As a child of the sixties, I can’t help but have this strange compulsion to want to “get back to the land” – that is, to run away from everything that annoys me about city life and embrace that elusive Shangri-la lying somewhere out beyond the suburbs. I know I am not alone in this feeling and it is wise not to dismiss such inclinations too cynically. However, most of my city-born friends who have made for the hills have not lasted very long out there, or, if they did, they ended up spending most of their time commuting back to the megatropolis for work and for play, while their dreams of the self-sufficient rural life degenerated into suburban acreage sprawl or anemic “hobby farms”.
The point is, we don’t have to move out to the sticks in order to grow our own food, connect with the earth and live a more self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyle. Indeed, some of the most creative, inspiring and transformative local food projects are happening in towns and cities throughout North America. Maybe even just down the block from where you live. A cornerstone of permaculture thinking is that “we begin where we are” – be it a rental house, an apartment, a condo or a sprawling home in the suburbs – there is no better place and time to start. As the bi-line on my friend’s email observes, “You don’t have to get back to the land – you’re already there!”
Permaculture can be practiced on many scales – from the smallest of urban yards or balconies, to community and public spaces, to farms and larger land holdings. Starting small has many advantages: we can develop considerable skill and expertise farming a small urban yard, without the huge commitment of time, money and energy it would take to be growing on 30 acres. Smaller spaces can also be incredibly productive per unit of area. The Jervais family of four in Pasadena California have consistently grown around 6000 lbs of food on their urban lot, one tenth of an acre in size, easily enough to meet their own produce needs for the year and to sell the surplus for income. Small urban spaces around the world are increasingly feeding the hoards of hungry city mouths and are reducing greenhouse gasses, water consumption, land erosion and loss of bio-diversity in the process.
There is no one “right way” to grow food and there are as many different approaches as there are gardeners. Each site is unique and the needs of each grower are as well. Here are a few general principles and strategies from the permaculture perspective that will be useful in determining an approach that will work well for you.
Observation. No matter where you live and how ambitious or modest your food growing goals may be, the first essential step is careful observation. Get to know your place in intimate detail: what are the sun and shade patterns, how does water move in the landscape, where are the warm and cool micro-climates, what are soil conditions like in different parts of the yard? Understanding these key energies on your site will enable you to make good design decisions that will increase your productivity and decrease the amount of work you eventually need to maintain the site.
Think outside the box. Many of us have been raised with the notion that growing food in our yards is limited to a rectangular plot of long straight rows of vegetables somewhere between the back fence and garage. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Edible species can be integrated throughout the landscape in a multitude of creative ways. Spiral herb gardens near a patio; elegantly shaped beds of perennial and annual vegetables mixed with edible flowers; and grapes or kiwis trellised over a deck or walkway are just a few examples.
Food can be functional. Edible species can also be used to achieve certain functional goals in the landscape. Berry producing shrubs like blueberry, goumi berry, sea buckthorn, currants and haskap can be combined together to make a very effective hedge. Fruit trees can be trained as an espalier to disguise an ugly wall or to create a “living fence” where a boundary is needed. Edible ground covers (i.e. red clover, mints, thymes, chamomile, wild strawberry, etc.) can provide an interesting and useful alternative to traditional lawns.
Go vertical. Particularly in urban environments where space is limited, growing “up” rather than out can create a full, lush landscape that is also highly productive. Using vining species such as pole beans, peas, squash, or cucumber is an easy way to take advantage of this principle. Edible species can be chosen to fill all vertical niches in the landscape from roots, to ground covers, to herbaceous perennials, to shrubs, to short and tall trees. Using containers, wall mounted units, vertical growing tubes, and self- watering pots made from old buckets are other great strategies for increasing yields, especially for apartment dwellers.
Use microclimates. The beauty of any small yard is that there are many unique micro-climates that offer distinct growing conditions. The south facing wall of the house, for example, may be the perfect place to locate a cold frame for an early spring crop of greens. A currant or gooseberry will love the partially shady, moist environment on the southeast corner of the house or garage near the downspout. Discover where your micro-climates are and use them to your advantage! Small greenhouses and cold-frames can greatly extend the growing season, allowing for year round harvest of most vegetables. Take it one step further and integrate fish production into your greenhouse in an “aqua-ponic” system in which the plants and fish support each other.
Cycle resources. Just as there is no such thing as waste in nature, our mini urban farms should cycle all organic matter, water and energy repeatedly through the garden system, building and improving soil and overall productivity over time. Composting systems are the obvious way of doing this, but we can also incorporate tremendous amounts of organic “waste” from the home, yard and the wider neighborhood by “sheet-mulching” our growing beds, and using “no-till vegetable growing” systems.
Think perennials. The foods we grow in our yards or balconies need not be limited to annual vegetables. Fruits, nuts, berries, perennial herbs and perennial vegetables give us a great yield for less work than maintaining vegetable gardens. Perennial greens such as sorrel, bloody dock, lovage and sweet cicely come up earlier in the spring than annual greens and have deeper root systems which withstand drought better than annuals do.
Rhubarb, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes and sea kale are a few other no fail perennial vegetables that will produce in our yards year after year. If this idea appeals to you, you can create groupings or “guilds” of perennial plants from ground covers to tall trees that work to support each other in what we call “edible forest gardens.”
Get in touch with your animal nature! You can be more than an urban farmer – you can be an urban rancher too! Every home food system should include some animal life both for the food that our furry and feathered friends can provide us and for the critical role that they play in cycling nutrients and maintaining and promoting bio-diversity and balance in the system. Three or four chicken can produce all the eggs a small family needs and will consume tremendous amounts of kitchen waste and garden pests such as slugs, sow bugs and aphids, turning them into fantastic fertilizer. One bee hive can produce up to 100 pounds of honey per year. Rabbits, ducks, and mini goats and cows (yes, you heard that right!) can also be part of a micro urban farm.
The benefits of growing food right outside your door go beyond the obvious ones of health, economic savings and lower environmental impact; there is something about urban food gardening that can’t help but build community. Plant some raspberries along your lane and watch the kids show up. Rip up your front lawn and plant veggies, herbs and fruit trees and you will have conversations with your neighbours that you never dreamed of – guaranteed! When we begin to heal our fragmented food system, we are simultaneously healing the social systems that have likewise been torn asunder. We are resting away some measure of control from the global corporate empires that profit obscenely from our dependence. We are taking responsibility for ourselves and our communities and the essentials we need to live.
And that my friends, is a revolutionary act.