January 13, 2014

Urban Edible Paradise: Planning

We have lived at our current house for about 12 years, and have always had a dream that we could eventually make both the inside and the outside of the property beautiful, elegant, and in the image of our own desires. The reality of life being what it is, this is more of an ideal to work towards rather than an expectation of future results. The inside of the house is pretty much done now (only took 12 years, ha ha). Though certainly things may be changed around again someday, and all things degrade over time and need fixing.

This typical Somerville two family house was never built to be fancy, and it never will be. But we are very happy with what we have done inside, and are incredibly fortunate to have such a lovely, spacious place to live on a relatively big lot in a great urban(ish) location. We are also lucky that we have had the time, resources, and skills to renovate the interior. Now we can begin to turn our attention and efforts toward the exterior and the landscaping.

The front porch is rotting and the outside of the house looks like a dump, but on the other hand so did the yard. After years of thinking about it, we decided to get started on the yard first. We want to plant nuts and fruit, which can take 5-10 years to really come into bearing.

When we moved in, the yard was full of weeds and overgrown brush, with plenty of broken glass and trash embedded in the dirt to spice things up.

Over time, I've brought the vegetation under control and cleaned up the most obtrusive trash. But the yard was still an unattractive place surrounded by a rusting and broken chain link fence pierced with seedling trees.

Inspiration and Research
There has long been a vague sense of "someday we've got to do something with the yard...", but this began to crystallize into a more concrete idea a few years ago when Becky checked out the wonderful book Farm City, by Novella Carpenter, from the library.

She brought it with us when we rented a house in Falmouth on Cape Cod for a week in the fall of 2012 with my mom and her husband. Both of us read it and enjoyed it immensely. It is a well written and highly entertaining tale of squat gardening and raising increasingly improbably livestock on an abandoned lot in the hood in Oakland, CA. This book really inspired us by giving us the sense that one could do some amazing things in food production, even with a small city lot and little investment.

Becky and I both love food and are intensely interested in learning about it, cooking it, and eating it (too much so if you judge by how tight my pants seem to be these days). You can get a sense of how deeply we enjoy immersing ourselves in food by looking at this example post where we make a batch of tamales using home nixtamalized and ground corn, home rendered lard, home cultured and churned butter, home made chicken stock, and beans that were previously used to dye fabric. We like reading about food too, and both of us have read Botany of Desire, Omnivore's Dilemma, and most recently Cooked:

all by Michael Pollan. One or both of us have also read other books on subjects like cod, chocolate, bread, milling flour, brewing, cheesemaking, apples, countless cookbooks, etc. So the idea of maximizing edibles in the landscaping plans began to take root. There are plenty of great looking perennial food plants, so why not plant those instead of plants that are strictly decorative?

Over time we checked out tons of landscaping and homesteading type books from the library. Books on landscaping with fruit, backyard chickens, grafting, pruning, permaculture, soil building, and so on. Some of my favorites were:

Landscaping With Fruit, by Lee Reich
The Pruning Book, Lee Reich
The Holistic Orchard, Michael Philips
Free Range Chicken Gardens, Kate Baldwin
Mini-Farming: Self sufficiency on 1/4 acre, Brett Markham

Another inspiring book we recently read was Paradise Lot. It was not quite as much fun as Farm City, but far more applicable to our situation since the project undertaken is a sited on similar urban lot to ours in a similar climate. It is also more useful in a practical sense, detailing what they planted, plot plans, etc., whereas Farm City is more like an adventure book.

A primary source for the permaculture crowd is a book called One Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka.

This was written by an old Japanese guy in the 70's who was a very early trailblazer for much of the techniques and outlook that is central to permaculture today. I ordered it from the library and read it over a couple days. It is short, and pretty interesting to read, and I would recommend it to anyone with interest in these topics. I'm not 100% on board with his philosophy, but it is refreshing to hear his unorthodox outlook and methods. He advocates "no-work farming", and describes how he carelessly seeds, doesn't till, fertilize, or transplant, etc. Though it is worth pointing out that his no-work farm of a couple acres runs on free volunteer labor from a bunch of young interns (which is just like the small organic farms around here today). Anyway, I'm excited to plant some soil conditioning daikon and other biomass generating cover crops.

In point of fact, it would be fair to say that we've over-read on this project. That isn't unusual though; the number of house fixing books and magazines I've made it through over the years could fill a dump truck. I'm pretty sure the number of books I've read about gardening vastly exceeds the number of plants I have ever grown, which would undoubtedly sound ridiculous to a real gardener. But I like to read, so it's as much a leisure activity as it is an act of preparation for actually doing something. Probably no one would think it was strange if I had watched a lot of TV shows on gardening rather than read books about gardening. Also, when I flop into bed exhausted at 9 or 9:30pm after putting the kids to bed, it's easier to contemplate reading for half an hour than it is to think about going outside and digging holes or building a fence.

