Not too long ago, I felt compelled to check how many web pages out there were targeting the keyword combinations sustainable old home and sustainable old house. Why? Well, a core interest of mine is the preservation of older homes. It’s something I write about frequently, and as I always seem to have a bit of an SEO campaign percolating in the back of my mind, it’s no surprise I’d eventually get around to seeing who else might be using those particular combinations.
A Google allintitle search revealed 225 pages with sustainable, old, and home in their titles. Nearly all the highest ranking pages were about sustainable home building. By contrast, 102 pages were returned for sustainable + old + house. But I was astounded to see that the highest ranking pages weren’t on sustainable home building at all, but rather sustainable gardening, and tied-in with old houses.
This was an unexpected and profound discovery for me, because another topic I obsess about is the creation of sustainable urban homesteads, including the practice of door yard food production. I’m convinced that combining preservation with sustainable homesteading is a huge gain for global sustainability. Not only does it directly benefit home owners, but potentially the local community, as well. So I was pleased to find that a number of others were at least thinking and publishing along similar lines.
Why Combine Preservation With Sustainable Food Production, Anyway?
So, what are the key characteristics of this notion of a sustainable, urban homestead?
First and foremost is that of a well-preserved, and highly energy efficient, existing home. The goals of global-scale sustainability are best-served by conserving the embodied energy of existing structures, while making their use of operational energy much more efficient. This includes conservation of water, too, because water use is effectively an application of operational energy.
The second component consists of creating a well-planned and conscientiously managed kitchen garden for backyard food production. What exactly does “kitchen garden” mean? Well, back in our predominantly agricultural past, most growing was done for profit. Farm land was devoted mainly to the production of cash crops that would be sold at home or shipped overseas. However, nearly all homesteads also set aside a small amount of nearby land for small scale subsistence planting. These areas were called kitchen gardens, because they provided a direct supply of edible produce, straight to the kitchen door.
A Vision Of Sustainable Urban Homesteading
I advocate returning to this practice on the same broad scale it enjoyed in the past, albeit for significantly different reasons. Of course, the modern, urbanized kitchen garden faces some challenges unknown to its historical predecessors. Space is going to be at a premium. Many of us also live in managed developments where plantings are prohibited. In this case, one might be able get by with container plantings, or by seeking out a community gardening program. And the truly determined might even search for empty lots around town, and petition owners or public officials for permission to use them for gardening.
But let’s assume you have full control over a small piece of property and wish to plant a highly productive and completely sustainable source of food. The key drivers of success in your efforts will most likely run along the same lines of what I’ve found in my own sustainable gardening experiments. And note that, just like an energy efficient home, the sustainable garden is a whole system; the elements I’ve enumerated below need to work together as a system, and focusing on just one or two, at the expense of the others, might prove less than productive.
Best Practices for Sustainable Door Yard Food Production
Compact plantings. Space is at a premium. Make the best of what you have. Pack ‘em in tight! I’ve found I could often ignore the usual prohibitions against placing plants too close together. As long as there’s an effective soil management strategy in place, compact planting never exhibited any adverse effects for me.
Effective soil management. In my own case, I double dug all new garden beds to disrupt hard, compacted soil, removing many (but not all) larger rocks, roots, and other debris. (Caution: Always remember to call before you dig if uncertain about where your underground utility lines run; also be wary of the presence of buried electrical lines on your property. If you have any doubts, call the professionals to check things out). This is true sweat equity that pays back a thousand fold. The turned-over soil is then placed back, interlaced with liberal layers of organic vegetable compost and other natural fertilizers, such as leaf mold.
Use natural and easily obtained fertilizers. Chemical fertilizers have no place in a sustainable garden. They require energy to produce and ship to consumers. And they place chemicals in the soil and ground water that don’t occur in nature. I’ve found leaf mold, and composted vegetable waste, to be just as, if not more effective than any artificial fertilizer. The proper use of cover crops will also go a long way in keeping your soil productive, and prevent erosion during the off season.
