In My Backyard: Turning a Chore into Feeding Ourselves and the Community

Darrin Kimbler, Iron County UW-Extension Horticulture Educator

Originally published in the Wisconsin Master Gardener Volunteer Vibe, June 2017

I would like to tell you about my front yard today.  When we moved to our little forty-acre farm in the far Northwoods in 2013, it came with a two-acre lawn.  The only things in those two acres were seven ancient overgrown apple trees, two Colorado blue spruce and a massive lilac hedge.  Everyone who knows me knows that I abhor mowing grass. I feel four hours on the mower each week could be spent more productively.

My wife and I decided to utilize our blank canvas of a front yard to produce seventy percent of our annual produce needs. Our first task in the lawn mowing reduction project was to start a pruning schedule to revitalize our apple trees. Each year for the last four years we have pruned out dead and one quarter of the malpositioned branches in the canopies.  Each year, our old trees are becoming more fruitful, providing us with a bounty of cider, apple wine and apple sauce.  We have started to increase our orchard by planting other fruit and nut trees and shrubs.

The next step was to install raised beds for produce.  Our cold, heavy, poorly drained soils necessitated getting our vegetables few inches off of the ground if they were to ripen during our short growing season. Every square foot of raised bed we installed was that much less square feet of grass to mow.  We installed a homemade 70’x12’ hoop house for our most cold sensitive vegetables.  We are able to have vine ripened tomatoes until Halloween just six miles from Lake Superior.

To really cut our front lawn down to size we installed a 250 vine vineyard.  We are growing five wine grape varietals developed by the University of Minnesota for their cold hardiness. The vineyard still needs to be mowed- just not as often.

Finally, last year we applied for and received a grant from the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for a commercial size high tunnel.  We now have a 30’x 72’ growing space under plastic to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and melons during our short summers and winter greens though our long cold winters.

With all of this space under food production, we had more than enough produce to supply our annual needs.  We started selling our excess at our three local farmers markets.  This year we will be selling at three farmers markets, our local natural food co-op and local restaurants.   We participate in WIC Project Fresh, a federal program to connect women and children with locally grown fresh produce.  We also provide seniors with fresh produce the Senior Project Fresh program.  Any produce that we don’t sell is donated to our senior dining center.

We are feeding ourselves and our community by not wanting to mow our lawn. Last year we produced over five hundred pounds of produce from our front lawn.  I am down to three hours a week on the mower.  I think I see a place for a new small grain bed.

Links:
NRCS High Tunnel Program: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/financial/eqip/

“Food not Lawns” an advocacy group for home food production: http://www.foodnotlawns.com/