40 Chickens and an Acre

Were y’all following along back in 2010, when we did our Garden Challenge?

It was a good time, just now, perusing those old posts. I am also taking stock on what we have learned and where we are now.

I can now answer my own question around “How much food can I produce for my family as an Urban (Container) Farmer?”. The reality? Not very much.

At least, not very much on a shared back deck with a landlord who is not excited about my use of the space, let alone taking adavantage of vertical possibilities.

Not very much with an income that is still low to non-existant. To really succeed, we need a yard. Container planting is high resource. Plants don’t like containers, and you have to help them out a lot to produce half of what they would in the ground. Containers are expensive, soil amendments are expensive. …Heck, SOIL is expensive. Every year we run up against this issue. We need dirt. Good dirt. Sod.

All of which is not to say that I have lost my enthusiasm. I am still dreaming big, but I am also resigned to buying practically all of our food this summer from stores and farmer’s markets. What I have taken away from these years as an urban homesteader is that, at least for me, there needs to be pay-off. While I am happy for the opportunity to show Fern where food comes from, it’s too heartbreaking to spend months nurturing our little garden, only to harvest enough produce for (literally) one day. Also, I am never growing tomatoes in SF again, unless someone gives me a garden plot in full sun. In the Mission. Out of the fog-belt. We had one banner year, and then the weather pattern of the next two gave us hard green tomatoes in November.

Hmmm. Do I sound negative? What I am trying to communicate is more along the lines of disillusionment. Not bad news, not bad at all. But very realistic and a little less exuberant. That down to earth, no nonsense quality that you find with many gardeners. Because nothing is more “real” than working within the necessary confines of nature’s rules.

In keeping with realism, this year I have completely released the tension around production and instead I aim to garden for pleasure. In that permaculture way, I am going with what is, with what works. And what works in our container garden are Wildflowers. Lettuces. Sunflowers. Poppies. Miner’s Lettuce. Nettles. Anise Hyssop. Weeds and natives and non-natives and volunteers. Come on down! You’re the next contestants on my back porch! I aim to have our downstairs space be a Midsummer’s Night Dream, replete with a hammock for Puck.

As always, it takes a village. We are still looking for a soil source, but yesterday we hit the compost jackpot. Or should I say Jackie-Pot. Our friend Jackie, who is facing owner move-in eviction, generously offered us her compost and seed potatoes. We may also inherit her container of sunchokes, since she can’t take it with her.

She also sent us home with Meyer-Lemon Marmalade and two bottles of her latest homebrew.

How do you like our backdrop of dangerous implements, all within reach of the toddler? 

Made with redwood needles instead of hops, the flavor was light and aromatic, and completely transportive to a quiet repose in some shadey forest glen. Jackie is already scheming on another combo–Cacao and Elderberry. I am a more than willing guinea pig.

Ultimately, urban homesteading is now less about proving our mettle and more about love. I will continue to garden because I just have to, because it brings so much joy. So maybe my pantry isn’t stocked to the gills with enough jars to get us through an apocalypse brought on by the Hayward Fault. But there will be a few jars of wildcrafted blackberry jam, several bottles of dandelion wine, plum preserves and apple sauce. There will be bubbling concoctions of fermented salsa when the farmer’s markets have blow out sales and always some kind of herbal tonic on hand. My style of urban homesteading has become synonymous with being a scavenger. Any wild creature that survives in a city scape must be good at this, be it hawk, fox, raccoon or gull. These same creatures are dependent on each other and dependent on the movement of the urban environs. What I am thankful for most of all, through these years of experimentation, has been the collaboration. You know who you are…the seed savers and givers, the passer-ons of lore, the lenders and hand-me-downers. You make it possible, you make it fun, and you make it about community. Which is also synonymous with love.

What are you planting this year?

P.S. In response to my missing hips, Milla let’s us in on a little secret. A very little tonttu secret.


23 thoughts on “40 Chickens and an Acre

  1. love the post. dislike the title, for reasons similar to the “Tar Baby” title issues i had. just too much painful history tied into the phrase “40 acres and a mule” for it to work for such a happy post about gardening. in my humble opinion. i really enjoyed the post, though!

