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Starting a Successful Front Yard Garden and Avoiding Legal Trouble: Interview with Linda Jackson of Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm

Original design for Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm

Six years ago, I shared about Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm, a front-yard garden located in the Detroit metro area. When I shared this post, Linda was in her first year of gardening in this new location, and was regularly selling her produce at a local farmer’s market and engaging with her community.  Here are links to my first two posts about her incredible garden that discusses the original process, design: Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm and Return to Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm.

A few weeks ago, when I was visiting Linda, I shared some photos of her garden to my social media, and many people responded by saying “she must not have a homeowners association”, “ how did she not get in legal trouble?”, or “my township would make me tear that down!” The questions and comments of this nature just kept rolling in. In fact, Linda is now in her sixth year of her front yard garden with no issues or complaints from neighbors, etc. Thus, I thought it would be useful to interview Linda and learn from her about how she was able to have this incredible front-yard garden in a suburban area, explore some strategies that she used, and share those strategies with others.  If more of us can do the kind of thing Linda is doing—converting lawns that consume resources to gardens that provide food for people and wildlife, nectary sources for insects, and so much more, we can really begin to make positive change in this world and vision a brighter future.

Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm - August 2021

Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm – August 2021

Dana: Tell me about your vision for Nature’s Permauclture Urban Farm.

Linda: As I’m seeing it evolve, the word permaculture plays an integral role.  Because we need to build community, protect the environment, and people can also learn how to make a sustainable future, sustainable income, and way of sharing knowledge with others.  That’s why I wanted to convert my lawn.  I wasn’t only about food but about cultivating good habits and activities.

Dana:  You were originally an organic farmer farming 10 acres, right?

Linda:  Yes, so when I moved here, I moved from 10 acres to a 50×50 growing space. I brought a lot of what I knew but here, because it was so visible, I wanted to make it aesthetically pleasing.  I wanted to make it “landscapey” but not a traditional landscape.  But I knew it had to be very visually appealing to the eye.

Dana:  You are on the edge of a small town in suburbia, in the middle of a suburban neighborhood.  And you have this front yard garden that everybody can see.  So, tell me about your garden.

Linda:  When I came to the place, I was just thinking that I needed a place to put my hands in the soil. I stood out in the middle of the road and I said, what can I do with this? Its only 50×50.  So I said to myself, “Ok, I’m going to create a garden. But it can’t be a boring square garden.”  I’m not into lines, I’m into curves.  The earth isn’t straight, its curvy.  So, it was something where I said—I need food, my community needs food, I want wildlife comfortable here: insects, frogs, snakes, dragonflies, etc. So when I created the garden, I was thinking about both wildlife and people and their needs. And really, I wanted to be happy in nature when I walked out of my front door, rather than seeing the lawn.

Dana: So you essentially transformed this lawn, plain grass, into this amazing garden.  Do you have a sense of how much food you are producing?

Linda:  On average, enough to feed 20 or 30 people from the greens each week, thousands of pounds of produce per year. So for the first five years, every week, I was going to the farmer’s market.  And I had more than enough for that capability out of this garden. Now, I’m doing the market every other week.

Linda harvests kale for the farmers market

Linda harvests kale for the farmers market

Dana: So you are literally able to go to the farmer’s market each week and sell just from this 50×50 square foot space?  This really tells readers just how much you are able to produce here.

 

Linda:  I do French intensive agriculture methods, which includes succession planting and companion planting.  While I can’t be certified organic here, I use all natural methods for pest control.  These include using yellow and blue sticky plates for bug control, neem oil, cayenne pepper for slugs, dog hair to keep out rabbits, and much more.

We do have 4000 acres of wild lands behind this neighborhood, but the protocols that I use here keep the deer away.  I use onions lining every bed and herbs (sage, thyme, and lavender) lining the garden.  I don’t have any fencing, because that would detract from the beauty of it. I can sell and give the herbs away too, and they keep away the deer, and they also provide food for pollinators.

Dana: Obviously there’s a lot of people out there in similar circumstances to what you are in: they live in suburbia. They have a very small space, maybe 50×50 or even smaller.  And they are looking at this lawn and saying “this isn’t sustainable” and they are looking to grow some food and cultivate some habitat. But at the same time, in this region, we have several examples of families that have put in a front yard garden only to have their township make them bulldoze it.  Can you talk us through the steps that you did to come to this place where you had a very successful front yard garden that is welcomed by your community?  Specifically, how did you navigate the laws, ordinances, and neighborhood requirements?

