board member, a board member of a state-level organic farming rganization, and a horticulture teacher for many years. Last summer, through some trying life circumstances, she was displaced from her farm and ended up in a small home in a suburban area in a town called Lake Orion (in South-East Michigan). Linda moved from 10 acres to a tiny 100×200′ plot (with a 50′ x 50′ growing area in the front yard; back yard is full shade). Linda used her background in farming and permaculture design to convert her plain, everyday lawn into not only a place to grow some great vegetables, but also a place of community change and empowerment. Here’s how she did it.

Linda - Before and After

Linda – Before and After

 

Getting Legal

Before one begins to convert one’s yard, the legal aspects must be considered and weighed. As my own run ins with township ordinances have attested, and as protections of small urban farms have been removed in Michigan in the last 12 months (and the legal battles everywhere raging about front-yard farming), Linda decided to take no chances with her plan. She went directly to the township supervisor and spoke with him about her design and plan for her front yard. He told her that as long as she wasn’t growing “weeds” it wasn’t a problem.  She also read through the township ordinances thoroughly to learn what could and couldn’t be done. We are still crossing our fingers that, now that she’s gotten the garden installed, that this will hold true. But so far, so good!

 

For those of you thinking about converting your own yards–do keep legal ordinances (and homeowner’s associations) in mind. They can really sink (and fine, and bulldoze) your hard-earned efforts.  And even a statement like “don’t grow weeds” is tricky–my township, for example, designates common milkweed as a noxious weed (when its a beneficial native plant).

 

Linda at her new farm

Linda at her new farm getting ready to plant some radishes!

Goals for the Urban Permaculture Farm

Before Linda designed her farm and set into action, she created a list of goals to help guide her efforts. She knew farming her front yard in the urban setting was going to be quite different than farming her quiet ten acres in the country. Given this, her goals were as follows:

 

  • Do away with mowing, herbicides, pesticides, traditional lawn maintenance
  • Build a balanced farm ecosystem using permaculture design
  • Grow quick annuals and perennial fruits, herbs, flowers
  • Allow farm to turn a profit by selling produce and farm goods a farmer’s market every two weeks
  • Grow biointensively and organically; use small space gardening and vertical gardening to maximize yield
  • Use my plot as an educational site for community
  • Generate curiosity and excitement in the community
  • Create an aesthetically pleasing, unique space

 

Her triple bottom line was: ecological, social and economic sustainability.

 

Design and Observations

Linda examined her specific site over a period of weeks (she could have waited and observed longer as permaculture design principles suggest, but winter was coming fast and she wanted to get her hands in the soil and start growing first thing in the spring). So waiting a year wasn’t an option!

Plans for the Farm - Overhead view

Plans for the Farm – Overhead view

During these observations, she created a plan of action. In observing her site, she paid attention to the light (recognizing the need to take out several trees); the rainfall (including where water pooled and where it was dry) and the slope of the land and elevation changes.  She also noted the microclimates near her house, where the sun reflected from the house siding and onto the soil, keeping it dryer and warmer than other areas.

 

Preparing the Site

Front Yard Before

Front Yard Before

Two ornamental fruit trees (that did not produce fruit) and a silver maple were first removed to produce full sun on the site. These produced 15 yards of chipped mulch, which Linda put to good use as pathways in her garden. After the trees were removed, Linda also ordered 10 yards of compost from a local compost company and set to work (and she worked full days, 4-5 days a week, for 5 weeks to finish her site).

Silver Maple Removed from Front Yard

Silver Maple Removed from Front Yard

Linda knew she wanted her farm to be aesthetically pleasing and mimic patterns in nature (another permaculture design principle). To do this, she used a hose and the natural contour of the land and laid out her beds and pathways.  She had the idea of “flow” in her mind as she designed, creating a series of soft waves.

Natural contours--shaped with the hose!

Natural contours–shaped with the hose!

After this, Linda laid down brown recycled paper to create a weed barrier (similar to the sheet mulch techniques I shared several years ago on this blog).  Then she laid down her thick mulchled pathways (about 6″ of mulch) and added more weed barrier compost for the beds themselves (eventually making it to 10″ after a neighbor blew leaves all over her farm and she laid down a second layer!). Here are some photos of the transformation as it took place.

