As a kid I grew up on a half-acre with fruit, citrus, date, and pecan trees. My parents also had a small garden. Between the trees and garden we had a supply of fresh foods. Unfortunately, I never really enjoyed the garden since it was my job to prepare the ground every spring and turn the compost pile. I looked at it as a painful chore and didn’t really appreciate the benefit of the garden. I would have preferred to be playing basketball rather than working in the garden. Plus I was not a big vegetable eater so I never really liked what was grown in the garden. The fruit on the other hand, I enjoyed and have fond memories of picking apricots, figs, and dates.
When I left home, I never gave much thought to gardening. Then in October of 1998 we decided to break ground and start our first garden. It was a simple garden using wood planks for walkways and hand watering the plants each day. The garden produced beyond our expectations. Besides great produce we found the garden provided a great way to relax and unwind after a hard day. It helped release stress and provided a sense of accomplishment. It gave a place of refuge to think, pray, and analyze life. Yes, many legal issues were decided their in the garden. It also brought me back to my roots. After that there was no turning back from gardening.
The garden over the years took on various shapes and styles. The original garden was improved with a brick pathway and a drip system. That space eventually gave way to a playground area and the garden was moved into three feet raised beds around the backyard. Frustrated with the continual poor results from the spring garden, the boxes gave way to the 16′ x 16′ garden with a shade canopy on top. That garden did well for us but it went out with the “urban farm.”
From 2004 to 2013 I served on the Board of Directors for St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance. During one of the Program Committee meetings we where discussing the future of how best to distribute fresh vegetables. We discussed some of the concepts being used in parts of Europe. The thought went through my head, I may never be able to buy fresh vegetables in the store as I know it today. Perhaps I need to turn my backyard into an entire food production center so I can have fresh vegetables, especially tomatoes which I enjoy eating. I went home and told my wife about the idea.
We never took action on the idea but occasionally joked around about it. As the kids started getting older we started to think about putting a sport court in the backyard. For a couple of years we started planning and killing of the grass. We successfully did that and for several years the back yard sat barren with just plain old dirt and dust. It was embarrassing to have people over, the yard looked awful except for the garden plot.
Germination of the Idea
Then in 2010 life took an interesting turn when I was diagnosed with EE (eosinophilic esophagitis). The root cause food allergies. The primary food, soy. Well I soon discovered that soy is in everything. This launched a study of food. As we eliminated foods and started introducing more organic foods into our system, the better I felt. Then two of my children were diagnosed with food allergies. Our food bill rocketed as we moved away from food containing soy and towards soy-free organic food. This started a more serious discussion of maybe it was time to turn the backyard into a food oasis for our family and attempt to reduce our food bill.
Sprouting of the Idea
In 2012 my oldest son and I attended an introduction to permaculture design class put on by the Valley Permaculture Alliance. The class struck a chord with my son and the creative side of both of us came out. As part of his school work he had to read some additional material on permaculture and think through how he would implement it into our backyard. He started planning how to re-design the backyard. The thought was we would take the information and use it when we relocated. I was a finalist for a new job position that would have allowed us to move further west and purchase a couple of acres that could be turned into a micro farm. Yes, I was counting my chickens before they hatched. The door was closed and relocating was not financially feasible. With that door shut, I threw down the gauntlet, design the backyard to produce the most food and we will redo the backyard. Forget the sport court, hello urban farm!
Phase 1 of the Urban Farm
Phase 2 of the Urban Farm
The second phase of our plan was to put in an orchard and vineyard. Over Christmas vacation we put up a support structure for the vineyard and prepared the ground for the orchard. Then in January 2014, we planted 4 apple trees (2 Anna and 2 Dorset Golden) and 4 peach trees (2 May Pride and 2 Desert Gold) in the orchard. We didn’t use the normal method of planting but instead experimented with an urban orchard approach. This design is to produce a prolonged harvest of tree-ripe fruit from a small space in the backyard. This is done by planting an assortment of fruit trees close together and keeping them small by summer pruning.
In the spring of 2014, we put major feature of the Urban Farm, our EMT Eco-system. A massive shade structure over our garden, this lowered the temperature underneath by 10 to 15 degrees. This system would allow the plants to last longer into the summer, then beforehand.