    1. right, the phrase is tied to reparations and prez johnson was a jerkface and revoked the policy that was put in place by lincoln and sherman to return land to former slaves, so i hear you on that. however, i was referring to the original policy, where 40 acres and a mule was thought to be an ample size for a family farm. it’s what we are looking for. the phrase to me has always had this over-arching meaning of what is sought after in the dream of a sustainable life, for anyone. but since i’m not african-american maybe i should call it 10 Acres and Some Chickens.

  2. because the cost of water is so high in our town, and i live within the city limits, i decided last year not to have a garden and to instead buy as much as i could from the farmer’s market and co-op. but i was already disillusioned from the get-go even the years i did garden, because i have black thumbs! i can kill any plant. we have had some luck with very hearty squashes but nothing else produced a massive harvest. i had some great cherry tomatoes one year. i like the way you are going about it now: scavenging. i love the way you describe how that fits in with community, i think it’s a very holistic approach! thanks for inspiring once again.

  3. Needless to say I have such love for this post, girl (and I’m also loving the little exchange we’ve been having). I feel like urban homesteading books always speak under the best possible circumstances, you know, if you happen to have a spacious urban backyard, housemates who love chickens and bees and rabbits and guinea hens, and soforth, and this is a reality for some and not for others. doing things within your grasp, being patient and grateful and hopeful, will get you so much further than striving for that perfect image of self-sustaining life. I love your approach, your gatherer spirit. Keep dreaming and collect

  4. ing. was what I was gonna say. Anyways, I hope your small spirit brings in some good soil and sunlight. Oh and have you tried “bag gardening?” cheaper than containers? I’ve heard good things about it.

    1. so funny re: the bag gardening…this is what jackie suggested i do with the taters, and she handed off a lot old soil bags to try. i want to try burlap too. and that small spirit…ooooo, little bugger. since that post, it’s absconded with one of my favorite earrings. it was under my pillow, and two hours later only one remained! what do you think tonttus like? elderberry syrup maybe?

      i love the exchange we are having too, wish we could talk for days about the ins and outs of these things. xo

  5. I know your garden pain this year, especially the tomato situation. We’ve had maybe 6 edible red tomaties? Last year we couldn’t eat them fast enough to pick em…And we have a yard. Be we are such gardening novices. i am looking forward to winter greens…brocolli and beans did so well last winter. This year I am definitely planting silverbeet, and I’m sure pumpkin too. We bought a small mandarin tree which has a lot of hard dark green fruit on it right now, hoping that they turn orange and are juicy. Those trees take ages to grow! Holy bejesus you just reminded me it’s Blackberry picking time, we were meant to go out a few weeks ago…but got distracted, by i can’t remember what. Speaking of which, one has self seeded in our garden, can we train it do you think, or will it take over everything…i think we’ll see what happens.

    1. yay black berries! have you gone picking yet? i think you could train the volunteer, but you gotta stay on top of it, because your hunch is right…they are super enthusiastic. that’s awesome you had success with broccoli…i get giant plants and teenytiny flower heads. xo

  6. Alternatively, I think we should also experiment with shunting food around, like forests do, so those of us with space can bring tomatoes to you and those of you with beer can bring beer to me…. 🙂

    So weirdly serendipitous, I just went through all our seeds yesterday, and I have SO many extra flower seeds (amaranth, edible mums, zinnias, bachelor buttons), left over from the wedding garden stash last year. I made a pile for you, thinking, “Mary doesn’t want flowers, she wants vegetables…” so they’ll be in your mailbox on Monday, now, in case you do want them for your love garden, or pass them on!

  7. i did something so similar last year. i feel dumb trying to relate to you, or actually, i feel like you are gonna think i’m dumb, cuz i do sort-of live on an acre with some chickens. but it’s rocky not fertile mountain soil. and trying to grow stuff is hard. i used to have a plot in the community gardens before we moved up here. it was SO easy to grow there. anything i planted, grew. really well. here. no. not at all. so last year. last year i decided to plant a magic fairy garden. with seeds from you even. it was so freeing to stop trying to grow squash and corn. i’ve gotten a few small ears up here before and a few baby squash, but sad stuff really. and tomatoes. nah. except one summer, i had luck with tomatoes. and then. it hailed so bad in that july. killed it all. anyhow. last year was fun and free and full of fairies. i so relate to your intentions here. they are right on! tuned into your highest purpose i am sure!!!! yay! i am excited for you. and for me, to get to see all the beauty and magic you and fern and jeff and leonithas take part in bringing to the world this summer….

    1. oh. one more thing i thought of that i learned last year. chard. chard is amazing. easy, up here anyways. and no bugs like it. kale was bad last year with crazy bugs. i wonder if chard would be like that for you?

    2. that is hilarious that you literally do have an acre and some chickens. an acre and 40 bees? do you have any inclination as to your garden this year? i can see you nurturing the best fairy garden, being one yourself. love.

  8. 2 acres, no mule or chickens, here…would luv some chicks. but for loose dogs everywhere — so fencing would be a big expense even for a small but still good enough roaming section for birds to feel safe in. It’s not easy nor yet prolific growin’ greens for me, either… but like you all, there’s such a yearning to keep trying… Determined to find easier ways to make this work better for me AND for my neighbors, if I can ever figure it out! There will always be good and bad years for certain crops it seems inevitable. Failed with tomatoes last year (too hot/humid with tons of hornworms who can devour a plant overnight), even tho previous year was good for the toms. Zippo luck with squash or cukes, either which usually should be “easy” plants to grow… Ever hopeful, just planted some parsley seeds today, some basil in the works for tomorrow. Herbs do tend to be more cooperative, thankfully! There are a few “self-renewing” (lessening dependence on amendments) soil improvement techniques like “terra pretta del Indio” as well as permaculture practices to try, but most folks do seem to need more land to put them into practice. You’re right, Mary, it all does take a good deal of effort and sometimes money — and space DOES help.

    I so hope we all have much better success with whatever sprouting lovelies we’re excited for this year!

    1. oh, dogs and chicks are such a bad and sad combo. that’s rough. hornworms! that’s a whole nother party…now that’s what you need the chickens for! and i return your blessing for good luck and lushness with your garden this year.

  9. Oh, I admire your attitude so much. Not quittin’, not ever! It’s wonderful that you’re working to find exactly what works, exactly what you can do. Isn’t that what life is?

    I’ve only started gardening since we moved here, so I’m still awfully new. Learning what grows where takes time, and it can be super tough trying to cultivate this soil as it’s SO fracking rocky. And it also has a high clay content, so I sometimes spend more time playing with the dirt instead of planting my plants. Last year was only the first year where I had any successful plants, and it was positively intoxicating. I would be picking tomatoes and the like early in the morning, and there were moments where I was like, “Heehee! I’ve got it now!”

    One plant I have a lot of difficulty with every year is melons. I picked a lot of small ones last summer — they were between softball and football size — but they just weren’t that great. I think it has something to do more with the heat than the soil content. I guess we’ll see this summer, as I’m hoping to plant them a wee bit later than usual…

    Kind of a “haha” moment, though it’s more like sad laughing with tears in your eyes (is there such a thing?): the horse knocked down the already failing fencing around the garden and let aaalllll the birds in. They proceeded to demolish the chard left over from the summer. At least I have a few leeks left, heh. The kicker is, I love them all so much that I don’t *really* care. I just wish they had left a little for us.

    I’m hoping to start my seeds this weekend, if the weather is nice! So exciting!


    1. oh man, building soil is slow, so i admire your commitment. rocks and clay are what we have in shasta county, and it was a hard row to how, literally. that is so sweet about the horses. i feel that way with small beings that i love…you watch them destroy something important, but realize in the moment that their joy surpasses anything else. love it.

  10. I keep telling you, you can have my 1/2 acre with great soil and wonderful weather/climate! (and free babysitting to boot–hmmm, wonder what that means….to boot).

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