Mulched paths established....

Mulched paths established….

Starting to add compost over weed barrier....

Starting to add compost over weed barrier….

Lots of progress being made!

Lots of progress being made!

Front yard shot of the progress!

Front yard shot of the progress!

Many beds now established!

Many beds now established!

Close to the house- the pine tree makes a contribution

Close to the house- the pine tree makes a contribution

Complete as of October 2014!

Nearly complete as of October 2014–the front area there is a rock garden and rain garden since water pools there often.

 

Some Spring Planting

After the snow melted and the temperatures warmed up this spring, Linda installed drip irrigation lines and began her finishing touches on the garden and the soil composition before planting. I visited her this past week, and together, we planted kale, radishes, and chard: the first of the spring crops able to go into the ground. Linda impressed me with her organic pest control techniques: each kale seedling got a healthy spoonful of cayenne pepper and each chard seedling was popped into a toilet paper tube to protect it from rodents, slugs, and possible frost damage (and this was a good thing, since its really chilled down recently). Here are some shots of the current garden. I was also impressed that we planted nearly 80 kale seedlings in her space, with plenty of room for many other delights! I think she’ll have no problem having plenty of product to take to the farmer’s market and to put on her plate.

Kale Seedlings with Cayenne Pepper!

Kale Seedlings with Cayenne Pepper!

Linda plants radish

Linda plants radish

Chard in protective tubes

Chard in protective tubes

Me planting some chard!

Me planting some chard!

 

Promoting a Positive Image in the Community

As Linda put her garden in in the fall and as the weeks passed, the neighbors watched the yard’s transformation and anticipation in the community grew substantially.  Here was someone doing something unique, different, groundbreaking, and exciting. The important thing to understand about this kind of public growing space is that people will talk. They will ask questions, they will be curious, and interest (of several kinds) can take place. I experienced this firsthand when we were planting kale, chard, and radishes this past week.  Multiple people stopped by, took a look, asked what we were up to. We cheerfully told them and they smiled and said they were thinking about doing it themselves.  So far, Linda has been lucky as the response in her community has been incredibly positive. Several people have asked her to put in gardens for them–but Linda wants to empower them to do their own work, not do it for them.

 

Given the above, Linda decided to be proactive about promoting her space, and in addition to talking to the township prior to starting, she decided to create some marketing materials. She went to my friends at Roots to Fruits for some snazzy graphics to share and feedback on her designs. I also helped her create a Powerpoint presentation that she shared in over the winter at a few local and regional events.  I also worked with her to create a brochure that she can give to people who are passing by that explains both the purpose of the garden and resources to get started. The brochure will be housed in a “take one” box on her mailbox so anyone who comes by can learn more about the site.  I’m including the brochure in jpg format here as well (you can click on it to see it full size).

Brochure page 1

Brochure page 1

Brochure, page 2

Brochure, page 2

I think the proactive approach to marketing and community engagement is really the key to a successful front-yard garden, especially one that will stand the test of time.  As I mentioned at the start of this post, I’ll be checking in with Linda later in the summer on a visit back to Michigan to see how things are going!

 

Conclusion

In many ways, the typical lawn is a reflection of our own strained relationship with nature. Its poisoned and modified (as is much of the food we eat), it is unsustainable (as much of our lifestyles are), it has an appetite for chemicals and fossil fuels (as many of us do), and its generally barren with little activity or diversity of life (as nightly TV addictions can attest). Transform the lawn, and in the process, we can transform ourselves, our communities, our world.

 

I’ve seen this transformation in my friend Linda, who left a very difficult situation scarred and wounded. Through installing this front-yard farm, Linda was transformed and healed. And now this lawn, transformed, is transforming the community. Linda tells me of two neighbors on her street that are considering converting their front-yards to veggies and fruits as well, and I suspect that many more will follow the trend in the years to come. Since she’ll be selling veggies at the farmer’s market, she will inspire so many more who might not walk or drive down her street with her story, and most importantly, her delightful edible goodies.

The Right to Farm and Farming Rights: Recent Deeply Concerning Developments in Michigan

Friend's Local Farm in South East Michigan

Friend’s Local Farm in South East Michigan

When I moved to Michigan, one of the things that really excited me was the strong protections that small family farmers had, the emphasis on local food and local culture, and the support at all levels of government for these practices. Unfortunately, a whole series of recent events have shifted Michigan from one of the most progressive states in the nation concerning the right to farm to something…else, a state moving in a direction that is certainly not good for local foods or organic farms.