Are we really gardeners?
Our actual real life experience gardening is minimal. I grew a few things here and there in California growing up. My mom has usually had extensive gardens, but I never really did much with her on them. Here is part of last year's garden at her place in Oregon, from when we visited last fall.

Some years ago, our housemate at the time LeeAnn Kim dug us out two 4x10' raised beds in the front yard. We have been growing things in there with varying degrees of success.

Originally we put in two rhubarb and a bunch of asparagus in one bed. The rhubarb got some kind of crown rot and died, and the asparagus never really did that well. So that box eventually got planted in annuals. Here it is in the summer of 2012, with kale, beets, tomatoes, oregano, basil, nasturtiums, marigolds, and daisies.

Here it is last summer. Beans are climbing up the trellis and the purple amaranth plants, there is a squash volunteer going nuts in the foreground, some languishing cardoons in front of the amaranth, and some marigolds further down the box.

 This last year we grew: garlic



red asparagus beans

among other things... The kids like to help plant, water, and harvest.

The other box was planted in annuals for two or three years. Here is my mom planting tomatoes with Violet a couple years ago. Violet is of course dressed for the occasion.

That box had to get ripped up with a backhoe when the sewer line from our house to the street had to get replaced (yeah, that was fun).

I've had a couple small boxes in the front on the west property line that I've grown potatoes in the last two seasons.

All in, I'd say we struggle to make the time to garden in these very small plots, and don't do a tremendously good job of it. So why in the world are we planning on making our yard into an enormous garden that will surely demand a lot from us? Ambitious plans are easier to deliver than actual results. We'll have to wait and see if we can actually make all this new garden stuff work out.

Starting to Plan
To get started, I took some measurements of the lot and the house and put them in autocad to make a rough plan view. I imported these into Inkscape, imported a bitmap from Google maps of our lot, then fiddled around with things to make the measurements more or less agree with the satellite photo. I got a quote on a lot boundary survey ($850), but decided not to get it. Just operating on the existing fence locations seemed less expensive and less likely to cause any disagreements with our neighbors if we wanted to change where the fences ran based on the survey.

Jean Brooks
Knowing nothing about how much landscaping costs, but being frequent admirers of the incredible yards in neighboring Cambridge, we decided to hire a landscape architect to help us make a plan. Once we had a plan, we could figure out how much things would cost, what we could do ourselves, and how to stage things if we wanted to spread out the effort and cost over time. After looking at a number of websites and having a few people over to look at the project, we chose to work with Jean Brooks. She has an impressive porfolio of elegant and beautifully done projects both large and small, and was great to work with. I supplied them with my autocad plot outline and her team drew us up a nice looking plan and a rough estimate of costs.

The plan, however, was not as heavy on edibles as we increasingly desired, and didn't include some things we felt we really wanted, like a fence. The parterre garden in front is super cute, but the pathways are rather narrow since it's not a big space. The reality is that up to 10 people live in our house and are coming and going frequently. The thought of everyone having to navigate a narrow path around the center of the parterre, dragging suitcases, moving couches and dressers in and out... it just didn't seem practical.

Also, the estimated costs were truly mind blowing. Like nearly as much as it costs to buy a house in a nearby suberb! I feel it was on the whole worthwhile to hire the architects for the plan though, since it helped us focus on some important things to consider, solidified some good concepts to work from, and made us realize we were not going to be able to have the quite the same kind of yard as rich people in Cambridge. Pricing for hardscaping like retaining walls, bluestone or brick walkways, and driveway surface was especially eye popping.

Piles of Plans
So taking the drawing as a starting point, Becky started making new plans by tracing the outlines of Jean's plan and then working up the elements of the landscape using pencils and markers.

She must have made at least 50 plans, usually operating in bursts over a week or two, repeated every few months.

Meanwhile, I was making plans up in Inkscape. One thing that was fun to do and helpful for the planning process was to make up a blank landscape on one page, then another page with all the elements we wanted to include like the playset, several sizes of patio, various trees and bushes, rocks, outdoor furniture and the like. These elements could then be cut out with scissors and moved around on the blank landscape.

Just in case you were to mistake me for someone who accomplishes a lot at home, note that the above plans are taped to interior doors that have been stacked up in our dining room for over 5 years.

To fix a layout, the cut out objects can be pasted down, then augmented with drawing on the landscape. As you can see, we made heavy use of the kids' scissors, glue sticks, markers, and pencils.

