We currently live in a time of crisis. Within 60 years there will not be any farmable soil left on this earth. If things do not change, within our life time we will see mass starvation and our species will be brought close to extinction.
My guess is that most of you reading this already know this. If you do not, I strongly recommend watching the documentary The Need to Grow to begin your education in this issue.
This article details the ways we made our city garden eco-friendly and sustainable. We are constantly working on our garden with the hope of making it a self sustaining, closed loop system.
Back in 2011 I, a social justice minded person, ended up marrying a geologist / environmental scientist. Somehow the combination of our personalities (he is introverted and I am extroverted), and our different educational backgrounds (his in the hard sciences and mine in the soft sciences) made a good match.
While his focus was on creating a sustainable and environmentally friendly way of living for himself, my focus on social justice took his knowledge and began working to apply it to the community at large.
When designing our own garden we had a few major goals in mind.
1. We wanted to plant foods that we would need throughout the year. We wanted to cut down our carbon foot print by reducing our purchases, in winter, of foods that are shipped long distances. To do this we focused on planting carrots, a multitude of herbs, beans, peas, broccoli, turnips, beets, potatoes, corn, raspberries, black berries, grapes and strawberries, cauliflower, squash, pumpkins, melons, tomatoes, rhubarb, asparagus, leeks, onions and blueberries.
Foods that we grow in our own garden we can, dry and freeze to use in the winter months. During the summer we purchase our produce from local farms such as Moders Gardens, Sunny Hill Farm, Cherry Lane Orchards the Oneida Apple Orchard and Green Bay Farmer’s Markets. Foods that we are unable to grow on our own (or do not produce enough of ourselves), such as cherries, strawberries, meat, sweet potatoes and apples, we buy in bulk from these farmers. We also try to make our own cheese from milk made by local farmers. We eat some throughout the summer and store most for winter. The photos below show some of our food processing and preserving methods.
2. The second most important thing we wanted, when designing our garden, was to make sure it would be cost effective. We knew we wanted to eliminate all grass from our yard, a process we have slowly completed over the years. Grass is one of the biggest pollution and environmentally harmful practices we have in the world today (videos with more information here and here). To do this though we needed to figure out how to do so in a way what would not lead to us having to water our plants just as much, if not more, than we would have to water grass lawns. Our yard gets a ton of sunlight and the grass, when we bought the home, dried up easily.
Our solution came in a three pronged approach. Knowing that droughts and dry periods would be inevitable the first thing we knew we needed to do was install rain barrels throughout the yard. By collecting rain water we 1, saved on the cost of watering our plants during dry seasons and 2, we were giving our plants healthier water than city water. (Why City Water is bad for plants).
The second thing we did to conserve water was hook up our sump-pump to a long hose which runs through the sunniest spot in our front yard. Since we use natural detergents for washing laundry we also hooked our washing machine up to the sub pump. We put multiple holes in the hose, running through the front part of our yard, so that every time the pump goes it waters large parts of our front yard. We move the hose every week to ensure all parts of our yard are getting enough water and to prevent over watering some plants.
The third thing we did was make sure we combined low lying, native plants, with the tall plants we placed in our yard. The low lying plants keep moisture in the soil and help to prevent evaporation while, with the use of arbors and trellises, the tall sun loving plants are able to provide shade for the low lying plants. Not only does this help prevent water evaporation and soil erosion, it also helped create an environment which welcomed the types of native bugs and animals we wanted in our garden. One of the things I have found most helpful is to plant mammoth sunflowers around the places where shade is needed to protect plants in late summer, but the plants need the sun in the spring.
Another thing that I learned through the years, was not to pull up many of the native “weeds” that come up in my garden. Many low lying plants which many view as “weeds” do not choke off other plants and work as an effective ground cover.
The third most important thing we wanted for our garden, was a variety of insects, birds and other animals like rabbits and squirrels to be a part of our garden, but we also wanted to keep away “bad bugs” and we only wanted rabbits and squirrels in our yard in the fall and winter.
Taking care of the rabbits and squirrels in our yard was the easiest part. Our dogs love the outdoors and scare away any unwanted animals during the spring and summer.
Birds were the second solution we found to ridding our yard of unwanted pests. I keep a supply of bird food out all year round. I have often witnessed birds fly off of my feeders to attack moths and other insects flying through my yard.
So far, the best solution we have found for ridding our yard of unwanted bugs, animals and pesky mosquitoes has come in 3 parts. 1. Beer traps. Placing open cans of peer, and putting beer in lids, attracts all types of pests. The crawl/fly in and don’t come out.
The second solution we found was to do companion planting by planting catnip, marigolds and other plants around our yard that naturally deter pests and predators. When it comes to my vegetable garden I often pair low plants like squash, potatoes and beets, with tall plants such as corn and climbing plants such as beans, cucumbers and other squash. Every year, including this year, when I don’t combine these plants together I find that the plants I plant solo do poorly.
Methods I swear by include The Three Sisters, growing herbs and strawberries together and growing tomatoes and asparagus together.
The third solution we found, for bringing good insects to our yard, was to plant native flowers, grasses and bushes throughout our yard, and to add bee homes as well.
The insects in your local area will only be attracted to native species. In order to ensure an abundant supply of pollinators in our yard we contacted our local UW-Extension. They not only gave us a list of the types of plants we should be growing in our yard, they also provided us with the ones they had for a cheap price.
That is about all the advice and learned experience I have to share at this time. This year I am excited because the grapes I planted 3 years ago are forming fruit this year. Each year different challenges come up, but for the most part, they system we have used, has ensured we have good crops and no major die offs.