Thursday, December 6, 2018

Building an Urban Homestead

For the last 5 years, I have been testing a new method of intensive gardening. At a mere 40 square feet of growing area and less than a foot deep, it produced a surprising amount of food. During the prime growing season, it produced up to 60% of the food I ate.What's more, it did so with very few inputs from me, including time. Through a combination of either biological processes or mechanical devices, I was able to automate just about everything but planting and harvest. The only thing that was missing was an ability to try it out on a larger scale.

In February, I got that ball rolling. I rented a new house in Tempe, AZ. It sits on a sixth of an acre. The landscape is grass and the owners are eager to keep it that way. They were fine with me planting fruit trees and I plan on being here long enough to make it worth my investment. As for my garden, there is a lovely spot in the back yard that is perfect for it. It takes up about three quarters of the back yard, in fact. It is about 1000 square feet and after laying it out, it looks like I should be able to fit in about 500 square feet of growing area. Everything will be in raised beds, so I needed to build them such that I will be able to disassemble them and haul the garden beds away when I am finished.

After finally settling on a design, I was finally able to start construction in late summer. There were a lot of details to work out and a busy life made for slow progress. However, I finally got the system fully constructed and connected in early November and planted it on November 10th. As of right now, everything I planted is coming up and looking really healthy. In Tempe, Arizona here, it is the season for cold weather crops. I have planted alfalfa (for the chickens), Romanesco broccoli, kale, kohlrabi, turnips, spinach, chard, beets, several varieties of lettuce, carrots, sugar snap peas, onions, garlic, chives, strawberries, several varieties of flowers and herbs, and more.

So let me talk you through a little about what is going on here. First let me talk about space. The planted area is made of 3 sections of garden structure, each of which is 3' wide and 8' long. The coop (I purchased that one, I didn't build it) is 6' by 2.5'. The bench between the garden and the coop is 2' by 4'. The tank in the background is 3' by 4'. The sump tank in the foreground is 3' by 4'. So adding all that together, my whole system currently has a footprint of about 120 square feet. Once I get the whole thing built out, it will take up a space of about 1000 square feet, which includes pathways. This first phase had to include all the necessary infrastructure so that the rest is just an expansion of what is already here.

In the interest of being space efficient, I have gone for as holistic an approach as possible. Anywhere something can do double duty or more, it has been worked into the system. There are several goals here:

1) Produce as much food as possible in a portion of my urban back yard. I am looking to provide the bulk of the food my family needs as well as enough to provide additional income by selling the extra at a local farmer's market. Obviously what I have built so far won't give me extra to sell, though it very well might provide most of my family's dietary needs

2) Provide environmental benefit. This comes in the form of sequestered carbon, increased diversity and habitat for local wildlife, rainwater harvesting, composting of all organic matter from the household, water efficiency, and better air quality.

3) Do all this while making it aesthetically pleasing. This is meant to be a demonstration garden, with people coming over to view it and get ideas for how to do their own garden. I want average people to look at what I have built and say "yeah, I want that in my back yard too."

Let me conclude here with a quick list of what is going on in these pictures and I will go into further detail in upcoming posts. I would like to note, though, that once everything is up and running, the garden above will require surprisingly little maintenance. The only thing that will require daily maintenance is the chickens, and that is because they are not fully integrated into the overall system, just partially integrated. Still, I can fill their food container and leave them for a week or so at a time if need be. Here is a brief (though not exhaustive) list of what is going on in my garden:

  • Garden is watered from two tanks, a sump tank and an upper tank. Water is pumped from the sump tank to the upper tank where it drains through the garden and ends up back in the sump tank
  • Upper tank contains tilapia, which produce meat for household use
  • Lower tank produces guppies and duckweed, which provide food for the tilapia
  • Tilapia waste fertilizes the water for the garden
  • The garden soil and plants clean the water for the tilapia
  • The garden soil is made almost entirely from organic matter, meaning that it sequesters carbon in the form of stable soil carbon that is constantly maintained, refreshed, and used for the benefit of food production
  • The garden interfaces with food forest plantings around the yard, with nutrient-rich water used to water fruit trees and herbs and tree trimmings contributing to the garden soil
  • Plants provide a near constant stream of fresh herbs and produce for my family
  • Interplantings of flowers and other beneficial plants provide food and habitat for beneficial insects, completely eliminating the need for pesticides of any kind
  • Diversity of planting encourages a wide variety of insect and other animal life, creating habitat for local wildlife without reducing the amount of food I am able to provide for my family
  • The garden soil (no, it is not an aquaponic system) buffers, maintains, and balances the water chemistry and nutrient load for the whole system
  • In-line composting system captures and processes fish solid waste as well as quickly processing plant waste into rich soil, completely eliminating the need for fertilizers of any kind
  • Gutter above dumps rainwater directly into sump tank, where it is incorporated into the system
  • Float valve keeps sump tank topped off, meaning I don't need to add water manually as it is used up
  • Pump is on a timer, providing the optimal flood and drain timing needed to keep the soil moist, keep the nutrients cycling, and keeping the soil aerated so it doesn't become anaerobic
  • Chickens live underneath the garden and upper tank, keeping them sheltered and keeping their feed dry no matter what the weather
  • Chicken water is in-line with the drainage from the garden, keeping their water full and flushed so it doesn't get fouled from chicken waste
  • Chicken waste in the water is used as fertilizer for the garden as it dissolves in the water and flushes through the system
  • Recessed compost bin in the chicken area gives them a handy location to drop kitchen scraps where it will slowly decompose in place, allowing the chickens a place to dig through and find insects, and allowing me a central location to empty and clean it up as it gets full
  • Sump tank overflow is through the chicken water, cleansing the soil, processing chicken waste and watering the chicken compost bin while ensuring that guppies and duckweed growing in the sump tank aren't lost
  • Secondary chicken water is under the upper tank and is fed by an irrigation line from the upper tank
  • Alfalfa and greens, as well as kitchen scraps, are used to feed the chickens, producing as much of their feed locally as possible and reducing their need for crumble while providing excellent nutrient density for the eggs they produce
Let me know if there is some particular aspect of this garden that you are interested in hearing more about.