How To Grow Food Not Lawns And Make Your Urban Neighbors Happy

Today’s ramblings about grow food not lawns come from a Facebook post of a friend awhile back, who talked about her love of green grass. Which, I will give to her: I do get the love of it. But I can’t say it upsets me when most of the Pacific Northwest lets their lawns go dormant every summer. However, I grew up rural and we never had a lawn. We had fields. And now, after a 15 year urban break of living in a town, we have….fields, once again. I joked to her that the only “grass” we have is the septic field, and since it is green, the deer hang out eating and pooping on it. Probably not the “roll on the grass” people fantasize about. Especially since it has blackberry vines and weeds growing in it, that I pathetically try to mow over.

Years ago I first saw the slogan Grow Food Not Lawns pop up on early Facebook. It was one of the first times it clicked in my mind that maybe we could have something else. When we moved to an actual town, we had bought a standard house with a patch of lawn out front, and a lawn in the back. It was a typical town lot. Just enough grass to walk on, but not enough to overwhelm one. I dutifully mowed it, hating every second of it. At least we had an electric mower (then later a solar charged battery one), but listening to neighbors with their smelly, and very loud gas mowers wasn’t relaxing. All so you could have the luxury of pouring vast amounts of water and chemicals on non-native grass. To try to keep it green I wondered about it enough that I read up on it. Kirk and I started fundamental changes that would influence and change our lives.

It’s easy to say to people “Grow food, not lawns” and post memes on Facebook, or hashtag that on Instagram. Sounds simple enough, right? Just make that decision, and start ripping out your sod. Soon your yard will look like that dream on Pinterest, am I right?

But yet….it is a huge chasm to get there, if you live in an urban setting in a town or city. Or even worse, you are under an HOA’s governing. Your ability to take that lawn and turn it into something productive – for you, for using less water, for the environment – may be strangled by HOA and town rules/laws. In some towns the city can force you to tear out gardens, no matter how attractive they are. HOA’s can fine you exorbitant fees if you don’t conform. And force you to return it to grass – and pay those fees on top of it. When we lived in our previous town, it was very hard to find houses not under an HOA. Towns love HOA’s, because it takes the burden off the city and onto the homeowners. For example, street lights are billed to the HOA, parks are maintained by the HOA, not the city. The first one we lived in, for 10 years, was very relaxed and during the recession it became almost too relaxed (sadly, many houses went into foreclosure in it). Our last home we were at for 4 years. It was a new-ish development, so had a more conservative HOA.

I have a friend who has faced issues with the city she lives in, being told her plants are “too tall” and must be removed. If a bureaucrat can find something to argue about, they will. In most cases if you have happy neighbors, you won’t have trouble stirred up for you.

Advice if you are in an HOA:

• Meet your neighbors. Feel them out and let them know you love gardening. This alone will show you if you will have an uphill battle. A neighbor who believes nothing but solid green grass in August and who applies Round-Up liberally will be a hard sell.

• Join the HOA board. Become part of the solution. If things are not looking your way, get on the board and use your influence to change punitive measures. I got on ours the first year, and stayed there till we moved, making my way to President for 2+ years. I took a highly punitive board and mellowed it out. Solar panels? Sure, as long as you get it signed off by the board. Remove your lawn and put in rock gardens? Why yes! Lawns allowed to go dormant all summer? Of course! But I have to think my style was not common in boards. I got interesting feedback, but most were positive. If I wasn’t getting people to see it my way, I always presented the environment benefits, and people would often then agree.

• Buying a home with an HOA will limit you no matter what, but you might have a fighting chance if you get involved.

• Read the by-laws carefully. A few times. Some boards will claim things that don’t exist in the actual printed laws. Always have a copy of the by-laws in case trouble stirs up. Often boards will “interpret” the rules.
• Before doing anything major or permanent, petition the Architectural Control Committee (ACC) for permission. For example, as part of our last house, to remove vast swaths of lawn, I petitioned, and was granted an approval to remove and replace. Just detail out what you are hoping to do, and how long it will take. And get it done. They don’t want to listen to neighbors complain about your muddy front yard that is half done for a year.

• Always have it in writing. Because often boards change yearly, and a new member may decide they don’t like what you are doing. Having signed off ACC paperwork goes far.

Advice for living in a town/city:

◦ Meet your neighbors. Feel them out and let them know you love gardening. This alone will show you if you will have an uphill battle.

◦ Read the laws for the area, and know what you can and cannot do. In progressive areas chickens might be allowed (usually no roosters), but you might be told you cannot do an urban farm on your front lawn or have goats.

◦ Know that if your neighbors complain to the city, it will cause issues for you. Be polite, bribery with fresh produce goes far.

◦ Don’t store stinky items near fence/property lines. It’s common sense for sure, but not storing manure by Neighbor Bob’s patio makes friends. Store your tools after using them and keep your yard from being an eye sore. If you want that, move to the country.

