Thursday, December 31, 2009

The $64,000 Question

It's funny how life takes shape, how we end up on paths that we never intended, but which come to feel deeply right to us nevertheless. When I began this blog, it was mostly about figuring out how to pay off the mortgage as quickly as possible, with a vaguely defined notion of financial independence at the end of that road. Any technique that saved money, which could then be put towards an extra principle payment, was worth considering. We started changing our habits, and kept changing them, and bit by bit those changes added up to a pretty radical lifestyle overhaul.

Along the way though, other things began to motivate me. I'd always considered myself an "environmentalist," even when my behaviors weren't particularly worthy of the name. "Green" and frugal go together quite often, so it was easy for that to become more of a priority in my life. And then the whole issue of social justice came in - using our fair share of the world's remaining resources and doing as little damage as possible. Self-sufficient lifestyles have also always had my admiration. My frugal journey became heavily flavored with homesteading elements, such that I now feel justified (albeit a little shy) in calling our suburban residential lot a homestead, or at least a budding homestead.

Then there's the elephant in the living room. I believe that we are headed into a future of increasingly expensive and scarce energy. I believe that more people in my country will have to do more for themselves than we have recently been accustomed to, that many things we now take for granted will become luxuries few can afford. There are plenty of people who discuss these things with more knowledge and eloquence than I can. Read them. But there's a little piece of the puzzle that I might - just might - have a corner on. Not that I've figured it all out, but I think I have a chance of helping to answer an important question.

Our property technically exists in a suburb, even though it doesn't look like what you think of as a typical suburb. For one thing, our house is 130 years old, and in a tiny little neighborhood of similarly aged homes surrounded by much newer development. Our lot is 2/3 of an acre. By comparison, those newer developments consist of larger parcels. Like I said, not a typical suburb. In this part of Pennsylvania, recent zoning codes were written with low-density development in mind. So new construction happened on lots of at least an acre, and often more than that. Our own parcel was established decades ago, and left with less land. The average suburbanite across the US would think our property large, but in our area it's significantly smaller than average.

So here's the question in my mind: I want to know how much food this 2/3 acre residential parcel can produce. We harvested 600 pounds of fruit and vegetables, plus 458 chicken eggs in 2009. Not only has it been a bad year for crops, but we had a backyard flock for only 8 months out of 12. We also had no yields at all from half a dozen perennial species that are planted but not yet in production. I wasn't particularly diligent about succession planting, season extension, or efficient use of the garden space we already have cleared. Nor have we yet used all the available space on our property that could be turned to food production. How much will we harvest in two, five, or ten years as our fruit trees, berries, and grapes begin to produce, as our experience grows, and we make more efficient use of the available space? I'll take a wild guess and say I think 1200 pounds sounds completely achievable to me. As a more ambitious goal, I would aim for a 2000 pound tally or even more. That would be in addition to eggs and, I hope soon, honey. Admittedly, those yields take for granted the good precipitation and high quality soils of our area, as well as the fact that one able-bodied adult makes this food production a very high priority, with occasional help from a second healthy able adult. But I anticipate that my experience is going to be of most interest to those in my area anyway, so these pre-conditions aren't much of an issue.

This question of how much food can be produced from a suburban backyard isn't just a personal lark for me. I'll admit, I'm curious and I will derive great satisfaction each year that we show an increase in our harvest tally. But I believe that the answers I collect over the next few years are going to be very important sooner or later. Those of us looking to a future beyond peak oil know that food production and perhaps more importantly, food distribution, are going to be a huge crisis. We need to begin feeding ourselves more locally, and not just as a trendy lifestyle choice. Locavorism is going to become a given, not an option. If my community doesn't know what's possible on our residential lots, then we will be poorly equipped to make plans for our own needs.

There are small scale farmers doing what they can with parcels of 5, 10, or 20 acres. There are urban farmers maxing out production in tiny spaces. And there are many hobby gardeners with modest vegetable plots. There are some consciously working towards sustainable food security, and others gaining gardening skills without any such goal in mind. But very little of the prime farmland that was converted into suburban sprawl is being used as well as it will one day need to be used. There's also an important difference between urban spaces occupied largely by renters, and the suburbs largely occupied by homeowners - however heavily mortgaged those properties may be. It's not the size of their properties. Homeowners, broadly speaking, are more fixed in their residences than renters, and likely to become only more so. That means there's a better return on investment for the expense and effort of planting perennial food plants such as asparagus, fruit trees, nut trees, and berries, among many others. These plants give yields for years and even decades, but not immediately. If you don't think you'll be in the same place two years from now, only a Johnny Appleseed altruism will motivate you to plant these crops. And those perennial crops are going to be important to us one day.