In June 2014, we attended Bill McDorman’s Seed School held at Prescott College. The school revitalized our efforts and had a significant impact on our plans with the realization we needed to save seeds, incorporate plant diversity and even plant with the idea of growing your own seeds. The class introduced us to some new plants and ideas that were incorporated in our urban farm.
In July and August of 2014, we made one the largest additions of the urban farm. It was called the east field, it was 10′ wide and 26′ long. It was designed for corn production, but soon turned into large field for large-scale planting.
Phase 3 of the Urban Farm
The beginning of the third phase of urban farm came in January of 2015 when we tripled the size of our orchard. Expanding it from 8 trees to 23 trees. This large expansion included three different kinds of fruit, peaches, cherries, and figs. For this expansion we used the same urban orchard approach as in phase 2 using 12 peach trees (4 Mid-Pride, 4 Desert Gold, and 4 Tropic Snow White) 2 cherry trees (1 Royal Lee and 1 Minnie Royal). The cherry trees were an experiment and a novelty, we did not know if they would even survive the summer. The single fig tree (Black Mission) was added just south of the vineyard. Things were taking place. But the expansions were not over. In March of 2015, we added three 4′ by 8′ garden beds increasing the growing space from 452 sq ft to 548 sq ft.
With the winter additions to the orchard and the spring expansions to the garden, we were starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel as we nearing the point of reaching maximum utilization of space. However, there were still areas that could be developed and we had other creative ideas to increase the growing area.
Phase 4 of the Urban Farm
Just like the previous years, 2016 began the same way, with the continual expansion of the orchard. In the fall of 2015 we had detrimed that our 2 cherry trees had to be moved, they were getting to much summer sun for them to survive. 2015 also saw our fig tree put out no new growth, so thinking it was dead, we decided to replace it. So when January 2016 came, it came with the job of tree relocation and replacement.
Quickly following the relocation of the cherries, came the addition of 8 peach trees (2 Mid-pride, 2 Desert Gold, 2 Tropic Snow White, and 2 Eva’s Pride) to complete the orchard. We replaced the fig with another black mission fig. The difference was this time we dug a huge hole for it to allow the roots to have a chance in the hard clay soil south of the vineyard.
But we were not done expanding, turning the area just north of our garden into 3 long rows of trellises. This would be the home of our beans and peas. We also expanded our EMT Eco-system to provide the shade necessary for extra growing area.
In August, our vineyard was attacked by Pierce disease. A terminal disease spread by a tiny flying insect known as a sharpshooter. This disease prevents the moving of water inside the vine, this kills the plant. Upon discovering this disease, we realized that it was hopeless and removed quickly removed the vineyard.
Phase 5 of the Urban Farm
Phase 5 began in September of 2016, with the addition of tropical plants to the urban farm. Plants such as mangoes and a Barbados cherry. The first 2 mango trees were actually crammed in to a small space in a corner of the orchard. It was decided that the Barbados cherry would replace the 2 cherry trees. So came the bittersweet project of removing trees, and replacing them.
We liked growing tropical plants so much that come October, we chose to convert the greenhouse into a tropical plant paradise. Then we filled the greenhouse with banana and mango trees.
The last phase of the urban farm was to replace the vineyard with an area for chickens. The area was designed and we ordered bareroot trees to arrive in January for the space. While chickens are prohibited in Glendale, the city council for the past year was considering changing the city ordinance to allow chickens in residential zoned areas. Originally it appeared that the ordinance would pass with all council members indicating support of the ordinance change. However, towards the end of October, 2016 I got wind that several council members were no longer supporting the ordinance change and it appeared that nothing was going to happen. This left us extremly frustrated, we thought of going underground with the chickens and fight the current ordiance in court if we ever got caught but also in the back of our mind was the nagging realization we had two little boys who needed space to run and play. This left us to do some soul searching and lot of praying. The result in early November the decision was made we would take a leap of faith and put the urban farm on the market. This started the transition from the urban farm to our new adventure of living on a micro-farm. Granted it seemed like a nightmare but God in the end provided a two-acre property outside the city near the base of the White Tank Mountains. Truly our dreamhouse!