Starting an Urban Farm

Starting my farm was and continues to be an ongoing experiment.

As well as a way to pay the rent, I wanted this farm to be a place to test out my learning in Permaculture and different traditions of organic agriculture in an urban setting, to see what these skills and technologies have to offer to the majority of the world that lives in cities.  There are so many challenges to making our city living sustainable and joyful, and my hope is that this project inspires others to tackle these challenges in their own place and their own way.

I didn’t have a lot of money to spend to get this project going, and more than that I didn’t want to go out and buy a bunch of stuff in order to do it.  A big part of what I do is look at how to divert waste and turn it into a resource, to make linear streams of production-use-disposal look more like cycles that are self-renewing.

The first step was to convert the lawn into usable gardening space.  To do this, I employed a Permaculture technique known as sheet mulching, which provides all the ingredients for a healthy soil ecology to develop and mimics the characteristics of a living, healthy soil.  Gardening starts with soil, and if there’s one thing that’s scarce in most cities it’s good soil.  Sheet mulching is a great way to give it a head start.

With some help from my wonderful housemates, we collected waste cardboard from around the neighbourhood and laid it down in a thick layer over the grass.  This serves the purpose of smothering the grass so that it doesn’t grow through the bed, and transforms the grass and its root systems into a great source of decaying organic matter for soil organisms to go to work on.  Next we watered the cardboard well, and placed a layer of sticks and wood chips from a local landscaping company’s pruning truck — they were very happy to give it to us for free instead of paying to haul it and dump it at the landfill.  The woody debris provides a source of carbon as well as structural support for the soil layers that will form around it, as well as habitat for different types of soil organisms like mushrooms and primary decomposers.   We followed that with a big load of compost purchased from the City of Vancouver, which we layered on thickly to create our raised beds.  We planted directly into the compost, making sure to mulch seedlings with leaves or other light mulch material as soon as they came up to preserve soil moisture.

I started planting in the first week of March, and did my first deliveries the first of June.  Deliveries continued up to Halloween, although the garden keeps going long into the winter.  But the work really begins long before planting, or bed-building, before you even pick up a shovel.  What makes it successful is starting with a plan, and if the planning and design stage is done thoughtfully and thoroughly you can create a system that does a lot of the work for you once it’s established.  A successful plan is one that’s detailed, realistic, and acheivable as well as maintaining a certain amount of flexibility.  It’s also about recognizing that it’s a process, that it’s not all going to happen at once.  A garden is a living organism that needs to grow at its own pace, with the gardener’s help.

Each individual project builds on and supports the other elements within the larger whole of the project, and a big part of a successful garden is in learning to see and value those interconnections.  Stay tuned to this blog for more info on specific projects, experiments, and observations.

6 Responses

  1. please advise where the location of the course is.

  2. I find your entire concept tremendously inspiring.

  3. What’s inspiring is the amount of people who are into learning about growing food! It’s pretty exciting.

    The course happens here at The Farmhouse, which is in South Vancouver, just off of Fraser and 57th.

  4. I read your March blog and it looks like you won’t be teaching another course. If you do change your mind and stay, please email me back with info.

    Thanks & whatever decision you make, life is too short to live with regrets. Your urban farm is inspiring and a legacy. cylia

  5. Hi,

    I’m wondering how you keep animals out, and from pooping on your garden, we have an issue with cats and raccons and have tried wire mesh on top but it hasn’t worked that well. what do you do? what materials are best, and require the lest amount of extra materials?

    • Actually, it hasn’t been a problem for me. We have cat, which I’m sure helps, and because there’s not really any bare soil in the garden there’s nothing to makes kitties think it’s a good litter box. As far as raccoons go, if there’s a particular crop they’re after you can surround it with spiny things they don’t like to walk through, like winter squashes or more permanent perennials like sea buckthorn or holly. Hope that helps!

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