The converting:

▪ Before you dig out even a bit of grass, sit down and think about what you want. It may be hard to picture it, and things change over time. But more, that if you are removing all the grass, you will want to have a plan to start on.

▪ Semi dwarf fruit trees on one side? Raised garden beds? Walk paths? Compost bins? A work area for prepping produce and plants?

▪ Do you want to convert your back or side yards? Also the front? You will need to chart the sun exposure

▪ Do it in small amounts, so it isn’t as noticeable, rather than ripping out all your lawn at once. Neighbors are often nervous when something changes quickly. The fear you won’t finish it, property values going down.

▪ Keep things below fence height. In most neighborhoods fences are about 6 to 7 feet high, though in older areas, they can be 3 to 4 feet high. The less that is visible, the less likely people will complain. If you don’t have a fence, and you can swing one, put it up! Fences make good neighbors.

Finishing it:

▪ Urban gardens/farms will have less issues if it looks finished. Spend the money/time on filling in pathways with mulched wood, beauty bark or crushed gravel. Make it look like a park, rather than Beaufort’s Hillbilly Pea Patch. And frankly I have tried to remember that gem even living in the country.

▪ Add in features like benches, seats, a table, bird baths, trellis, and so one. Garden decor for walls and fences also helps with a finishing look.

Running it as an urban farm:

Keep in mind that people tend to be more lenient if it is a garden, rather than being run as a farm. Read up on city/town laws and if in an HOA, know if you can run a business from your home. Some HOA’s outright ban it. An increase in traffic will get you noticed and you may not be allowed to put out a sign. Always have a business license if required in your area – anything you do wrong, or cut corners on, someone will find out if they don’t like what you are doing. Also research if doing this will be an insurance issue. Some home insurance companies won’t cover accidents if you are running a farm, be it urban or not.

We ran ours as quietly as possible and didn’t have open “farm days”, nor did we advertise our address. Those who were customers knew where we were. This way our neighbors were appeased,

And I won’t lie…it was a pushing reason to go rural and not have to worry so much.

~Sarah

A Season In The Tomato Bed

Tomato season starts early, long before most are even dreaming a ripe juicy slice. In the cold and short months of January and February, the little plants grow in the greenhouse, tucked away from the cold snaps and harsh winds. It gives one hope though, when they open the door into the greenhouse.

February 6th:

It’s snowy, and so quiet. But inside the heater kicks on and the grow lights pop on as needed.

February 19th:

On balmier and dry days, is when the weeds are managed and cleaning is done.

March 10th:

The seedlings popping up.

March 21st:

They grow quickly.

April 9th:

It starts warming up, so more weeds show up. More work to be done.

April 14th:

The transplanting done up to gallon pots.

April 28th:

The last bit of April I can barely move in the greenhouse.

April 29th:

The main bed is fertilized, and ready to plant.

First plants in.

May 9th:

We also had a huge multi-farm plant sale around that time. Right after this a hail storm came through, thankfully all went well.

May 29th:

The first surge.

June 15th:

Growing, and doing well.

July 7th:

The summer surge.

July 31st:

First harvesting was happening.

September 14th:

At the tail end of harvest, the tomatoes know when to turn off.

September 18th:

And hail makes its first appearance for the coming Fall.

Early October:

And once again, it returns to empty. Fall is here and the land is quieting down.

An Edible Landscape For Children

When Kirk and I first moved to our first home in Maple Valley, one of the things that drew us out here (in the early 2000’s) was close proximity to the mountains and hiking. It wasn’t farming I can tell you! Our oldest son and I were out hiking 2 to 3 times a week, often on backpacking trips. It wasn’t until we had more children after 2010 that I started gardening again. With little ones I couldn’t get away like I had in the past, so I found my old love of growing things. I was outside, and it felt rewarding to work in the soil.

When we had bought that house, it was heavily landscaped and I proceeded to ignore it for the first 6 years of living there. When we started culling out plants, to make the yard children friendly, I realized quickly nothing in it was an edible landscape. More so, much of it was poisonous for children and animals (this is shocking for many to find out those innocent looking landscaping plants are not safe). Rhodies were ripped out, Holly pulled and many, many bulbs were dug out (over repeat years I might add). We also pulled out a pond, as we felt it wasn’t safe with toddlers.

The last few years in the house we had a little oasis for the kids to play in – and nibble if they pleased.

Does one need a lot of land to do this? Not at all. Even in an apartment, with a tiny deck, one can have plants for the children. The smallest lot with only front landscaping, it is easy to hide blueberry bushes in the landscaping and quietly replace those plants that produce nothing. Intertwine in strawberry plants. In the backyard, add in a few plants with golden raspberries (they don’t need to have support, and grow vertical).

This was literally the start of what we do now. By putting out plants, I learned so much. At first, I only used the corner, along the fence.

Our little property wasn’t big, but we made it work. We dug up part of the small yard. The boys could wander through it, as it grew.