I've already got one year of data showing harvest quantities on my property. I'm in a position to continue documenting how much food can be produced on a small piece of residential land in zone 6a by able-bodied adults with no background in farming. And that's exactly what I'm going to do as our perennials come "on-line." I'm going to push hard to make those numbers as high as possible while still maintaining good soil fertility in a sustainable system. I believe the answers I come up with will be extremely important for my area.

But my findings won't necessarily be relevant to a property in Mississippi, or the Pacific northwest, or New Zealand. They won't say much about what might be achievable for an elderly person living alone, nor for a family with four children of an age to pitch in. Your area is going to need answers just as much as any other. So why not join me in documenting what is possible in your area, with your abilities, on your property?


Aimee said...

Great project! For christmas, my mom gave me the book The Backyard Homestead, a Storey book, which says right on the back cover that with a quarter acre, a dedicated homesteader can produce 1,400 eggs, 50 pounds of wheat, 60 pounds of fruit, 2,000 pounds of veggies, 280 pounds of pork, and 75 pounds of nuts.
I have five acres, and have chosen goats and pigs and chickens as our food animals (one pig/year, three dairy goats and their offspring, about 25 chickens) and this provides us with as much animal protein as we can use, with plenty left over for trade. Which is good, because I am a terrible gardener. The garden is my weak spot.

NMPatricia said...

Great post. Your first couple of paragraphs captures what I have been going through. Wish I could say I had done what you had done with your property. I think it will be slower. We live in northern New Mexico which makes gardening very tricky due to scarce water, poor soil, and short growing season. I hope cold frames are in my future. I am researching slowly but surely what will grow around here - especially sustainably (i.e. perennially). I am a total novice at gardening and had my first only-somewhat successful garden last year. I hope to continue to journey to include some animals. I also hope to get my husband on board with the mindset!

Anonymous said...

It looks like you've done a great job recording your harvest. I started that last year and really slacked off as the year went on. That is one things I'd really like to do better at this time around.

pelenaka said...

I'm in - actually I was in last Summer but with the tomato blight & working our church garden I was over whelmed.
Do you use a spreed sheet to keep track of everything? I'll have to come up with an easy system, besides hubby & myself there are 3 teenagers that consider the garden an extension of the fridge.

el said...

I second Aimee's suggestion of that book: I checked it out from the library and really wished it had come out 6 years ago, would've saved me some work :)

You go, Kate. Sounds like a great plan, but then again, I am big on home-grown.

You know what? My ambitions for 2010 are to be less ambitious, less wasteful. OH: and a 100% homegrown pizza, including the firewood!

happiest new year kiddo

Jessica said...

I've got 40,000 words written (my mother insisted I record my efforts), and no idea what to do with it.

Kate said...

Happy New Year to all!

Aimee, I've seen that book too. I have to admit, I find the claims of what all can be produced on that tiny a plot a little hard to believe. Any two or three of the things you listed, sure, I'll buy that. One dwarf fruit tree can produce 50-100 pounds of fruit in a year when mature. But all of them? Maybe. It sure wouldn't give the animals much room on 1/4 acre. But hey, anything that encourages people to push the limits of the possible on their property is a good thing in my opinion. You'll get better at gardening with practice. Every year is something different. Even very experienced gardeners fail with something most years.

Patricia, every location is different and I think NM is certainly one of the more challenging places for food production. I would recommend you look at the book Gaia's Garden, particularly the section dealing with swales for capturing what rain does fall in any given area. Pretty astonishing what can be done with that technique. The book is a great read in general, despite the awful title.

Married, I think it's just a matter of habit and having the scales to do the weighing. We weren't perfect about it, but I probably got 95% of what we picked for our own consumption recorded. I didn't bother about cherry tomatoes or berries picked and eaten outside, nor with anything that was fed to the hens.

Pelenaka, to be honest, I didn't record my harvest anywhere but on the sidebar of my blog. I made little notes as I was weighing each harvest, but kept them only long enough to update the sidebar and then tossed them. I'm thinking about creating a spreadsheet for the total harvest for the year though.

El, less ambitious and a 100% homegrown pizza don't sound all that compatible, but you go, girl! Get that wild sourdough starter started. Are you growing wheat too? The project sounds totally awesome!

Jessica, keep those records for sure! Can you parse out what your harvest tallies were from month to month? Even if you have no numerical data, whatever records you have are valuable if only for your own purposes of continuing to garden in the same spot.

ceridwen said...


Well - I will certainly watch this with interest. I'm in Britain - where many of us (including me) have tiny tiny little gardens - "pocket handkerchief" as a description would be a compliment to them - and our need is great (because our population is probably about 3 times as big as Britain can sustainably "carry" and still growing at present) - so all hints welcome as to what we can productively do with our tiny tiny little outdoor spaces.

Anonymous said...