There was a continuing disconnect in what we felt was the minimum project worth doing and what our potential budget was. Becky and myself lined up a number of other landscapers to come over and talk about the project. At minimum I wanted a new fence, at least one retaining wall/terrace in back (the lot is sloped, though not excessively so), and some adjustment of the grades. Becky wanted some minimum of walkways. I felt like I didn't really want to do any work to plant anything if there was a chance we were going to tear it up again in a year (or five). Some of the contractors we had over were more small scale garden oriented. Others never showed up. Some came over but never got back to us. Meanwhile, our potential budget was creeping up while we were simultaneously trying to talk ourselves out of the most expensive features.

We had observed the path of the sun and shadows over multiple years, taken pictures, and made drawings of sun patterns. This had convinced us that we needed to cut down most of the tangle of sycamore maples and small oaks that had grown up on the southeast side of the property, in order to let enough sun into the backyard that gardening could succeed. There is certainly a tradeoff when considering how to maximize a space for either growing or for human leisure. Lots of shade is nice for people to hang out in the summer. Blazing sun is better for most plants. The final decision for us was to leave a big Norway Maple on the west property line and a split Sycamore Maple on the east side. Neither of these trees are ideal, but they are there and will give us some shade in the back while other trees are growing up. Maybe someday we'll cut these too and put in more desirable trees, but who knows.

So we had the tree guys come quote the trees, the fence guys come quote the fence, etc. Things were still just too expensive.

Finally last spring Becky had Tom from Yardworks over. He gave us the best overall combined quote, and the attractive feature of doing everything through one point of contact. He also seemed to not be scared off by our still somewhat amorphous concept of the final details, and appeared to take the ideas we had in stride with confidence. We worked on the plan some more over the summer and got back in touch with Tom to figure out if we could make a backyard only plan fit in the budget.

With some back and forth, we finalized on the details and price. The proposed project was quite a lot of work, and as a result the price was not small. Combined with my estimate of cost to buy the wood for the side fences and what we will spend on plants, it was comparable to the average kitchen renovation. But we felt that if we were going to stay at this place, we would get a lot of value out of fixing up the back yard. Perhaps not as much as a fixed up kitchen, but that is why we did the kitchens (and the rest of the interior) first.

We did consider whether it might be better to just move someplace else which might offer more land, less work to make it how we wanted it, maybe a bigger or nicer house. But after some serious thinking on this subject, we determined that we could spend quite a bit on landscaping and have it still be cheaper than buying a different house. Plus we like our house and our neighborhood and don't really want to move anyway.

So finally we pulled the trigger and set the start date with Yardworks for the backyard renovation.

Current Plan Status
Here is a vector version of the current plan, in case it could be helpful for anyone doing a similar project. The scale is currently set to 1 pixel = 1 inch. This makes our plan slightly bigger than an 11x17" paper, so it has to be scaled down a little to print out. I started working on this plan before I became as deeply religious about the metric system as I am these days, so measurements are in inches and feet. Contractors in America mostly don't want to work with metric measurements anyway.

For deciding what plants to put where, we have been heavily influenced by both Lee Reich and Paradise Lot, as well as extensive scouring of the internets.

Micro orchard (back terrace)
This is my own personal domain, and I'll be treating it in a separate post. But the key elements are:
  • 7 dwarf apple trees for espalier on the back fence
  • herbs 
  • alliums
  • greens
  • beneficials 

Middle terrace
This is mostly Becky's domain.
  • 2 Nanking cherry
  • asparagus
  • strawberries
  • annuals
  • beneficials 

East property line
  • Siberian pea shrub - N fixer, edible with some effort if society implodes, otherwise good chicken food
  • Cornelian cherry x 2 - Great looking small tree in the dogwood family, makes cherry like fruits
  • Goumi - N fixing shrub, makes little red fruits
  • Blackberry x 8 - Thornless upright type
  • Clove currants - native to north america, pretty aromatic flowers and edible fruit
  • Lilac - Becky couldn't do without one
  • Chinquapin - bush chestnut native to north america, small nuts and not blight immune, but vigorous and won't die from the blight. Pollinators for the future big chestnut tree we'd like to put in place of one of the existing front trees.

West property line 
  • Swiss stone pine x2 - Tall but skinny pine, makes edible nuts, might help get soil more acidic for berries
  • Hazelnuts x6 - mix of types from Badgersett Research
  • Ostrich ferns - For harvesting fiddleheads
  • Mushroom logs - we saved about 1 cubic meter of logs from maples cut down during the project and I plugged them with ~1000 shiitake spawn plugs. They are now incubating in the basement, but will go outside eventually.
  • Wintergreen - sounds like a neat plant

We had the landscapers broadcast seed for Earthturf, a grass mix heavy on clover. Salt marsh hay was spread on top.