The trend that seems to be happening, at least in Michigan, is that as the local foods/local farms movement gains ground, as funds are diverted away from industrialized food and into farmer’s markets, and as people work to engage in more sustainable practices in their communities, backlash starts occurring.  Backlash may be locally motivated (e.g. irate neighbors); it frequently occurs in a legislative sense, where legislation aimed at protecting people and small businesses gets shifted or replaced with protecting large businesses/corporate interests.  I wanted to take some time today to discuss the recent occurrences with Michigan’s Right to Farm Act and respond to what has recently happened with this act.

I want to start with the name of the act–the “Right to Farm.”  The name of the act is fitting, and starts with the premise that  people should have the right to do things like grow their own food, slaughter their own animals, and generally be left to themselves (and one interpretation of the US constitution’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” suggests just that).  Our US constitution had no such “right to farm” because nearly everyone farmed, hunted, fished, gathered, and preserved their own food (again, I’ll refer to historical texts for this, like Jefferson’s wholehearted dedication to farming research, despite his continual failures).  Before the advent of the modern grocery store (a 1950’s invention) nearly everyone had a garden and grew at least some produce, many also kept livestock.

 

There is good reason to consider returning towards that model, especially in a destabilizing climate, an industrial agricultural system producing mostly toxic foods, and the uncertainty of dwindling oil resources.  By producing lots more of our own food and localizing our food systems, we will be more resilient and sustainable.  But we also empower ourselves to take care of ourselves, rather than trying to look to others, especially corporations, to care for us.   By growing our own food, we reconnect with the land, her seasons, and her cycles.

 

And there is good reason for doing so.  To give you a sense of the destabilizations in our food supply, we can look at the drought that is happening in California–it is already substantially affecting prices and the availability of many foods throughout the US (almonds, lettuce, citrus, and so on). Furthermore, industrial agriculture, which rose around the same time the modern grocery store was invited, is not working and has never really worked; the UN just released a report that provided evidence that industrialized agriculture cannot feed the world. It is also extremely harmful to our ecosystems.  And, as we have been learning the hard way with recall after recall, with stories of pink slime and salmonella, industrial agriculture does not produce food that is wholesome, ethical, or safe.  Monocropping requires pesticides that are linked to health deficiencies, pollinator die offs, and the destruction of our soil ecology. I could continue on here, but I think you get my meaning.

 

Dana and Linda at her farm!

Dana and Linda at her farm!

So now we turn to Michigan’s law, the Right to Farm act. Originally approved in 1981, for thirty three years, this law once protected small family farms and small homesteaders (like myself) from local legislation meant to shut down farming activities.  It said that farming was a right, and no one could take that right away.  This act, one of the most important pieces of legislation in the nation concerning farming (and often cited as a model policy for others to follow), helped us build a local food system by protecting farmers and their investments.  There were cases where backyard or urban homesteading was producing food and livelihood for farmers but neighbors were upset because it didn’t look like a typical lawn.  In another case, a subdivision went up around an older family farm and then the subdivision got feisty and wanted the farm torn down (Mother Earth News describes one such case).  This law, over a 30+ year period, helped create Michigan’s incredibly diverse local food scene; in South-East Michigan alone, we have literally hundreds of farmer’s markets, thousands of small startup food-related businesses, and a growing appreciation and commitment to local foods on the part of consumers (having lived in other states, I can tell you that nowhere I have lived prior to here had any emphasis on local food!)

 

And then, this year, the Michigan Department of Agriculture decided that these farming activities only applied to farms whose farming activities were more than 250′ away from a neighbor–in other words, rural farms. To put this in perspective–I live on three acres in an area that is on the border between suburbia and a rural setting (I would like to live further out, but that would require an even longer work commute). My land is deep, not wide. There is nowhere on my 3 acres where I could put farming activities that would be protected under Michigan’s new “Right to Farm” act.  The act has been re-interpreted now to only give protections to large-scale agriculture or agriculture that is very rural.  Gone are protections for any urban farms (like those springing up all over Detroit); gone are protections for small farms that were there long before the suburbs grew up around them. Gone are the protections for anyone who seeks to farm on a smaller piece of land because that’s all they can afford or that’s where they are currently living. Now that the protections have been removed, farmers, especially urban farmers, are being challenged. And yet, everything is moving in the other direction, especially the revitalization of the core of Detroit using urban farming. New developments since I posted this include the seizing by force of goats and chickens from an urban homesteader’s property and a couple being arrested for having chickens on their property. What is this insanity?