Linda:  This garden is now six years old and I’ve never had a problem with neighbors complaining or the township.  Basically, when I stood out and looked at my new home, I had about a month to get everything in the ground before winter came.  I realized that I was the new person on the block, so I had to introduce myself to the neighbors.  And some way or another, I had to tell them what I was planning on doing. I had the vision in my mind, and I knew what it was, but I needed them on board. So I took them cookies. I took them lavender lemon shortbread cookies and I opened up a conversation with them.  I told them I was planning on making a garden in my front yard.

Bean arch in front pathway

Bean arch in front pathway

I also drove around the town to see if there was anyone who was doing something similar in my town.  I saw 2 or 3 places where someone was doing something like this in their front yard, but more landscaped. But I noticed that these didn’t have a focal point, or a flow. It wasn’t beautiful enough. It was choppy. I had to think about the long term: the shade, the rain, the sun, the water, the wind, but also the people and how they perceive it in all of the different seasons.

I next went to the township and I asked them, I’m thinking of putting an edible garden landscape in my front yard.  I didn’t call it a garden, I called it an “edible landscape” which may have helped. I spoke to the head guy in zoning, he says,  you can do that as long as there are no weeds growing. He gave me a piece of paper with the ordinances and I took it home and read it. It said anytime you put more than 5 yards of soil down, you have to have approval.  But soil is not compost. Soil has rock that’s broken down, minerals, etc. Compost is leaves, plants, and brush that is all organic matter.  So, if I put compost down and not soil, I can get away with it.

Dana:  So it was kind of a technicality but it worked.

Linda:  It was a technicality but I could win on it if anyone wanted to challenge me. So once I got the OK from the neighbors (because they could turn me in anytime they wanted) and I got the OK from the township, I went for it.

When I moved in, the front yard had one large and two small ornamental trees. I had these taken down and mulched so I could use the mulch in the gardens and in the paths. In other words, all of that organic matter was put right back on the property.

But back to the landscape. I knew that if this was going to be successful, I had to make something extremely visually pleasing so that the neighbors won’t complain. I decided against raised beds like I did in the past because that’s too constrictive and it’s something they are used to seeing and it may look too much like a garden. I saw how my elevation mattered. The two houses on either side of me were higher, so I was in a low area. And so I had to make it contour.  I did a combination of curves and wood chips, that way if I had heavy rains, I wouldn’t have any issues and the water would be able to soak right in.

Front yard curves of lettuce, brassicas, herbs, onions, and more!

Front yard curves of lettuce, brassicas, herbs, onions, and more!

But when things started happening, people were walking by. They would stand and stare.  Little kids would come, and they wanted to play. The paths were like an energy run for them.  They just wanted to run thorough those curvy paths.

 

What I have found out is that people think its work.  But little children see it a form of play, they want to play and help.  So that makes it fun for them.

 

Dana:  I want to focus on the aesthetically pleasing aspects because these seem to be one of the key aspects that can really help you do this.  It’s not just about growing vegetables and replacing the lawn.  It’s about inhabiting a space in a way that makes it truly beautiful. When people stop, rather than say “look at this garden that looks like an eyesore” they say “wow!”  Can you say more about that?  How do you create that?

Linda:  It’s a good question, because in my previous farm, I had 10 acres that was far from neighbors.  And my farm there was very constricted.  They were square with lines. And I realized that that’s easy because its farming. A lot of arms are really functional, but not necessary aesthetically pleasing.

And so I drew upon some of the things that people would do to a typical lawn and typical front yard.  But to not have it visually dead with lines.  I needed something that would come alive, that the eye would move through the space, just like a nice piece of artwork.   There’s something about the eye enjoying flow, the curve.

Three sisters: corn, beans, and cukes along the driveway

Three sisters: corn, beans, and cukes along the driveway

For example, my feeling was, to have flowers in the front, so when I looked out my window I could see insects and bugs and they would be beautiful next to the house. Flowers with long bloom times so that something was always blooming during the summer.

Dana:  Yeah, you really can see that when you walk up to your garden—your Yarden.  It does take you in.  The waves and the curves really take you in.

Linda:  Yeah! I kept playing around with these designs and the garden evolved.  I tried different angles, to figure out how it would look good from the side, from behind, from within it. The goal was to make it good from all of these different angles and offer a visual experience.

