Plan your urban farm to grow and prepare your own food
Growing health, fitness and fresh food movements are fueling the rise of urban backyard gardens across the country. As studies identify food as a primary component of disease prevention, people are turning away from commercial, processed and packaged foods, instead working fresh food into their diets. Gardening itself has physical and mental health benefits.
The biggest gardening trend of 2018 was the emphasis on food. Large sections of lawn are being cleared to make room for tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and squash. Gardeners embrace creativity by growing fruits and vegetables in increasingly smaller spaces like balconies, walls and patios. Back in fashion: companion planting and canning, key to the gardens of our grandmothers. (My husband’s canning jar collection keeps growing every year.)
Kids are also learning where their food comes from. School gardens expand science lessons by engaging students outdoors. Learning about photosynthesis back in my day would have been infinitely more fun in the sunshine getting dirt under my fingernails.
I showed a recent high school graduate around my vegetable garden a few weeks ago. Her excitement at finding peppers on my pepper plant surprised me. Tickled to help me pick them, this suburban teen told me she’d never seen where they come from.
The common thread weaving through these elements? Increasing consumer awareness and a desire to become personally involved in the life cycle emanating from our own gardens and extending to the global community.
Master gardener Laura Wills and her husband, Eric, have an urban farm in Southwest Austin. Their 14 raised beds total about 2,500 square feet, providing them with an abundance of fresh produce year-round and enough to share with friends and neighbors.
With four different growing seasons in Central Texas, it’s a juggling act to plant next season’s crops when the seasons overlap. This many beds provide room to start next season’s crops in other beds while the current crops are still producing.
For example, we have two seasons for tomatoes here before winter frost, but I won’t have room for fall veggies if I put in that second round of tomatoes because I only have three beds and they will still be full.
In the warm months, Wills grows tomatoes, beans, squash, cucumbers, sweet potatoes and more. Her winter garden usually includes broccoli, cauliflower, greens, onions, garlic and cabbage. But her harvests aren’t limited to the vegetable garden.
She also grows fruit trees, and pretty edibles like chives, rosemary and other herbs adorn her perennial garden. Her perennial garden and wildflower meadow include a wide variety of pollinator-friendly plants, providing a natural habitat and food sources for bees. They kept bees for a brief period but found they required a lot more care and time, in addition to the garden and animals, than they wanted to spend, so they found another home for them.
As Wills harvests, she freezes, cans and dries what they can’t eat right away.
They also have 20 chickens, 15 ducks and seven guineas they raise for eggs and meat. They have roosters and drakes, so all of the eggs are fertile. They will let the chickens sit on enough of the eggs to replace the chickens they’ve lost and will gather the rest of the eggs for eating. (While in Southwest Austin, they live just outside the Austin city line and have no animal-raising restrictions.)
Three cats, a dog and two goats round out the farm. The goats keep the back part of their property mowed and, along with the fowl, eat garden scraps.
In describing who gets fed what, Wills said “the chickens basically eat the leafy food that looks appetizing to people, and the goats eat the things that aren’t palatable to us, things with thick leaves and rough stems or even weeds that I’ve pulled out of the garden.”
They also compost and so have less waste than most households.
While growing a big garden and taking care of animals is time-consuming, Wills says it doesn’t take much longer in the morning than making breakfast. She and her husband each spend about 15 minutes feeding all the animals and making the rounds through the garden collecting ripe produce. In the evening, they collect eggs and give the chickens and goats scraps and make another pass through the garden.
Weekends are for vegetable prepping, cooking or preserving.
They process some of the fowl several times a year, spending about a day to get it all done.
He also hunts, so the yield from their family farm extends far beyond satisfaction and tastiness. Their grocery bills almost never include vegetables or meat, which results in a dramatic cost savings.
A master gardener since 2016, Laura Wills heads up the speakers bureau for the Travis County Master Gardeners program, helping to set up speaking engagements for various garden clubs, libraries and other groups about a variety of gardening topics. She speaks about subjects including fruits, vegetables and chickens.
For an excellent overview of the urban farming movement, "Urban Farming: Sustainable City Living in Your Backyard, in Your Community, and in the World" by Thomas Fox is a comprehensive guide to urban agriculture. From basic backyard farming tips and DIY projects to a big-picture overview of commercial urban agriculture, it covers every facet of urban farming.
The book begins with the most fundamental question: How do we feed our cities? Fox discusses the history of urbanization and evolution of agriculture as the forebears of the current sustainability and grow-local movements. Having established the why, the framework for global and community issues, part two of the book brings the focus home. It provides all the information needed to empower backyard gardeners to embark on their own urban garden journey, whether they want to be subsistence, recreational or entrepreneurial farmers.
From containers and balconies to front yards and rooftops, "Urban Farming" covers it all. You’ll find plans for making your own DIY self-watering containers, tips about the best soil mixes to use and suggestions for materials to build raised beds. Want to learn how to compost? You can read about that, too. Then you’ll find an extensive section about fruits and vegetables and how to grow them.
"Urban Farming" provides a comprehensive overview. Next, you’ll need to find the right planting times and the best varieties specific to Central Texas. With our climate and weather extremes, selecting the right plants is key to gardening success.
The Texas AgriLife Extension Service website at aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/travis/home-landscape/edible-gardens/growing-vegetables is my go-to for the best local information about what, when and how to grow fruits and vegetables. Central Texas independent nurseries often carry these charts and local information as well.
The city of Austin supports the urban farming movement with a variety of programs and partnerships.
Edwin Marty, food policy manager for the city of Austin Office of Sustainability, says, “When you look at the big picture of growing food in Austin, it’s troubling that less than 1 percent of the food consumed in Austin is produced here and 9 acres of farmland are lost in Travis County each day.”
“Gardening at home is an important way to strengthen our local food system — as a source of nutritious food for families, a means of providing green infrastructure and protecting micro-climates in our neighborhoods, and a way of preserving wildlife habitat and pollinators," he says. "To encourage more family gardening and animal keeping, the city of Austin offers rebates for chicken keeping and composting to reduce food waste, and lawn-removal to conserve water. When gardeners provide additional benefits like chicken keeping and using compost to enrich the soil, you’ve really taken steps that benefit the entire food system circle, from farm to fork and back to farm again.”
Local landscape designer and garden coach Diana Kirby provides landscaping tips on Facebook at Diana’s Designs and writes a gardening blog at dianasdesignsaustin.com
Urban farm resources
Below are some of the city guidelines and resources available to help Austin gardeners:
Information about city of Austin rebates available for family gardeners can be found at: