July 19, 2008
I've written in this spot before about my own lack of gardening prowess, especially when it comes to edibles.
This year, I've broadened the range of potted herbs on my front porch. I've even branched out into heirloom tomatoes thanks to my mom, who started several plants from seed in the spring and gifted me with a couple that are now waist high.
But I guess I've always figured sustaining one's self on homegrown produce was more effectively left to those in rural parts -- people with acres of property, a barnful of seeds and tools, an encyclopedic how-to knowledge and a feverish work ethic.
That was, of course, until recently, after numerous encounters with various regular folks around the region who are practically farming in their own backyards -- right in the city. It's been referred to as "urban agriculture" or "urban homesteading." Some like to think of it as the "100 foot diet." And during a time when many of us are thinking about food miles, fuel costs and the origin of what's on our plates, it certainly makes sense.
Karin Kliewer, an avid organic gardener who lives in Kitchener, says she and partner Greg Roberts are eating what they cultivate in their Duke Street backyard from March to December. In fact, they're able to go all summer without buying produce.
Indeed, when I stopped by to visit, Kliewer made us a snack of flat breads (baked in an outdoor cob oven and topped with homegrown asparagus, greens, garlic scapes and fresh herbs) and homemade herbal tea.
Name it and it's probably in their garden -- grapes, apples, currants, shiitake mushrooms, peas, lettuce, carrots, peppers, edible flowers, sorrel, borage, 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, the biggest oregano plant (no, shrub) I've ever seen. You get the idea. Everything is grown sustainably according to principles of permaculture -- a somewhat complicated concept to explain in a short space, but one based on the notion that it's better to work with nature than against it.
Kliewer says she and Roberts enjoy the perks of living in the city -- being able to walk to work, for example -- but felt they could still incorporate aspects of what most of us tend to think of as "rural living" into their lifestyle.
Not too far down the road in downtown Kitchener, Tim Simpson and partner Aura Hertzog have a somewhat smaller but nevertheless substantial plot in their backyard -- they like to call it their "urban farm."
Simpson grows his plants from organic heirloom seeds and is able to harvest and eat "things you'd never find in a grocery store" -- Armenian cucumbers, strawberry spinach and Black Aztec corn, for starters.
Though his 22 tomato plants will yield more than the family can eat this summer, he'll busy himself making tomato sauces and relishes. He'll also do some freezing and plans to build a fruit cellar in the basement to house some canning and preserving. This way, Simpson says, they can extend their backyard eating into the winter and beyond.
Nina Bailey-Dick, a local food champion and yet another urban homesteader (beyond the fruits and vegetables, she has two hens in her Waterloo yard providing her family with eggs), says it's all about starting small. A cherry tomato plant is a good place to begin. Or maybe some sugar snap peas instead of the typical clematis for your trellis.
"Just do one thing," she says to those who might be intimidated by the notion of growing their own food. "You'll be overwhelmed if you try to do everything at once. Just take one step at a time."