Growing Your Own Food in the Suburbs

I’m already planning my 2010 garden, with the aim of getting back into gardening after a four year hiatus. Many of my neighbors are planting their first gardens and still others are incorporating small animals like chickens and goats into their yards. And no, I don’t live in the country. I live in the suburbs.

So when I saw The Backyard Homestead by Carleen Madigan, I was excited. The premise of this book is that with a quarter of an acre – or less – you can provide your family with lots of great food.

You may wonder if growing your own food is worth the effort. Here’s how I look at it: I recall with great fondness working in the vegetable garden with my father. I want my children to experience the same thrill of pulling fresh foods from the ground and eating them with the pride that they helped grow them. Besides, homegrown foods are fresher and therefore more nutritious. And you know exactly what chemicals were used on them, and whether the seed is heirloom or genetically modified. Not so with store - bought foods, even if they are marked organic. Although my family hasn’t ventured into raising farm animals, we’ve considered it. I hate the idea of feeding my family meats pumped full of hormones, or even just salt water. And no store bought egg can ever compare to the taste of fresh eggs, just as store-bought tomatoes don’t taste remotely like store-bought.

You’ll probably be surprised by how much food you can produce in your suburbia yard. Madigan says with a quarter acre you can produce 1,400 eggs, 50 pounds of wheat, 60 pounds of fruit, 2,000 pounds of vegetables, 280 pounds of pork, and 75 pounds of nuts. (The film HomeGrown says that if you just stick to produce, you’ll get 6,000 pounds.) The average lot in the suburbs isn’t that big, but you can still produce a lot of food – and at significant savings. (According to the National Gardening Association, the average family with a veggie garden saves $600 a year.)

You might wonder how any one book can thoroughly cover the topics of raising your own vegetables, fruits, berries, nuts, grains, herbs, and a variety of farm animals. Well, it can’t. But The Backyard Homestead does a great job of providing a basic overview of what’s possible.

The section on gardening is the most thorough, and probably the only guide you really need to growing veggies, fruits, and berries. There’s information on growing from seed, preparing a bed, growing in containers, choosing crops most appropriate for your space, succession planting (where, when one plant stops producing, you plant another crop), getting a general idea of how much your garden can produce, harvesting (with general info on freezing and canning), basic information on storing seeds for next year’s garden, general growing info on popular vegetables, growing berries, growing nut and fruit trees (hint: they don’t have to take up a lot of space), and growing and using herbs. There’s a short chapter on incorporating edibles into your decorative landscape, too, and a number of recipes for using your home grown produce, including homemade wine, herbal teas, cider, and vinegars.

You may have never considered growing grains, but if you’ve ever grown corn, you’ve already dabbled in it. The author provides good basic info on growing corn for grain, as well as wheat, barley, and rye. She wisely advises new grain-growers to start small, and offers general info on how to grow and harvest, as well as use the grains you’ve grown. This section includes info on making homemade bread from your grains, as well as how to make your own beer.

The section of the book most lacking is the one on livestock. Here, basic information is offered on raising chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, goats, sheep, pigs, and even cows. The author gives some thoughts on why you’d want to raise these animals, how to increase egg or milk production, very general info on butchering, very basic (and sometimes vague) information on how to care for the animals, and similar topics. Oddly, she doesn’t really discuss how to incorporate farm animals into a backyard. For example, I’d like to know if there are special concerns if you have children; are there ways to help prevent them from getting E. coli, for example? It also seems strange the author never mentions how to compost or use animal manure to feed your garden, although she does give information on pasteurizing milk and making cheese and yogurt.

The final sections offer super-brief information on harvesting wild plants; essentially, the author advises readers to find a field guide for their area. However, she does offer some information on using rose hips (from the wild or from your ornamental garden), dandelions (ditto!), as well as syrup from maple trees, plus some basics on beekeeping.

Overall, I think this is an excellent guide for the suburbanite or someone who lives in the country but has little or no experience growing their own food. It gave me many ideas I hope to implement next year, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in getting back to the basics by growing some food.

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