Walker loved in his 3rd and 4th years to wander around, looking for tasty treats. Kale wasn’t one of them he found out 😉

And maybe find a tiny and tender summer squash –

When we sold the house and moved to our current location, it was pleasing to know we could walk into a near clean slate, and begin again. The first year here we removed all contractor special trees (most of which were very unhealthy due to the poor soil). With that done, we removed ornamental shrubs and other items. Thankfully, for the size of our property the previous owners were not inspired, and hadn’t overly planted.

Even in the first year we started dropping in blueberry and evergreen huckleberry bushes, and golden and red raspberry canes. By the second year, the gardens went in, and the fruit trees.

When you add in areas, make a spot just for children. Walker, our middle son, has planted a blueberry bush in his, with strawberry plants. It is decorated with a little fence, landscaping rocks and garden gnomes/gnome village. He tends to it and it is his only, he will tell you! Alistaire, our youngest, tends to his carrots, in a separate bed.

Because everything is edible, I don’t worry about them roving in the yard. They know they can eat whatever they pick. This coming Spring we will have been here 4 years, and it is rewarding to know we have built this.

~Sarah

January On The Homestead

January has ended. And spring is nearly upon us in the PNW. It was a slow month outside, mostly dreary and keeping us inside, but those sunny days? I made sure I got outside to work, be it cleaning the beds, picking up pinecones and getting things ready for February.

Huckleberry plants ramping up for spring.

The fruit tree buds that will open in the next month to two.

One of the many crows chilling in winter.

Garlic popping up on a sunny day.

 

In the end of the month, I got into the greenhouse and started to clean. It’s always amazing how much firewood for the fire pit ends up in there, to dry out. We had a couple roaring fires this past month!

Working on radish seeds.

Prepping the start of this years strawberry plants.

Greenhouse cleaned up, and getting into production.

And in the last few days of January, a sunny afternoon that soon turned into downpours. Work while we can, then hide inside and plan for the coming sun…..

February Garden Tasks and Seed Planting (For Zones 7-8 PNW)

The month of February is fast approaching, and the garden tasks are waiting to be done, before Spring shows up. I always love November/December/early January because those are my “sleepy” months, when I get to stay inside, and do other things like crafting and reading. But come end of January, I know I have to gear up. This past weekend I spent it in our greenhouse, cleaning and tidying it up. Apparently, certain small boys and their friends feel that the greenhouse is where you go into on cold days to play – and to leave a million sticks in. I cleaned it all out and we had a fire in the pit last week!

The zone we use for our homestead is 7, rather than what the zone chart claims is 8b. In a previous post I talked about my decision to follow a colder zone here in Maple Valley, Wa. I find that we have cold/wet longer into early spring than other zone 8’s have. The foothills of the Cascade Mountains and Mount Rainier help play into the weather as well. And it gives me more time, in case a heavy rain or late freeze comes. A good example is yesterday, when we had over an inch of rain in a day! Early seeds would have been destroyed and flooded out, if not covered.

Garden Tasks:

  • Figure out what you want to grow, and purchase seeds.
  • Plan your garden layout for the year.
  • Clean up your garden work storage space – whether it is a shed, garage or a greenhouse.
  • Sharpen and clean tools.
  • Clean up tree debris, such as fallen branches and pinecones.
  • Assess fruit and nut trees for minor pruning.
  • If the ground isn’t frozen, plant bare root trees and shrubs.
  • Plant asparagus bare roots.
  • If using raised beds for crops, start making them, of if existing, turn the soil over and remove weeds.
  • If planning on in ground gardening, consider getting it ready – cover with cardboard to smother weeds, or get garden tarps down. Working in amendments can be tricky this early due to heavy rains in the PNW.
  • If you have ignored your compost bin, work on it. At minimum, start turning it.

Seeds To Plant:

To see more on when to seed, and transplant, see here.

Below are seeds you can start in February, which are either colder-weather crops, or need a longer start time. The dates are not set in stone, it is a guide of what week may be most preferable to get them started. Needless to say, the start of February is a good time to have seeds on hand, potting soil and small pots – and a sunny window, greenhouse or grow light system on hand. And if you start them later? It’s OK for many crops. And for temperamental ones like broccoli, you always can grow those as a fall crop, where they often fare better than in spring, if you miss the window, or late winter is too warm.

Artichokes:

Indoors February 18th

Beets:

Indoors February 18th

Broccoli: 

Indoors February 18th

Brussel Sprouts:

Indoors February 18th

Cabbage:

Indoors February 7th

Cauliflower:

Indoors February 8th

Celery:

Indoors end of January/early February

Chard:

Indoors February 18th

Collards:

Indoors February 11th

Herbs:

Indoors mid February to early March.

Kale:

Indoors February 7th

Kohlrabi:

Indoors February 7th

Leeks:

Indoors end of January/early February

Lettuce:

Indoors February 1st

Onions, from seed:

Indoor January 7th to early February

Peas:

Direct seed February 18th to March 8th.

Peppers:

Indoor February 18th to March 22nd

Spinach:

Indoor February 1st

Tomatoes:

February 25th