Do you sit at your office cubicle and dream of driving a tractor across acres of your own farmland? Even just a small tractor and an acre or two—enough to live self-sufficiently or work the farmers market scene? Do you then return home to an urban lot, squashed in between other urban lots, and despair that you’ll never escape, never save enough, never find the right plot of land? Do you count your savings and check real-estate listings, hoping that magical plot of land (affordable, ideally sited, just the right size) will come along sooner than later, allowing you to start living the grow-your-own dream instead of just imagining it?
Don’t worry. Just because you can’t live your off-the-grid-self-sufficient-farmer fantasy life right now doesn’t mean you need to abandon the whole vision or put it on hold until you can take the plunge. Get started now, with what you’ve got, where you are. Consider it practice. Consider it testing the waters. Consider it making do with what you have. However you think of it, there’s no reason to hold off from starting your own farm/garden right now!
1. Get Creative With Your Space
A productive garden doesn’t need to be a set of raised beds built of dimension lumber and set up in orthogonal rows. When looking at your space, consider all of the options and all of the spaces. An organically shaped hugelkultur bed may very well accommodate an odd or sloping piece of ground you’d thought unusable. And front yard gardens aren’t just for Portland anymore. While we all hear horror stories about fights with small-minded officialdom or recalcitrant neighbors, the reality is that far more folks happily grow edibles than end up in legal disputes.
Talk to your neighbors, test the waters, and see how things will fly. It never hurts to open the “would you mind if I plant some edibles up front” conversation by bringing over a home-grown salad, a few eggs or other sample of what bounty your garden already produces. There’s also the option of “stealth edibles”—something like a blueberry bush or a fruit tree that’s visually appealing and easy to work into decorative landscaping without anyone being the wiser.
There’s a great place for containers, as well. Many crops thrive in container gardens: Think potato towers, tomatoes and herbs. You can reclaim concrete patio space, the edge of a driveway and even an apartment balcony this way. We’ve put containers of peppers and tomatoes on our roof to take advantage of the sunlight—though I’d be careful with this. Make sure your roof can handle the weight and that you have easy and above all safe access.
2. Practice Season Extension
If you can’t add space to your garden, why not add time? You don’t need to be a Harry Potter character to find more time in the gardening year. You just need to aggressively use season-extension techniques. Use cloches, cold frames or a compact greenhouse to start the growing season earlier and extend it later.
If you set up an indoor seed-starting station with good artificial light and perhaps a heater mat, you’ll not only be able to start seeds earlier in the year but also be able to get seeds going while you wait for an outside crop to finish maturing and free up some space. (This is particularly helpful with fall crops.)
We like to call this whole package of ideas “Four-Dimensional Gardening,” planning our garden to take full advantage of the sowing, transplanting and harvesting cycles of all the different plants we want to grow. With overwintering crops, quick-maturing fall greens, intercropping and other techniques, you’ll be able to get two full crops out of most of your garden space every year.
3. Stick to High-Value Crops
Ah, seed catalogs. They arrive every spring full of beautiful descriptions for hundreds of varieties, all seductively described and oh-so-tempting! The urge is to grow all of them, to sample a little of everything, the novel and the exotic. But the words the small-scale production gardener needs to look for are “productive,” “reliable” and “high yielding,” not “unique,” “new” and “exotic.”
If your goal is to produce as much of your food of your own plot of land as possible, then focus on reliable, high-yielding crops and varieties. Identify characteristics that are key for your climate, and select those. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we choose many of our summer crops based on days-to-maturity—the quicker the better! Also, grow what you eat and what you’ve learned you grow well … and avoid the opposite. We’ve always had back luck with carrots for some reason, so we’ve stopped setting aside space for a crop that’s frustrating and disappointing.
Trust me, even the most mundane, reliable, highly productive variety grown in your own yard and eaten fresh out of the soil is going to be light years better than anything you will find at the supermarket.
4. Be Part of a Team
I’m lucky—I live on a block where one neighbor keeps bees and another grows brilliant carrots. We have ducks and chickens a plenty. A local brewery has more leftover grain than it can deal with, so we feed it to our flocks. This makes for a natural incorporation of swap economy into our life and is something you should consider, too. We give eggs and get carrots and grain.
If you’re in town, keep an eye out for patches of vegetables, chicken coops and other signs of backyard productivity. Make friends and connections and swap what you do well for what other folks are offering. Don’t confuse the goal of growing more of your own with the need to live entirely off your own land and effort. Whether casual or organized, swapping with your friends, neighbors and fellow productive gardeners will bring variety and bounty to your life.