Dana:  That’s really important to people. Because for your neighbors, they don’t want to feel like their home values are being degraded because of someone’s front yard garden or an unruly yard. So, from what you are saying, if you are going to do this work, you have to do it in a way that is very visually appealing to people.

Linda: Yes.  You are right because one of my siblings, when I was planning this, she said to me ‘Linda you are going to have to tear this apart because nobody is going to like it.” So she was a naysayer before I started it. Once it was done, and the curves were there, dark black compost flowing around, and the contrast of the paths, then she said “Well, we’ll see what happens in the spring.”  And then, my neighbors were asking, what’s going to happen in the spring?  And the lady across the street said, “Just watch.”

So the overall design is this: the flowers next to the house are the accent point. The greens are flowing with the paths. You get a lot of eye entertainment.  And I don’t have your typical landscape flowers: there are no lilies, Hostas, etc. That seems to be the go-around for everyone’s yard around here.  I said, Hollyhock! The old-fashioned stuff, pollinator friendly, things that they haven’t seen before.

Dana:  How do you continue to engage in a dialogue with your neighbors about this garden?  We were out there just a little while ago and one of your neighbors stopped by, and talked to you when we were out there!

View from driveway

View from driveway

Linda:  I’ll tell you what.  That was the part I didn’t mentally think about when I started doing this. I started doing this for my own gratification, to keep my energy flowing, and to get my hands in the soil, for my exercise and health. But then the neighbors started asking, “hey, can I have some of your produce?”  For example, one of my neighbors stopped by last night for kale and salad greens. My other neighbor is pregnant and loves cucumbers; I make sure she gets them.  The neighbor girls on the other side here love eating raw cucumbers. So, it was a just a matter of putting it out there. Recently I had some organic farming students from Oakland University come to learn here. East River Organics wanted a design done, which I worked on, and they brought the person who was going to implement the design out to take a look at my garden, because this is what they wanted to do for a new project to do garden outreach to differently abled people.

So I’m at that step now, where, after five years, I know it’s happening and its ok.  And it’s starting to really bring people in! Someone asked me, why am I not in the newspaper? I don’t know! I’m not quite ready for that.

Dana: Well at this point, if you were going to get in trouble for the garden, it would have already happened. And, I think what’s key here, is that you engaged in a dialogue with the right people early on, and you continued to have a positive relationship with your neighbors.  But it sounds like if you want to be successful at doing this, it’s about doing that ongoing engagement work first and foremost, rather than just doing it on your own. You live in a community and you have to engage in that community as you are planning and implementing your garden.

Linda:  Yes exactly.  One the big comments I get is about how much work it is. A lot of my neighbors work and say “I don’t have the time to do this.”  It’s hard, the word “work”.  I don’t really see this as work.

Dana:  Can you talk a bit about the backyard? I know you have a food forest going back there.

Linda:  I have a space about 25×50 back there and its evolving.  I have a sugar maple overstory.  I have three paw paw trees, raspberries, black cohosh, strawberry, sweetgrass, other understory plants.  I have ramps, from you, thank you.  I share how to harvest them with the kids—just take a piece of the leaf.  These are things you don’t see at the store.  When the pawpaw come into fruit, which should be next year, it will be a wonderful chance to educate the kids.

Dana:  It sounds like you have more annual sun agriculture in the front and shaded perennial agriculture in the backyard.  And you’ve gotten rid of almost all of the lawn.

Linda:  Yes, just enough to have some paths or for someone to park their car if necessary.  But there’s no reason for more lawn—I am converting every bit of it into something that benefits nature and the community.

Dana: I know you are transitioning away from the farmer’s market and working to make this more of an educational space in the future. Can you share more about that?

Dana and Linda

Dana and Linda

Linda:  Yes, that’s where I will be needing to do more promotion.  I’ve already connected with many people in my area who are interested in organic practices. The garden is also a big draw to children; children see vegetables in the grocery store, but I’m growing some different things that are really exciting to them. Like the Asian long bean, it’s over a foot long. The kids come up, I give them a bean, and they walk away happy. It’s like candy to them!

So for me, the next step is working less on the market gardening and more on educating, promoting, teaching others how to do this.  If someone wants to break up their landscape, there are so many things that they can do that will still look visually appealing and move them away from the lawn.  For example, blueberries.

