I may end up with more time to spend on plant-growing endeavors soon. Over the past year, I've become friends with some neighbors in my dense city neighborhood, and they've made offhand remarks about that I could grow things in their yards once I have more plant-growing time and use up all my space. We haven't talked about any specific arrangement, but I'm trying to imagine a food-plant-growing setup that I can quickly set up in someone else's urban yard, so that I can pitch the detailed idea to them.
Lots in this neighborhood are about 1/4 acre, and the soil is pretty heavy clay stuff. I haven't done a soil pH test, but soils around here tend towards moderately acidic, I believe. I have 1/4 acre that has several established fruittrees, some berries, some non-food-bearing trees and bushes, some in-ground beds that I plant with annual vegetables to varying success, and a greenhouse. I could cultivate my space more intensively, and could certainly get more yield out of it. I could add some poultry or other small livestock. I could bring in more inputs and probably get more quick results -- my current strategy is to try to bring in as inputs only leaves I collect from neighbors, and wood chips from arborists, both of which take a while to produce results.
If I were to try to grow things in other people's yards, I would need to come up with a plan that would satisfy the following:
- Must be aesthetically pleasing. These neighbors aren't the super-manicured-lawn types, but I wouldn't want to put in something that is aesthetically offensive to any of them.
- Must get results quickly. I would have a hard time feeling okay about leaving a massive pile of wood chips in someone else's yard for years waiting for it to break down, even though I do that in my own yard all the time. Ideally, I would be able to put the system in place in the early spring, plant in it, harvest through the summer and fall and share with the yard-owners, then put the system to bed for the winter or plant with some winter crops or inoffensive cover crop. The key point being the short time from digging up someone else's yard to when I'm sharing food with them.
- Must be easy to remove. If I'm growing on someone else's land, I don't want to put a bunch of work into long-term fruit trees or perennials that they may decide to get rid of at any time. Short term easily-removed perennial vegetables would be okay.
- Ideally shouldn't cost very much or require a bunch of external inputs. I don't have a whole lot of money to buy a truckload of compost, and I don't trust bought compost either. Wood chips are free and plentiful. I don't have a lot of excess compost that I make on site, because all of it goes into the beds in my own yard. I was sort of thinking of trying to compost all the neighbors' yard and food waste streams, but that gets tricky because the neighborhood is absolutely crawling with rats. I'm only able to compost all of my own household's food waste because I do it indoors in a large worm/bsfl bin, but scaling that up would be difficult.
- Ideally shouldn't take very much supplemental water. There's generally 3-4 warm months with no appreciable precipitation during the summer. Being in the city here, all water comes from the city, and is ridiculously expensive. I haven't assessed the feasibility of diverting runoff into whatever area I might be able to convince them to let me grow plants in, but I imagine that diverting downspouts might involve too much trenching across yards to really work with this setup. The lots are generally quite flat, so there's not much violent runoff that needs to be dealt with.
My ideas so far are:
- I usually grow lots of tomato plants in my yard, and they usually seem do well without much irrigation. It seems like that just by digging a 2-3 foot deep post hole, stuffing some rich organic matter in the bottom, and planting the tomato plant deep in the hole so that it roots along the entire stem 2+ feet down, and then mulching the area around it and setting up some sort of support system, they seem to pretty much grow themselves. I suspect that I could probably use this method directly in someone else's weedy lawn with pretty good success, and devote less of my own space to tomatoes then. A similar method with a deep hole of rich organic matter and some thick mulch could probably work with some zucchini or other squash too. And these are vegetables that people are familiar with and would probably be excited to have growing prolifically in their yards.
- As far as establishing a "garden bed" in which I could grow more finicky vegetables, I'm not sure how I could do that in someone else's yard a) quickly, b) without bringing in a bunch of inputs, c) cheaply and d) that looks pleasant to someone who doesn't like messy brush piles everywhere.
surely you are familiar with Curtis Stones' book and website? I bought his book "The urban farmer" (not sure why, our plots here are much smaller than 1/4 acre) and it gives some good ideas.
You have to consider that he wants a very quick turnaround (he sells to restaurants) with multiple crops over the year and all the logistics in place (for harvesting, washing, packaging) which you wouldn't need.
Tomatoes sound like a good plan and are easy to process.
Squashes also sound good.
Any other climbing/vining plants that cover the ground and make it unnecessary to dig and weed a larger area are good, maybe some exotic cucumber, luffa, kiwano or lady's slipper variety?
Another aspect is to plant veggies that do not need to be harvested very often and on an exact date but are more tolerant in this respect, e.g. kales or chards.
