How much food could you grow in your own yard? We're about to find out...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

It's interesting what can be found when playing in the dirt...

1) I've been lucky enough to have never had to do much manual labor in my life.  So, digging and shoveling has been a rarity in my life until this point.  Each of the past gardens I've started were rototilled before planting, so everything was mixed up into who knows what sort of random soil configuration.  It's interesting as I dig down in the beds to see that worms actually leave tunnels under the soil.  I am actually surprised, but maybe that's just incredibly naive.

2) I've gotten close up views of roots.  When I chopped down all that remained of the garden on Friday, all the roots were left intact.  I broadcast seeds pretty heavily when I planted in Spring 2010.  I never took the time to thin out plants and was surprised by their apparent health.  Now I know that even when plants are sewn too closely, they'll send their roots out at severely horizontal directions to the surface of the soil to find unused space.  I mean, it makes sense that a plant would do what it needs to to get nutrition, but I am amazed by this example of self-preservation.

3) I am amazed at the amount of plastic in my soil.  It's somewhat disconcerting, but I guess rationally I should know that plastics decompose very slowly and pose little risk.  It's just weird to see such prevalent bits of plastic in my soil.  I'm guessing that it's there because I used city-provided compost in Spring 2010 which is made from leaves and brush that is picked up curbside.  It makes sense that people's household trash and pedestrian's cumulative littered waste would be prevalent in what is picked up curbside.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Raised Beds, Hugelkultur style

We've started installing the raised beds in the garden area.  Raised beds are a good idea for a number of reasons:
1) they keep your veggies organized and they help you space out plants appropriately
2) they resist soil compaction, which aids worms and other beneficials in tunneling through the soil the way they're supposed to.
3) you can plant earlier because the beds are raised slightly and they'll warm sooner than soil at ground level.

We've decided that with raised beds it should be easier to build A-frame plastic covered hoop houses with a defined bed.  Also, fencing off or netting off particular plants will be far easier because an animal will have to tunnel under the wooden frame and then up to the surface in the bed; it's not impossible, but less likely when other food sources are undefended.

The hugelkultur concept has been highly praised as a way to save water.  With my water bills being about $1200 per year, it will reduce (or hopefully eliminate) the need for watering in later summer.  With hugelkultur, you simply bury carbonaceous material under the bed.  Typically logs are piled on teh ground and then dirt is piled on top of the piles.  Essentially, the logs act as sponges once they decay a bit. The logs hold water and the plants send roots down to the logs to sit there, mingle, and have drinks.  As the wood decays it provides valuable nutrients to plants.  Worms and other beneficial organisms feed on the wood and turn it into worm castings and other insect waste for the veggies to gobble up and use for their own purposes.  Circle of life, right?

In our suburban version, we want it to be more tidy and more likely to escape the complaints of neighbors who probably wouldn't want big heaping piles of dirt visible over the fence.  The raised beds are framed out of 2x8 lumber and measure 5'x10'.  The soil was dug out of the bed to a depth of about 10".

Initially, it was thought that wood would be difficult to source out in the amounts needed to line the bottom of 10 beds.  I started thinking of burying tree leaves bagged in brown paper bags like from a garden or hardware store.  Craigslist solved this problem.  It turns out that nobody wants their trees when they fall down or are cut down.  A quick search of the Free section found a half-dozen current posts where tons of free fire wood was available.  Anyways, we'll be renting a truck and going to pick up as much wood as possible.

So, once the wood is lined in the beds, the soil that is piled up neatly next to the bed will be back-filled.  If 10" is dug out from the bed, and 10" of wood is filled into the bottom of the bed, there will be an extra 2" of soil to pile up on the beds to account for when the dirt and wood settles out through the winter.

One more thing: when brown things (leaves, wood, other brown-colored biomass) decay, they use nitrogen from surrounding plants; high nitrogen levels aid in decomposition.  To counteract this, you need to beef up nitrogen.  There are three common sources available: manure, green biomass (grass clippings, green leaves), and blood meal.  Manure and blood meal will burn plants if applied directly, but will aid in the decomposition of all logs that are in the bed.  Another method involves saving and using your own nitrogen-rich urine, but this may be too much for some folks.

