We can begin by doing small things at the local level, like planting community gardens or looking out for our neighbors. That is how change takes place in living systems, not from above but from within, from many local actions occurring simultaneously. – Grace Lee Boggs
Building a Backyard Farm Garden
Access to farm land is one of the great challenges facing young farmers in the 21st century. While there are a few of us who are genuinely interested in dedicating our life to agriculture, there are even fewer who can afford to pay the exorbitant cost of traditional acreage. However, it only takes a few moments of looking around suburbia to realize that there is fertile, unused land everywhere! Instead of locking ourselves into a mortgage that we aren’t ready for, we have partnered with a few of people from our community to turn their unused yards into productive farm gardens.
Ripe with Potential
We were beyond excited with the prospect of turning this plot of grass into an edible garden. The first thing that we noticed on the day of installation was the apparent health of the grass growing on this 40×30 foot space. We took the health of the grass to be a good sign for the many crops we intended to plant. After surveying the space, we jumped into action and began the process of turning this backyard into a productive growing space.
Preparing the Space
First item on the agenda was preparing the space for our garden installation by mowing back the grass nice and short. Instead of pulling up the whole lawn, we decided to dig several individual beds. Referring to our design layout, we marked out nine various size beds using spray paint. Once we had our plot laid out, it was time to pull up the grass!
One of the important things that we learned from last year is that employing the correct tools makes the job insanely easier. Instead of using only a hoe and shovel, this year we rented a sod cutter and tiller from the hardware store. These tools help turn a four to five hour into something that can be accomplished in an hour or two.
Cutting Sod & Tilling Soil
Although these machines are on the heavy side, they are pretty easy to use once you get the hang of it. The sod cutter shaves off the top layer of grass and the tiller comes behind and turns over the soil about 1-2 feet deep. As the tiller turned the soil over it unveiled a plethora of worms and other bugs which is an indication of very healthy soil!
In the photo below, you can notice how easily the sod rolls up after the sod cutter runs over it. We repeated this process for all nine of our varied size beds. We then came behind and tilled the soil.
Half way there!
After a couple hours, all of our garden beds were tilled and ready for planting. We took a few minutes to envision which beds might work better for the different crops we intended to plant. Because this plot of land is partially shaded, we wanted to make sure certain crops, like tomatoes, had more access to sunlight than lower light plants, such as herbs.
We were especially excited to plant the 10 pounds of organic potatoes that I had ordered a few weeks prior to our installation. Digging two trenches in two of the bigger garden beds, we then laid the potato seeds about 8-12 inches apart. Then we came back with organic garden soil and built up a mound. Other crops that we planted on this plot include, Brandywine tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers – both hot and mild, eggplant, zuchinni, basil, sage, thyme, blue hyssop and mint. After we got all of our young crops in the ground we came behind and mulched all of the beds to ensure that the soil stays moist throughout the dog-days of summer and also to help quell weeds from growing through.
One Week Later
The photo below was taken one week after we installed this farm garden. The two beds that the potatoes were planted in are on the left and in the back. As you can see they are still only just mounds of soil at this point in time. The bed on the right side has 20 tomato plants, the four smaller beds in the center are a mix of sweet potatoes, peppers, and eggplant (about 6-7 plants per bed), and the two front beds are a mixture of herbs with a few decorative flowers.
4.5 Weeks Later
Four and a half weeks after installation is marked by much taller growth – especially for the potatoes. While it is a little difficult to perceive in the photos, the crops in the center beds are also noticeably taller and are already beginning to fruit. At this point, we added about 12 bags of organic soil to the base of the potato plants in a process called hilling. This helps the potatoes to grow bigger and better. We also added an organic fertilizer composed of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium to all the crops besides the potatoes (since we added the fresh nutrient rich soil to them instead).
Six Weeks Later
The fertilizer application combined with a rainy week was a healthy mixture for these plants. The tomatoes are sporting a healthy dark green hue, and the potatoes are already beginning to flower. We added another 12 bags of soil to the potato plants for good measure. All of the plants are growing nicely and we are looking forward to a healthy harvest.