It was early April 2011 and I was getting ready to move Nicole, our little Case 880 tractor, from her winter home in my garage back to the field at Troy Community Farm. She started right up with no coaxing or tinkering of any kind, which is not usually the way it goes after months of sitting idle. I was feeling pretty good as I moved her out to the driveway, cleaned her up, and then had a little unexpected time on my hands. As I looked over at my front yard, I paused to envision beds of lovely vegetables instead of so much level lawn. My partner Sarah and I had been planning a front yard garden for years, but we still had not worked up the steam to actually strip out the grass.
I had a good deal of experience putting in gardens at the time. In 2009 I teamed up with my co-worker Megan Cain to start a new business called Madison FarmWorks. The idea behind the business is that we bring together the skills of the organic farmer with the scale of the gardener to create vegetable gardens that are both beautiful and productive. I bring the farmer’s perspective and Megan brings the gardener’s. Together we have designed and installed many vegetable gardens throughout the city, including the one on the Capitol Square. Our practice has always been to strip out the sod to get rid of the weeds and the grass rhizomes and then to create the beds. I knew from experience that stripping the 2,000 square feet of sod that covered my front yard was not going to be particularly easy or fun.
Still our vision for the front yard was pretty motivating for us. We wanted a space that was beautiful, productive, and also welcoming for friends and neighbors to stop and chat. We had already installed strawberries, asparagus, fruit trees, and even two beehives in the backyard, but that space was too hidden from view to be welcoming to passersby. It was in the front yard that we would be able to say hello to folks and even offer a fresh snack for their stroll. Though we were very excited about actually gardening in the front yard, we still had not moved forward because of the grass.
When we prepared the backyard garden, we carefully stripped out all the sod by hand and piled it to compost. I have been a certified organic vegetable farmer for over 15 years, and I have dealt with my share of pernicious grasses in the field. There was no way I was going to put in a new garden without first fully removing all the rhizomes and runners that would compete with my crop and keep me weeding all summer long. But I was also unwilling to use herbicides to do the job for me. It was a whole lot of work, and we were very grateful to the friends who helped us. Still, we were not looking forward to enlisting more unsuspecting friends for another round of stripping.
Getting to work
As Nicole’s engine hummed on my driveway that April morning, I realized that my front yard could be prepared just as I have always prepared new fields for farming. Why remove the sod, when I could just till it in and kill it all with cover crops? Sure, we would have to delay actual planting until the cover crops did their job, but we had already been dragging our feet for two years. We could wait another few months.
I drove Nicole off of the driveway and onto the lawn, tiller spinning. After the sod was worked up, I spread oat seed and tilled that in. The oats came up a week or two later and all my neighbors wanted to know what kind of grass I was using in my new lawn. I explained that the oats were actually killing the lawn so we could make room for our vegetable garden. After the oats, I put in a round of buckwheat. By the time the buckwheat flowered, the grass was all gone and we were ready to install the garden.
I have been the farmer at Troy Community Farm since 2001. While my experience in farming predates Troy, it has been here that I have really refined my ideas about organic agriculture’s role in our cities. One important quality that both my farm and my garden have in common is that by producing food in the city where I live, they are contributing to a more self-sufficient and sustainable community. Food is one of the most basic necessities of any community. The more we can grow that food ourselves, the more potential we have for increased health—not only in terms of a stronger, more self-reliant community, but also in terms of our own physical bodies made stronger first by growing the food and then by eating it. In my view, the more lawns we can convert to gardens and the more people who learn to grow and eat food from those former lawns, the better off we are.
One of the best things about my job is that I get to be involved in urban agriculture in so many different ways. I am a farmer, a gardener, and a teacher of both of these groups as well. As I began to grow food as a hobby in my own yard, I became acutely aware of how many of the methods I had always used on the farm were directly transferable to my garden. Crop planning, spacing, mulching, trellising, using cover crops, row covers, crop rotation, and a number of other techniques helped to make my garden beautiful to look at while also providing an abundance of delicious, fresh food. I have learned a great deal in both the farm and the garden and have been happy to share those skills with other growers.
One surprise lesson has been that in some ways I love gardening even more than I love farming. I love that in my garden the beds are permanent. I can mulch the paths and leave them be, focus compost and cover crops in the beds where they will increase fertility, and most importantly never have to till again. Now that Nicole is done with her work and my beds are formed, I can just gently fork the soil before planting. I also love that because my garden is small (relative to the farm anyway) and I only grow a few of each crop, the worst of the agricultural pests never seem to find it. My home potatoes out-produce the farm potatoes every year, mostly because the potato beetles cannot pick out that small patch among all the other plants in the garden.
Enjoying the bounty
Sarah and I finally finished installing our front yard garden in July. We put in four beds of strawberries for our kitchen and one bed for the neighborhood kids who have already learned to stop by for a snack. We have herbs and lavender and many other flowers that will come back year after year. There are also raspberries from my parents’ garden in Massachusetts, an heirloom apple tree from a friend of ours who does his own grafting in Michigan, and even a serviceberry that the city planted at the curb when I asked for the dying maple in that space to be replaced with an edible crop. Sarah also made us a set of cold frames that I placed over the fall spinach crop. We ate spinach from those beds into January and we expect they will be producing again in March. Even with all that, there is still room for six more beds of annual vegetables. It is amazing how much space we have now that the lawn is gone!
We did save a little scrap of grass, however. That’s where we set up a table and chairs. It is fun to eat dinner in the garden with the fragrant herbs and the flickering fireflies, until the mosquitoes come out anyway. We chat with our neighbors as they stop by to take a book or leave a book in the little free library that Sarah built from one of our old bee boxes. And we thank Nicole for starting up so quickly last spring and finally pushing us to make this garden happen.
About the author
Claire Strader is the Farm Director for Community GroundWorks. She runs Troy Community Farm and is also the founder of Madison FarmWorks. Look for the Madison FarmWorks Urban Gardener Training classes at Willy East West in the Community Room Calendar on page 5 and on our website. To learn more about Madison FarmWorks, Troy Community Farm, and Community GroundWorks visit communitygroundworks.org.