Kate, you can count on my steel.

With my new schedule giving me 4 days off I intend to structure most weeks along with the goal of approx. 1 day for backyard permaculture, 2 days for the 1 Acre Energy Farm, and 1 day for idleness. Records will be kept and posted - perhaps we should start a shared Google Doc?

I've skimmed most of the Backyard Homestead book and I think it *is* possible, but it is not practical - there is NO room for play, no swingset, no deck, no dogs allowed. The chickens are confined in a pen, as is the pig. Very structured. We may need to be there in 10 years, but what you, myself and others are doing is more practical in this transitional phase and more likely to be picked up by our neighbors vs. such a fundamentalist suburban farm.

Kathie said...

Happy New Year! I'm hoping to add some more fruit and nut trees in the next year or so. My growing season is so short, but I need to add some cold frames and really extend the season and increase my harvest.

Lorna said...

Here here! I have been following your blog for some time now and enjoy reading what you have to say. Thank you for sharing all your knowledge and skills! I look forward to following your project in the new year (I do hope you take on beekeeping). As for my family, we are still in the Middle East-HOT and dry with little opportunity to garden. Sure, we could use much too much desalinated water to keep a few plants alive in the less hot winter months, but that is not practical nor environmentally friendly. I do hope to grow a few simple things (lettuce, sprouts?) so my children know where food really comes from. In the meantime, I will plan plan plan my future gardens so I get a running start when the time comes.

Happy New Year!

Margaret said...

OK. I'm in, with my 'pocket handkerchief' in London, UK. I have about 192 sq ft of growing space, plus a 12ft x 8ft greenhouse that will not receive any of the sun's rays until about the beginning of March.

I have often meant to do this kind of thing, more from a £££ saved way of thinking than food security, and have always fallen by the wayside. Now with the Internet and a blog I can have the accountability to keep me going. This will be my blog address but don't rush as there is nothing there yet! I need to go through the help stuff to find out how to do it.

Kate said...

Ceridwen, even though I have a "big" parcel of land, because I want to push the limits of the possible, I am very interested in techniques used to garden in small spaces. I'm sure you're familiar with the concepts of grow biointensive, container gardening, going vertical, and hanging baskets for whatever takes to such treatment. I'll be exploring some of these this year and will definitely post about them.

Rob, thanks. I knew you'd be up for something like this. I guess I agree with the idea that the 1/4 acre plan of Backyard Homestead is theoretically feasible. But I also agree with your assessment of impracticability. I believe a quarter acre with a mcmansion, a driveway and a garage would make such production impossible. Still, the main point is that much can be done on 1/4 acre, IF it's the right 1/4 acre.

Kathie, all those things sound great. We must all do what we can within the climates and constraints we are dealt. Whatever you achieve is going to be proof of concept to those around you. So go, girl, go! And I hope you'll post results and observations from time to time.

Lorna Jean, it sounds like you are in a typical renter situation, only one where you *know* that it's temporary. I have known very well the frustration of being unable to "invest" in land that I have confidence will be mine for years to come. Your day will come though. In the meantime, there are plenty of skills you can develop which are more portable than the average garden.

Margaret, oh, good! Thanks for joining in. I will follow your results with interest. I'm really looking forward to seeing what we can all do this year!

Anonymous said...

I'm in, Kate. If anyone wants my (admittedly insanely detailed, overkill) garden planning and harvest tracking spreadsheets, they are posted at my blog at . My estimates show you could grow enough vegetable calories on 1/3 acre to feed two adults for a year - IF you can achieve Jeavons's minimum estimated yields.

I wonder if the Backyard Homestead figures include growing the feed for the chickens and pig?

Joel said...

Great idea. I should really do that.

One tiny quibble: Johnny Appleseed was a real estate developer. His tree nurseries were part of a complicated scheme that let him profit from efforts to own farms on the frontier.

Anonymous said...

You've motivated me to keep better track of what we produce in this new year from our little homestead.

I'd also be really interested in hearing not only data about pounds of food produced, but also instances of neighbors working together either with their land, skills, and/or labor. Where we live in NEOhio everyone has large lots. We personally have 1.78 acres. Each of our adjoining neighbors has a similar lot. Imagine if we formed cooperative agreements to rotate livestock and engage in crop rotations together?

Kate said...

Eatclosetohome, thank you for posting that on your blog. I'll probably stick with what has worked for me, but I know others will find it useful.

Joel, please join the project! And thanks for the tip on Johnny. I was looking for cultural shorthand for altruistic planting, and he's the only one I can think of. Figures, that the reality didn't quite match the image.

Anon, awesome suggestion! Cooperative food production at the neighborhood level is leaps and bounds better than individual backyard plots. Aaron at Powering Down has discussed just such an arrangement in his suburban neighborhood a few times. Check out his blog:

Susanna a.k.a. Cheap Like Me said...