For more information about Hugelkultur visit:

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Finished hen run.

We got the hen coop finished.  The girls were outside rolling around in the dirt and pecking away at the new area.  They seemed curious and quite happy with their new territory.

We have big plans for the coop as a source of good fertilizer and for calories.

I've found a home for the two white Aracauna/bantam cross hens that we have at Catherine Ferguson Academy.  This is a great program in Detroit where pregnant teens and teen moms can attend school while their babies are cared for on site.  There is an on-grounds farm with apiary, poultry, a horse, and rabbits.  The students tend garden and engage in an entrepeneurship program where veggies grown on site at the school is sold at Eastern Market and other farmer's markets.

There was a great documentary made about the program and urban sustainability and economic/social justice called "Grown In Detroit"

here's a link to the trailer:

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Our first garden- Summer 2009

This was our first garden.  It was about 450 square feet.  I planted green bush habit beans, squash, peppers, beets, tomatoes, and a few herbs.

We yielded about a bushel of tomatoes, about a half bushel of beans, a dozen squash, poor pepper yield, poor beet yield, and poor herb yield.  Strawberries and raspberries in border gardens didn't yield much.

Still, we learned a lot!!!  We learned about spacing.  We learned not to plant pepper seeds to early.  We learned that every squash type is the same species as all others.  Our bees made sure we had some weird squash hybrids.

We took out about 5 quarts of honey from the hive.  The wife was in charge and took some lessons in beekeeping.  The hive died that winter.

At the end of the season, we cut down a decorative apple tree that was stealing my late evening sun for about half of the garden; it was about then that we decided to double the size of the garden.

Enlarging the chicken run.

When we first got chicks at the end of April 2010, we had never had pets, let alone domesticated birds that were supposed to provide us with eggs.  Thanks Sally and Joel!

We started them in a cardboard box with an incandescent bulb and transitioned them outside during days once it warmed.  They survived a small basement fire.  We started putting them in a dog kennel where we lost one to a raccoon or a cat (RIP Long Neck).  Soon we had a coop in the garage.  We used found materials (a door frame, some 1x4's, some green plastic garden fence).  Cut a hole into the side of the garage, and we were golden!

The hens had a small porch area that was fenced in.  It was this area that was tripled in size.  It will be very interesting to see how long it takes the hens to eat all the green shoots in their new area.  One week would be a fair guess.  In total the chickens take up about 100 square feet, counting their inside and outside space.

If a hen can lay 5 eggs per week, and we have 4 hens, and each egg is worth 75 calories, it would make sense to make sure there is enough space to collect those nearly 80,000 calories.  That creates over 3% of our family's total yearly calorie needs and is an easy source of protein. 

The larger hen coop had other practical reasons as well.  First, chickens need sunlight to lay eggs.  Large commercial producers who cage their hens know that artificial light and hormones are needed to make up the difference.  Having space outside for the hens will improve egg production and lead to healthier hens and eggs.  Second, with a larger area for the hens, they'll have a better chance to break down weeds, leaves, etc., for the compost pile.  More area, means less concentrated droppings, which means more readily usable chicken droppings (fresh chicken shit is too hot to go straight on the garden).  Third, happy birds make a difference to me for lots of intangible reasons.

So, this coop and run is far more permanent now.  When we first got the hens, we weren't sure if the neighbors would object, but there is little, apparently, that won't be forgiven if you just share your bounty (we bribe them with honey and basil and eggs).  So, it made sense to make it a better, permanent coop.

Here are our two laying hens.  Breed: ISA Brown, 6 months old.  "White Wing" and "Jumper."  They've been laying for two weeks; one per day, each.

Here's the coop from the inside of the garage.  bedding is all pine shavings, but will be hay or straw in the future.  We got a bale of pine shavings for a buck at a yard sale!  grass clippings or other yard waste would be great bedding.  We'll bring in fall leaves in garbage bags as a pre-composting pile step.  All of our household food waste goes to the hens for food.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

About us.

We are currently a family of 3, with a fourth on the way in Feb. 2011.  Our 2 1/2 year old boy is already enjoying the garden and is preparing for a career as a Zamboni driver.  The wife really likes eating fresh, nutritious food.  The husband really likes satisfying pathetic post-apocalyptic thought experiments.