Extensive use of mulch. Surface mulch is critical. As soon as your seedlings have emerged, or right after you’ve planted them, spread about a half-inch layer of mulch on the soil surface. Mulch promotes water conservation by preventing excessive evaporation during hot periods. It also keeps the soil from eroding during rain storms, or when you’re irrigating. And as it decomposes, it provides a steady supply of food to your plants.
Extensive use of cover crops. Any serious practitioner of sustainable gardening needs to become a scholar on cover crops. Cover crops are secondary plantings that enhance the presence of nitrogen and biomass in the soil, while also preventing erosion and breaking up compact soil at lower levels. They usually consist of certain legumes, grasses, and clovers. Some cover crops are also planted as ground cover around primary crops, functioning as a living mulch.
Seed gathering. Not all that’s sown should be consumed. Consider allowing some percentage of your plants to bolt and go to seed. Collect and dry the seeds and save them for the following season. Before you know it, you’ll have more seeds than you can deal with. Pass your excess seeds on to some one else who needs them.
Water conservation. A sustainable garden needs to be irrigated like any other garden, but we don’t want to violate our principle of extreme water conservation. Some folks advocate the recycling of grey water; that is, waste water from washing, showering, etc. For me, the jury is still out on that one. While I appreciate the re-use, I’m not sure that soaps and cleaning agents and other things that might be present in grey water should be introduced into the soil. Instead, I prefer to use freestanding rain barrels for irrigation, as much as possible. Also, watering should be done infrequently, but heavily. For example, every other day, or every third day. But a lot of water should be used when you do irrigate. This ensures that the water soaks way down into the soil, encouraging roots to grow deeply, and ultimately reducing the need for more frequent watering. This is where mulch also helps tremendously.
Vegetable gardens need not be unattractive. Finally, keep in mind that your edible gardens don’t need to look utilitarian, even though they are. Avoid row planting. Go for compact, artistic groupings of edible plants, interlaced with decorative non-edibles and herbs. This is an ancient practice that was perfected by French kitchen gardeners (potagers). Recently, however, the notion of a decorative kitchen garden appears to have returned, and is being embraced by an increasing number of sustainable gardeners, as well.
By consistently using all of the above mentioned best practices, I was surprised how much yield I actually got from relatively small garden plots — far more, in fact, than I could use during any growing season. That’s when it dawned on me that, with a bit more effort, my excess production could find its way to consumers in the local community, in terms of both charitable donations and even some amount of nominal sale. I believe that, in theory at least, wide-scale, door yard food production could become a significant local food source, provided enough people were committed to doing this. This observation eventually lead to my conceptualization of the citizen-farmer, and the role such a person might play in some highly sustainable, community-based world of the not too distant future.
So there you have it. A brief overview of one person’s vision of building and maintaining sustainable homesteads on the urban frontier, as my contribution to Blog Action Day 2011. For further reading on this, and other related topics, I’d like to refer the reader to the following sources:
Sources of Additional Information
My original (and probably overly detailed) writings on the concept of on-grid, sustainable, urban homesteading and door yard food production basically span three articles I’ve published in Building Moxie: The Do Together Daily:
- Staying On-Grid, Part I: A Hybrid Approach to Sustainability
- Staying On-Grid, Part II: A Call to Arms to the Citizen-Farmer
- Earth Day 2011: Three Simple Acts That Can Make A Difference
My good friend Sean Lintow, of SLS Construction, is another contributor to Blog Action Day 2011, and has posted an excellent posting on the prevention of food poisoning, as part of his Safety Sunday series of articles on his Homeowners and Trades Resource Center (HTRC). For another great article by Sean that ties in closely with the concept of composting and thoughtful management of organic kitchen waste, see his RIP posting on the demise (in spirit, anyway) of the common kitchen trash compactor.
Finally, I’d like to thank all of the fine and dedicated individuals behind Blog Action Day 2011, for the privilege of being able to contribute a blog post to such a forum. And I’d like thank you, the reader, for choosing to spend your time here, perusing my article. Please feel free to submit your comments here, with any feedback or additional suggestions or sources of information you might care to share. All reasonable comments and criticisms are always welcome.