Future elements
  • Bigger compost bins
  • Chicken coop and run - we don't have chickens yet but we'd like to get them
  • Groundnuts
  • Sunchokes
  • Gooseberries
  • Currants
  • Sea Kale, Turkish Rocket
  • Ramps


brossa said...

I've been putting edible landscaping plants on our suburban lot (zone 5, Iowa) piecemeal over the last six years or so. I've got apples, bush cherries, pawpaws, gooseberries, asparagus, rhubarb, wintergreen, ostrich ferns, Jerusalem artichokes, hardy kiwi, strawberries as ground cover, blueberries, blackberries, red currants, and serviceberries. I've put in annuals like kale and tomatoes as well. My biggest success has been with herbs, which I put right on either side of the front steps - it helps to not have to put shoes on to grab some thyme or basil from the 'garden'. Ground cherries have also done very well, as have the ostrich ferns. The wintergreen is extremely slow to spread, but the soil here is not the best match. The biggest difficulty around here is keeping things safe from browsing deer and rabbits; I've resorted to putting up netting around the apple trees and fencing around the fruiting shrubs, which detracts from their aesthetics quite a bit.

I had visions of canning and jams and such, but I've found that emphasizing variety has limited my usable yields of any one item. With a dozen big blueberry shrubs I might have gotten a couple of pints at a time over a several week period; with three shrubs I get a handful at a time, which is great for eating out of hand but not enough for preserving. I've also found that companion planting (ground cherries and strawberries around the apple trees, for example) does help to minimize the need for weeding but also sometimes means that you have to fight through two layers of plants to get to the stuff you want.

My parents do a standard rural 1/4 acre garden plot that's out in full sun, and they get orders of magnitude more usable produce than the edible landscaping in my front yard, which tries to be productive while keeping the local homeowners association happy. I still think the results are worth it, but if I were really depending on the calories it would all get ripped out and planted as row crops.
Also, while I planned the plant spacing to account for mature growth, I didn't really allow for room to move around and between those mature plants! So the serviceberries now grow right up against the red currants, and both of them are kissing the garage wall.

Holly Gates said...

Wow, sounds like a great spread you have set up there; more or less what we are aspiring towards. Our goals are to have the yard look nice and be functional as a multi-purpose space, not take as much work as intensive annual gardening, and provide some interesting and varied food. If everything goes very well, maybe we could get 100-1000kg of food per year. But many places are part shade either from the house or the remaining trees, the soil is not that good for the most part, and we are not great gardeners. So I'm not counting on it providing a truly significant portion of the calories needed for our family of five.

If we have enough extra to put up of anything, I expect it might be the cherries from the Nanking and Cornelians, but it could easily be the case that the birds eat most of the them. We should eventually have more apples than we can eat fresh (without cold storage), so some would turn into sauce or cider.

If plants do grow well, I suspect like you we would find that we've put things too close together. I can only hope that is our biggest problem!

brossa said...

In rereading my post it sounds more discouraging than I had intended. I'm happy that I put in the edible landscaping, and I'd do it again if we were to move to a new place. There are definitely compromises that have to be made between maximizing yield and having something that still looks like a yard rather than a plowed field. It sounds like you've put a lot of thought into the project and you have a realistic appraisal of your light and soil conditions. For me, lack of direct sunlight has been the main issue; the ferns have really prospered compared to a bunch of the other things.

If I were able to keep the deer and birds away from every last scrap, I might crack 60 or 70 kg of produce from my yard; probably 80% of that would be apples. In reality, birds and other pests probably get 50% or more of my yield, mostly because I'm not willing to leave festoons of bird netting over my front yard for weeks at a time. Still, nothing beats that handful of alpine strawberries that the birds missed!

Holly Gates said...

Well, one thing we have going for us in a city setting is lack of deer and rabbits, and our lot is bigger than most in the area. And no homeowner's association, so we don't need to worry too much about the aesthetic views of our neighbors. Anyway, its hard to get any worse looking than the typical Somerville yard, which might be paved with crumbling asphalt, ringed with rusty chainlink, and feature a disused above ground pool or junk automobile. Even overgrown herbs are an improvement.

Downside of the city location is worries about contaminated soil and crime (more concentrated, but not necessarily any higher per capita).

brossa said...

One more comment, since I saw you mentioned them - I put Jerusalem Artichokes in (aka sunchokes and other names) by burying most of a 55-gal barrel in the ground and planting them inside that to prevent the lateral spread of the tubers. They've done well and stayed contained. I got the tubers from the local community garden, where they have been growing wild for years and causing no end of trouble as they continue to spread and spread. I also got lemon balm from the same place and had to work for three years to eradicate it.