 

Now it could be that a reasonable local government would protect residents rights to farms (and we are seeing chicken ordinances, for example, enacted all over the country) but it also might be that a less reasonable local government would have poor laws that took rights away.  It also can be that a reasonable government quickly gives way to less reasonable government, especially if a few powerful citizens pull the right strings because they are irritated that a neighbor starts keeping goats. The state-wide protections on local farms, meant that you could count on the right to have your farm protected, regardless of  how large it was and regardless of what happened at a local level or with the neighbors. And, as my battles with the township over lawn ordinances have suggested, people get really wonky and weird about things that don’t look perfect, like wild and beautiful native plant front yards and the like.  People don’t like hearing the glorious sound of a rooster crowing up the sun or see hoop houses erected in their neighbor’s back yards (I happen to like both of these things!)

 

The problem with this new interpretation of the Right to Farm Act is that it assumes an industrialized food model: and that assumption is that only farmers far from the cities and suburbs should be growing any food, raising any livestock, or keeping bees.  Its concerning because not everyone can be full time farmers, living far away from the city….many have other careers that are worth doing, and can’t live so far out that they can own 40 acres to farm.  The other issue is that the further away your farm is from those who might be buying your products, the more fossil-fuel dependent these systems are.  And I’d like to see us develop systems that are much less dependent on fossil fuels–or fossil fuel free.  I’ve met multiple farmers attending farmer’s markets in the heart of Detroit’s Eastern Market who come to market with a cart pulled by a bicycle!  Now that’s a fossil-free way to move produce!

 

I should also mention that the loss of the Right to Farm hasn’t been the only pushback on the local food scene.  Two other incidents are worth mentioning. The first is High Hill Dairy’s experiences with their milkshare program. Michigan is what is called a “herdshare” state; it allows people to buy into a herd, essentially owning part of it, and the farmers who keep the herd then provide raw milk and other dairy products (butter, ice cream) to the herdshare holders.  Regardless of your stance on raw milk (I like getting it to make cheese), what happened was just wrong.  The Michigan Department of Agriculture forced High Hill Dairy to dump almost $5000 worth of goods…into dumpsters.  In a second example, a few years ago, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources claimed that many heritage breeds of pigs that farmers had crossbred (the kinds that can survive the cold Michigan winters) were invasive species, and ordered farmers to slaughter their herds.  The Bakers Green Acres farm and several other farms decided to fight back, and underwent a very long and difficult battle to keep their pigs.  Other farmers capitulated and literally had to shoot all of their livestock.

 

Chard and Greens Growing

Chard and Greens Growing

I really do believe that laws like the Right to Farm Act are critically important and necessary not only for protection for small family farms and homesteaders, but to create a more resilient, sustainable food system.  In other words, these laws benefit all of us, whether or not we choose to make a living at farming or choose to erect hoop houses in our backyards. Because we face increasingly challenging times, dwindling fossil fuel resources, I believe we need to put local agriculture back into our landscapes in every setting, not just the rural settings.  We might look to Cuba’s example, when Cuba faced their own oil crisis, and responded with brilliant Cuban gardens and a revitalization of their local agriculture for the sake of survival.  I’d like to see us continue to revitalize our local food systems now, before we face an oil crisis on the scale that Cuba experienced.

 

Growing one’s own food and protecting that right is woven into the history of this nation and it is our heritage.  This country was founded on the backs of farmers and small homesteads–and I believe those roots should be honored.   If long term sustainability is our goal, I believe we need to serious step back, recognize the challenges inherent in our lawns and landscapes, and allow our perceptions and actions to shift.  We need to fight to protect the integrity of laws like the Michigan Right to Farm act and support farmers, homsteaders, and urban farmers as they do the tireless work of producing better food and a more friendly food system for all of us.