The Urban Farmer Handbook: Getting Started
First a Definition
For those who are a bit confused by the term “Urban Farming,” I think it’s only fair and prudent that I give you a definition to work with. For the purpose of this article, urban farming is:
the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around a village, town, or city.
There is nothing new about this practice. It has been around since ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, but we have seen a resurgence of it lately because of poor economic conditions. More and more people are looking at their available resources and finding new ways to make those resources work for them.
Urban farming is tied directly to sustainable living, a catch-phrase that refers to the following:
“Sustainable living is fundamentally the application of sustainability to lifestyle choice and decisions. One conception of sustainable living expresses what it means in triple-bottom-line terms as meeting present ecological, societal, and economical needs without compromising these factors for future generations.”
In practical terms, an urban farmer uses the resources he/she has at their disposal, to provide for them and their family.
Let me give you an example. Other than aesthetics, what good is a lawn? There is no practical reason to have a lawn. You can’t eat it, so why have it? An urban farmer looks at that lawn and sees row upon row of carrots and tomatoes. An urban farmer looks at those azaleas along the side of the house and sees blueberry bushes. An urban farmer sees that 200 square foot patch of weeds and sees a chicken coop.
Let me walk you through the process we used when we first started, and then we can discuss some specifics.
My Own Experience
Four years ago my wife and I decided to embark on a new journey without even leaving our home. We decided to start raising our own food and making our yard work for us instead of us working for our yard.
We started with a typical ranch-style home in the city of Olympia, Washington, a home situated on a large lot…about 1/8 of an acre….front yard with lawn and bordering bushes, back yard with lawn and existing raspberry bushes. We started small that first spring and planted an herb hill atop an old rotting cherry tree stump.
The next year we really got serious. We built six raised vegetable beds and dug out another 15x30 bed for potatoes. We planted carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, pumpkins, beans and peas. We also divided our back yard using a wooden pallet fence, and prepared for the day we would start raising chickens. Three berry bushes were added to the front yard. Our urban farm was taking shape.
Year Three saw the addition of chickens for fresh, healthy eggs, three more raised beds for vegetables, rain barrels to collect water, two fruit trees, three grape plantings, more berries and of course, a compositing pile.
And here we are in Year Four with a new quail run (again for fresh eggs), more berries, more vegetables, and more fruit trees. I am currently working on a rabbit hutch, a worm bin, and we will add miniature goats next year.
And You Can Do It Too
Fact: 400 square feet of vegetable garden can feed a family of four for one year.
Fact: Organic fruits, vegetables, eggs, and meat are infinitely healthier than any store-bought, genetically-altered swill.
Fact: An organic urban farm does no damage to the environment. It does not waste resources like the caring for a lawn does, and it does not pollute the soil and water because there are no pesticides used.
The only two reasons we were able to do all of this while others haven’t is because we were willing to do it, and we live in a community that encourages urban farming.
So, how about you? Do you have the space and the desire?
If so, then let’s get started.
LET THE SUN SHINE
Quite possibly the most important factor in having a successful vegetable garden is the amount of sunshine that garden receives during the growing months. Planning a year in advance is helpful. In preparation, you can study the sunshine for a summer so you know where maximum sunshine falls. Most vegetables need a minimum of six hours of sunshine per day; eight would be delicious; ten fabulous.
Once you have decided upon the location of your garden, start preparing the soil a year in advance. Get yourself a Ph kit and test your soil. Add compost to the soil during the winter. There are few things more discouraging than planting a vegetable garden and then getting midget crops for your trouble.
START SMALL AND BUILD FROM THERE
Using our example, we began with six herbs on a hill. That gave us a chance to dip our toes into the water and warm up to the activity. We added on with each year that followed. I would suggest you do the same. Start with a few raised beds and get the hang of it all before you tackle 400 square feet.
DIVERSIFICATION IS THE KEY TO ABUNDANCE
Vegetables, fruit, berries, herbs, eggs, and even meat….all of those are available on our urban farm, and, if regulations permit, they can be on yours as well. We have pretty much maxed-out our back yard, so now we are moving to the front in a full-tilt boogie. The lawn will be gone in two years, replaced with more berries and fruit trees. An arbor and trellis are in place for future growth. Our goal is to make our front yard as bountiful as the back, and we should achieve that within two years.
We freeze berries, and we are learning canning. What we have in excess we trade with neighbors for their excess. We estimate that our urban farm could easily feed ten people for a year and we plan on increasing that output.
This is a true stumbling block for many. I mentioned we have six chickens, but there are many communities that will not allow chickens. We also have fourteen quail but again, check the local zoning laws to find out what you are allowed to raise. We live in an urban farming Shangrila, but not everyone is so lucky.
ONE OTHER NOTE ABOUT SUSTAINABILITY
We strongly believe in leaving as small a footprint on the environment as possible. That is why we reuse and recycle religiously. I do not buy new lumber for my projects. I used recycled lumber I found on the side of the road, and I also used wooden pallets, which to an urban farmer are like gold.
I am always looking on Craigslist for people giving away stuff I could use on our farm. Why do I need new fence posts when used will suffice? Why do I need new bricks if I can find a great deal after a building is torn down? Why buy a composter when I can make one using household items?
Will you give it a try?
The Bottom Line
Anyone can do what we have done if they are willing. I constantly wonder why people eat foods tainted with GMOs when they know they are poison. I constantly wonder why people buy vegetables at the store when they could grow their own. I’m blown away by the number of people who have lush, green lawns….but then, maybe I’m just a little bit different.
If you want what we have you can have it.
Get out there and start planning today.
2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)