Both husband and wife enjoy sticking it to consumption-based corporations by participating in their games as little as it possible.  Neither wife, nor husband like the rat-race and prefer to spend as little time (in an office) working.  The husband is a social worker.  The wife is presently telecommuting to a great, flexible IT job, but fancies herself a librarian or art educator.  Both husband and wife value experiences over possessions and like second-hand stuff.

We are permaculture enthusiasts.  We eat locally whenever possible and support local businesses over chains even though a premium is sometimes paid in terms of price.  We like unions and think trickle-down is what happens when you can't get to a bathroom.

Our suburb is pretty funky.  It's got a nice walkable grid layout.  Lots of tiny shops.  GLBT friendly.  Public transportation sucks.  Biking is becoming more commonplace.  The co-op preschool that we just joined is really fun!  City finances are crappy, just like everywhere else with increasing fees and decreasing revenues.

Husband's family had a garden growing up, but it was pesticide heavy.  Wife's family has history as Upper Peninsula homesteaders.  Husband's family has history of farming, but mostly monoculture and gardening.  Wife's family loves hunting and fishing.


Our area was a traditionally fertile area for agriculture.  Receding glaciers left behind tons of sediment.  Black dirt was 4 feet deep in my backyard; a sewer replacement trench let me scope that measurement..

In 2010, the yard was ripped up by a backhoe for a sewer line replacement ($4000 ouch!), it needed some serious attention this past spring.  Ceramic sewer was scattered everywhere and lots of gravel and other stuff was brought up from the backhoe work.  With help, we unloaded 8 full-size pick-up truck loads of municipal compost (leaves, branches, bits of plastic) from our local city DPW and raised the yard about 2 inches, for nice drainage.

After several rototilling sessions to mix in the compost, we planted mostly from seed.  I would guess that our soil is pretty rich with high levels of humus.  I haven't tested it's pH or had nutrient levels tested, but we've had great success with our garden thus far.

After this year, we will begin incorporating compost with chicken droppings and household compost, as well as yard waste as raised bed dressing.  We've never used any pesticides, insecticides, or artificial fertilizers on the garden.  We don't plan to, but it is clear that the previous owner did apply pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.

Watering may be required, but not regularly.  In summer 2010, the garden was watered often after initially sewing seed in the second week of May, but by mid-June, the watering stopped; none since, either.  I hadn't been very proactive with mulches last year, so that may be a serious way of reducing the overall water cost of the project.

Project Outline

Our calculated family nutritional caloric "need" is roughly 2.5 million calories per year.  The math is 4 family members * 365 days per year * 1700 calories.  Seems simple enough without addressing caloric disparity between first and third world nations..

We live in an inner-ring Detroit suburb in a thriving Woodward Corridor city.  Our home is a duplex with an upper one bedroom unit and a lower 2 bedroom unit.  We occupy the lower unit and rent out the upper unit to a wonderful friend.  We garden on our 40'x140' lot.  Our neighbors are really understanding and nice and gracious.

This project is about producing as much as possible of  our family's caloric intake.  We'll try to grow as much food as possible in our backyard and border gardens, totaling about 1100 square feet.  We have hens.  Two that lay.  We also have a beehive.  We are neither expert chicken-folk, nor expert apiarists.  We just like the way it all fits together.

Until this point, we have expanded what was just border gardens (2008) into a 500 square foot open-row designed garden with beehive (2009) to a 1000 square foot open-row garden with beehive and hens (2010).  I've taken out many plants in the border gardens and will continue to replace bulbs with edible perennials in the remainder of the year.

In 2011, the garden will be better organized with framed raised beds (between 16 and 20 of them) with a rough companion/square foot gardening strategy.  i'll be building poly-covered A-frame hoop houses starting in early April 2011.  I'm toying with the idea of putting in up to three fruit trees, grapes, and maybe an elderberry bush.  We'll grow potatoes for the first time next year.

It would likely take 3 years to dial in a food forest sort of strategy.  What is possible to eek out of an relatively unremarkable suburban backyard?  We'll try to find out.

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