So when you have decided on the plants and go with the fertile hole and add mulch, the need for irrigation will either be minimal or non-existant. Check out youtube for some examples of people doing it in dry climates like California. I also check the FB group "Humans who grow food", there are some wonderful examples.
You could add marigolds and nasturtiums for a pleasing aspect.
I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do. (E.E.Hale)
I was also going to reference Curtis Stone, who seems to have it down to a science, although most of what I see him do seems to be leafies.
Reading about your "tomato hill" idea, it seems like maybe a three sisters approach with compost hills might be nice and also good ways of burying a large amount of organic matter and some mulch. Add some sunflowers for fun, and maybe if you do funky types of squash or don't have space for them to run you could use trellising.
You maybe even could prep early in the year and grow kale/chard/whatever other earlies do well there til it gets warm enough for your three sisters plants.
If I were planning something like this, I would want to take into consideration that I would be using someone else's water. How much sharing would a person doing this idea share with the person who owns the land? 50/50 on any and all the produce?
Another thought would I need a wheelbarrow to haul my tools to each site? Or would I have the tool in my car? Or would the tools be provided by the landowner?
Also, would the person who owns the land be able to just pick what they need for their lunch or dinner?
This is a great idea especially nowadays. I remember my grandparents talking about the people who grew things on their land.
Invasive plants are Earth's way of insisting we notice her medicines. Stephen Herrod Buhner
Everyone learns what works by learning what doesn't work. Stephen Herrod Buhner
I think it would be a good idea to plan how the offered yard fits into a plan for your entire "acreage" as it were. For example, does the yard on offer have some qualities or microclimates that differ from your own yard, such that some particular plant might thrive better there?
Also, as others said, make sure that you and the neighbor are clear on the arrangements and expectations.
Weeds are just plants with enough surplus will to live to withstand normal levels of gardening!--Alexandra Petri
This is definitely Curtis Stone territory... worth it to look into his stuff. His book and videos on YouTube cover lots of the "growing on other people's land" issues, such as leasing, access to the space, and "it's not your private PYO salad bar" (he is doing this as a for-profit business after all).
He has gradually worked to get his growing spaces closer to home, since the more distant ones were a chore to travel to.
Curtis is also market-garden focused, so quick turnover and high-value stuff (tomatoes, salad stuff), not so many long season crops, no storage crops. Intensive growing, harvesting and reseeding the same or next day, lots of quick crops like radish, grown alongside other crops before they grow large.
SPIN farming (Small Plot INtensive) also comes to mind (and is pretty much what Stone is doing). Narrow rows that you can straddle to work them, and and step over to the next row, with quite narrow footpaths, make efficient use of small spaces.
I guess the question is why do you want to expand to other yards if you haven't yet maxed out the capacity of your own? As MK asks, does it provide something your yard does not? Or perhaps are you just interested in turning other folks on to gardening? From my experience being involved with community gardens, many people do not follow through on maintaining growing space that isn't right in front of them (even if they have paid for the growing space and it's only a couple blocks away!) so personally I think it's preferable to fully develop or max out my own growing space before expanding out. This relates to the permaculture concept of zones and utilizing zones appropriately based on how close they are to your home and how often they will realistically get your attention.
Obviously soil testing for nutrients would be helpful for determining how much and what types of inputs are needed in yards you are considering growing in. In my view, it would be even more important to test for lead since it's such a common contaminant in urban soils, and to follow best practices for reducing exposure to and uptake of lead (such as using raised beds, adding organic matter, modifying pH, only growing fruiting crops, not working with/inhaling dry soil, washing hands and crops thoroughly, etc.).
If it's more a matter of turning other people on to gardening, my experience is that giving away easy to grow perennials like raspberries, lemon balm, mint, hops, yarrow, daylilies, echinacea, etc. and giving advice on how to grow them is the best approach. Some people will do nothing with them while others will get into it and want to expand from there - and then maybe they'd be better candidates for doing some collaborative growing with.
Excellent idea, Timothy! And lots of wise advice above.
Those are good sized lots. Is this an old, long-established neighbourhood? Until the 1950s, it was common to see urban kitchen gardens. I wonder if there might be old garden plots with better soil hidden under the sod.
So I'm going to start a bit off subject here. Several years ago we had a verbal agreement with a neighbor where if we bought the feed for their hog, they would give us half when it was butchered. My husband worked at a feed store and got a significant discount on feed, so it seemed like an awesome deal. So after months of buying feed, butchering day arrived with a phone call to come down and show up with the $100 for our half. The money was never mentioned before and needless to say we never showed up. Come to find out they had pulled the very same deal with other neighbors over the years and we learned the hard way.
My point is that once you determine an agreement that satisfies both parties, put it in writing. I'd hate to see you put time and effort into building garden plots on someone else's property and then not being able to benefit from it.
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