I am eager to see what you come up with. At my house, we have worn ourselves out a bit with gardening and trying to do many other things, so for the moment, we have a few small plots to raise the veggies that are expensive to buy and that we don't get from our CSA. We do get just about all our fruits and veggies for six months (plus aggressive storage), as well as much of our meat, from a CSA that is a farm about 70 miles from us, plus some fruit from elsewhere in our state. We rarely buy produce from outside our state. We are looking into chickens for eggs.

p.s. I love your beautiful new blog header!

Leigh said...

You can count me in. Of course, I've been doing that (2009 garden tally here), at least since we moved to our place last May.

I have to admit that my heart's desire was for someplace more private, more rural. Instead we found five acres outside of a small town in a more suburban type environment. Still, I realize that folks are watching us, wondering what we're up to now. And with that I realize we are setting an example of sorts. As you say, we don't see things getting easier or better in the sense of the prosperity the U.S. once experienced. However, we are hoping that we are setting an example of a different way of life. One that others can adopt elements of. We are hoping that this is one contribution we can make to our new community.

Kate said...

Susanna, sounds like you have a pretty nice set up for feeding yourselves from within your "foodshed." I strongly encourage you to get a few hens. They are remarkably easy to take care of on a day-to-day basis. Most of the work consists of arranging their housing, plus the occasional mucking out. Thanks for the vote of confidence on the new header.

Leigh, I checked out your impressive records. Very nice! I agree that it is important to be an example of what is possible for our immediate area. Not that we have The Answer, but that we are at least asking the questions and trying to answer some of them.

I tried to leave you a comment on your tally post about the powdery mildew, but that page wasn't having it. I've used milk successfully for powdery mildew. Once I sprayed on a dilute solution of whole milk, another time I just sprinkled on a very light coating of powdered milk in the morning when the plant was still damp with condensation. They both seemed to help.

Shepherdess55 said...

I'm sorry to be so tardy responding to the post but it took me a while to find the website I wanted to share with you: Path to Freedom at We have a large farm acreage-wise but I garden on a relatively small scale. I find what the Dervaes accomplish on their urban lot inspiring. I try to utilize the area I garden as intensively as I can to feed my husband and me from one growing season to the next.

Kate said...

Karen, I agree that what the Dervaeses have accomplished is most impressive. Of course, every backyard is different. They have mild temperatures year round, while I have plentiful rainfall. While I don't consider myself to be really pressed for space, if I want to maximize production, then I need to think about the space I have as though it were precious, and eke out as much as I can from it. Sounds like what you're doing too.

Terra said...

Hi, I've been reading your blog for awhile, and I was wondering if I could link to this post in my blog? I just started blogging and reading this post really inspired me. We live in a row-home in West Philadelphia and only have a very small front yard, but this year I'm going to see just how much we can get out of it. I couldn't find an email on your blog, I'm sorry to ask you this in the comments!

Kate said...

Terra, of course you may link to my page. Your blog is your own, and you needn't ask permission from anyone for linking. Courtesy only dictates that you ask permission when you want to use images or quoted text from another site. But linking is always fair game. I'll be eager to see what you do with your little plot. And I have a feeling you may surprise yourself!

Terra said...

Hi Kate, thanks a lot. I'm looking forward to seeing how much I can grow too, as well as others who have more space than me!

Kaviare said...

Late to the party, but I'm in! I've only got about a 5th of an acre - probably a 10th of an acre of useable space. But it's a house that I've just bought, and I've ordered up big on the fruit trees. I'm getting chickens, and I am going to dedicate as much time as I can while still working, to making that small patch of land work for me. There's still lots I will have to rely on others for, but I'd like to ease my food reliance foot off of the gas, to stretch a metaphor.

It'sa completely bare plot at the moment, so every single thing will be done by me. It's taking way too long for my taste, but it's also so satisfying. I'm going to try a permaculture mandala garden, and as much space sharing, double use, and vertical use as I can. I suspect it will take a year to get even a half hearted harvest, since I'm mostly just working on setting things up and improving the soil. And I don't anticipate more than 50% of my food comping from there for a long time- but it only needs to feed me, and I think that even just having started learning the skills is valuable.

I'm in a VERY suburban area, and although some of the older residents still have fruit trees in their back yards, my lawn-killing, tree planting activites out the front are raising a few eyebrows!

Thanks for the post!

Kate said...

Kate, welcome. The more the merrier. Have you seen what the Dervaes family has done on their 1/5 acre in Pasadena? Granted, we don't all have that climate or the labor of four adults to draw on. But it shows what's possible at least in theory. I think if you make your front garden pretty, no one can really object. Glad to have you with us!