Dana:  Let’s return to this idea of work and a garden being “too much work.” So tell me about the work of this?

Linda:  Well, you don’t have to mow your lawn if there is no lawn to mow! And I get plenty of exercise and have no need for a gym membership. This garden is my workout.  It is physical, but rather than lifting weights, I’m lifting soil or compost! Mulch! Especially as I get older, it’s also a way for me to stay healthy and strong.  I also see it as meditation.  I am out in the sun and getting my Vitamin D.  I am keeping myself moving, I’m not rickety or creaky. I can move 10 yards of compost, even in my late 60s!

Dana:  It does seem like there are so many benefits: food you are producing,  an income, the exercise, educating people, not having a consumptive lawn, meditation, health benefits,  providing a vision for the future.  Showing all of this in a way that demonstrates that it can be sustaining, and joyful!  There just seems like there are no reasons not to do this!

Linda:  Yeah! I love the way you presented that thought. That’s what it is all about for me.  I am so happy that this garden is such a place for joy. I have a tendency to be modest, but I do think that the front yard garden speaks for itself. I am speaking through the language of my garden.

Dana:  Well, thank you so much for your time and expertise, Linda!

To conclude, Linda’s garden is really a source of joy for all who visit it.  And somehow, she has found a “magical formula” to living in a suburban area with hosing restrictions, codes, and township laws—through cookies, through making it visually appealing, and through always thinking about the needs of her community.

Don’t Let End of Season Veggies Go to Waste! Making Nutritive and Healing Soup Stocks/Broths

What the heck, broccoli? Why did you never produce broccoli?  Into the pot you go!

What the heck, massive broccoli? Why did you never produce broccoli? Into the pot you go!

So its the end of the season, a very hard frost is on the horizon for the week and several lighter frosts have already occurred. You look out across your garden with its overflowing abundance. There are still beans, swiss chard, tons of herbs, celery, kale, cukes, tomatoes, onions, carrots, and more. And while some of these veggies can make it through a few hard frosts and will last well into the late fall (like kale) and some will last in the ground over the winter (like onions or carrots), for others, their time is very limited without a hoop house for cover. Even with a hoop house, some won’t survive another week outside.  And then there’s that pesky broccoli.  This year, my broccoli grew to 3 and 4′ tall, leafed out, got woody, and never produced a single flower head.  My friend and garden mentor says its likely because my soil is too rich; it never was forced into its reproductive stage.  Regardless, I have all this broccoli biomass and nutrients locked up in something not really all that edible. So, given the excess of veggies and the darn broccoli, what’s a homesteader to do?

Its simple: this is the perfect time of year to make a few huge pots of broth for the soups in the winter months. Take all of those extra veggies, even the ones that maybe had some frost damage or lots of imperfections, and toss them in a big pot of water. Take that pesky broccoli that never produced anything, chop it up, and get its nutrients into your stockpot and eventually into your belly!

 

Applying a bit of herbal knowledge, any kind of stock is better with a little nutritive and tonic herbs and veggies as well, so in addition to the typical garden vegetables, I also will add several kinds of nutritive and tonic foods to make the stocks more nutrient dense and healing–nettle, hen of the woods mushroom, turkey tail mushroom, burdock.  These are wild foods that are fairly abundant this time of year, if you know where to look.  And I think this step is important–if we work to make our foods as healing and nutritive as possible, we are better equipped to fight off disease and illness.  I always take the extra step to add nutritive plants and mushrooms to my stocks and gain their benefits each time I open up a jar of the stock :).

Kelsey (WOOFer) preparing chard for veggie stock

Kelsey (WOOFer) preparing chard for veggie stock

 

Vegetable Stock Recipe:

The idea is to fill a large pot at least 2/3 of the way full of veggies before you add water.  I don’t work with a specific recipe, but throw in what I have.  My last batch had this:

  • Whatever is left in my garden (this year, primarily broccoli stalk, beans, swiss chard).  Anything pretty much works here, different veggies will give different flavors, e.g. pumpkin will be much different than cabbage.  All turn out just fine though :).
    • With this, however, do be aware that the brassicas (broccoli, cabbage) should only be in the stock for about 45 min total.  Otherwise, my friend who is a chef tells me, they release sulfur compounds that give your stock an “off” taste. So consider adding these towards the end of your soup stock.
  • At least a few tomatoes (more for a more tomatoey broth) or a jar of stewed tomatoes if you are out of fresh ones.  This helps give the broth color and richness. Again, this is great for the end of the season.
  • Several large onions
  • Several large carrots
  • A bunch of celery stalks (I cut three whole plants from my garden for my huge soup pot)
  • Fresh herbs (thyme and sage)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • At least a foot-long piece of burdock root, peeled and chopped up (I dug this fresh from my yard for this purpose; more is always good)
  • A handful or two of fresh or dried stinging nettle (I had dried this earlier in the year)
  • A few handfuls of dried or fresh hen of the woods (miatake) mushroom or turkey tail mushroom (threw in some of each that I had fresh and dried)

 

The last three ingredients are the nutritive and tonic plants that provide amazing amounts of nutrition, making this super awesome healing veggie stock.  Burdock is a plant I recently discussed on my blog in my last post. Burdock has antioxidants, inulin (a prebiotic that helps reduce blood sugar, body weight, cholesterol), potassium, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, iron,  and lower amounts of many other vitamins and minerals. Nettle, likewise, has extraordinary amounts of vitamin K, along with vitamin E, calcium, and manganese and again lots of smaller amounts of other things.  Finally, hen of the woods has Naicin, Riboflavin, and Omega 6 fatty acids.  By adding these last three “wild” ingredients, I am supplementing the already powerful nutrition that the more standard garden vegetables provide.

 

If you don’t know where to get a large pot, believe it or not, you can sometimes find stock pots in a well stocked hardware store near the canning isle.  You want a stainless steel one or an enamel one.

Stock pot with awesome ingredients

Stock pot with awesome ingredients

I cook my veggie stock on low for at least 12 hours before pressure canning or freezing it.  You know its done once the veggies look drab, like the photo below (then you can strain the veggies, compost the veggies, and pressure can the broth).

Drab, spent vegetables going to the compost

Drab, spent vegetables going to the compost

 

Chicken Stock

The other stock I’m doing this year is a chicken stock.  This is a simpler stock, and consists of the following:

 

  • 2-3 pounds of chicken feet (procured from a local farmer at an extremely good price); you can substitute a chicken carcass or other meat bones
  • Three large onions
  • A pound or two of carrots
  • A pound or two of celery
  • Rosemary and sage
  • Salt and pepper to taste

 

And for this, I try to fill a stock pot up at least halfway with ingredients and the rest with water for the stock.  For this, I find that the ideal flavor hits somewhere around 12-24 hours.   For other kinds of bone broth (like chicken bones) I might go up to 48 hours.  But for the feet, a shorter cooking time seems better for ideal flavor.

 

This chicken stock recipe again uses up the material from the garden (especially the celery, which does not like getting too zapped by the frost) and in the case of my chicken feet, also uses a meat product that a lot of people don’t want.  Most of the organic, free range, local chicken I can purchase around here runs $3.50 or $4/lb.  For a whole chicken, it can be anywhere from $20-$30.  This kind of seems like a waste if I’m just making broth from it.  I can get the chicken feet for about $2 a pound, and since its only for soup stock, the chicken feet work much better.  And they really do make a great stock.  The deal is, of course, you have to look at chicken feet while you are making them and deal with the fact that there are feet in your stock.

Chicken feet in soup...for real.

Chicken feet in soup srock…for real.

The alternative would be to roast the chicken, enjoy it, save the bones, and use the bones for making your stock. The idea here is that by making a “bone broth,” you are extracting a lot of minerals and vitamins not found in the meat of the animals. This includes high amounts of calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, certain amino acids, and collagen.  By, again, cooking this broth over low heat over a period of days, you extract maximum nutrients and maximum flavors.

You can add the nettle, hen of the woods, turkey tail, or burdock (or mix and match) to your chicken stock as well, of course.  These recipes are very flexible and fluid.

 

Stock that has been strained, ready to go into the pressure canner!

Stock that has been strained, ready to go into the pressure canner!

 

After your stock cools, you can strain it and compost the veggie bits.  The meat bits I put out into the woods for some happy rodent or raccoon to come across.  At this point, I pressure can it (85 minute pressure can for quarts; 75 minute for pints).  You could also freeze it (again, if you’ll remember from my earlier posts, I don’t freeze much because the power grid is poor around here and we go days and days without power).

 

All winter long, I will be able to enjoy the richness of the veggie and chicken broths and stay healthy and warm.