Guest post: The Suburb Farm
On going lawn-less in Michigan.
One of the best things about Substack is the opportunity to connect with other writers who share your obsessions. You can check out my long list of recommendations to see more, but top of the list is The Suburb Farm, written by Erin Hanson. Another Midwestern gardener trying her hand at sustainable, organic living, I’ve particularly enjoyed Erin’s celebration of Michaelmas and her frank assessment of this fall’s harvest at her Michigan suburban homestead. But don’t take my word for it—here’s Erin herself to tell you all about her project, process, and progress! —Lisa
Thanks, Lisa! I’m thrilled to share our story with your readers at Brunette Gardens.
We bought this house, a 1950’s ranch in my hometown, after 10 years of renting. At the time, we had no plans for large-scale gardening or building self-sufficiency outside the stores in easy access a few blocks away, and certainly no thought of raising honey bees since I retained my childhood phobia of all stinging insects. We’d just come through the recession, and finally landed steady, full-time jobs. We had four kids, and the school district was good. I’d grown up on a city block, my husband Phillip in a trailer park on the opposite side of the state, and this suburban neighborhood seemed pretty bougie. We’d arrived. Bust out the lawn mower, hire a landscaping service, and maintain curb appeal. But the house did come with a large patch of thornless raspberries behind the garage… (Raspberries, the gateway fruit to homesteading?).
But when you think you know how it will go, that’s when things go differently. One of you has a health scare or medical diagnosis. One of the kids gets bullied and ends up in and out of psychiatric facilities for a few years. You get a dog, and you grow a few tomato plants. It turns out that you enjoy being outdoors more and tending growing things; it’s great therapy, and the tomatoes are really freaking tasty. You wonder how much else you could grow, and you dream about turning that big, luxuriant lawn into rows of food production. You seek out other people who’ve achieved it: no lawn, and in its place a mini-farm in the suburbs or urban neighborhood.
And that’s how it started, in the summer of 2016, with a straw bale garden. The next two summers, we kept the straw bales but grew a few things in the ground as well (and when I say a few, I’m being literal... handfuls of strawberries, a few pea plants, and a melon).
By 2018, we started to get serious and cut up a section of the back lawn to plant squash. I’d been reading Wendell Berry and adding organic gardening topics to my news feed. I learned that heirloom varieties of foods were disappearing. An article which I cannot now recall enough to cite talked about the large number of humans who, once they were two generations removed from the farm—like my husband and me, whose great-grandparents owned Michigan farms—no longer retained the knowledge of how to grow food. That did it for me—as a history nerd and semi-nostalgist, I had to relearn those lost skills and help to pass them on to my children. I found supportive people online who had similar goals and were willing to share their knowledge.
In the spring of 2019, we expanded that backyard garden and added two fenced-in areas for food production. Our puppy—dog no. 2—turned out to be a terror of gardens, as he had a decided taste for fresh produce right off the plant; thus, the fence. Chicken wire along the fence bottom mostly keeps out the bunnies, but they still find their way in, to the detriment of the bean seedlings. We figure on losing a certain percent of our yield to critters, and though I may shake my fist at them, we really do appreciate seeing wildlife here.
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2020 arrived with its 2020-ness, and we had more time at home to dream big for the homestead. We doubled the size of the fenced-in gardens, upped our compost game, planted the first fruit trees of the mini-orchard, and doubled down on organic processes. I tried my hand at canning, with decent results.
2021 was the year we jumped all in, both feet and head over heels, to the homesteading way. With our neighbors’ support, we planted a long line of blueberry bushes on our shared property line. We dedicated areas of the yard for native plants. We created a stir in the neighborhood by stripping all the grass from our front yard and replacing it with mulch and a border of strawberry plants. With the advice of master-gardener friends, we (by which I mean mainly Phillip) built a berm with evergreen plants near the curb. We met people from blocks away, as word spread about what we were doing, and we found that most of them were either positive, non-judgmentally curious, or jealous about how we no longer needing to mow the lawn.
And we started beekeeping! Working in the garden had dispelled my lifelong phobia; rather than freezing at the sight of bees and wasps, I sat back and watched them work, and came to respect them without fear. Phillip had helped his dad tend beehives as a kid, and having our own hives was fulfilling a longtime dream of his. We successfully split that first hive in July, but we lost both colonies at the end of the winter.
This year, we started over with new bees, and—fingers crossed—they are heading strong into winter. We expanded the mini-orchard, harvested the first grapes from our vines, built a new composter out of repurposed fencing, and added flowers to our lawnless front yard to maintain suburban curb appeal. Next on the list is to add ornamental food-producing plants to the front yard, lay a stone patio out front for visiting, and building more community around good food.
It requires work from everyone in the family to keep our suburban homestead going. And though we still have to
remind cajole scold the kids into doing chores, I do have to give credit to them where it’s due. One of the kids had been expressing particularly strong feelings about ecology, conservation, climate change, pollution—all that. He’s the one who convinced us to finally get rid of our lawn, cultivate native-plant species, spend days setting up mushroom logs, and forage as well as plant. Another of the kids got really passionate about collecting rainwater to irrigate the garden, and sketched out the plans for a rainwater tank that we implemented the next year. She also took charge of organizing our food stores, shopping on a budget, cooking from the pantry supplies, and prepping for emergencies. Gen Z just might save the world (sadly, they may not have a choice).
We’re a family with a weird hobby and yard aesthetic, but I know there are like-minded people out there, and that’s heartening. Cheers to all the home & community gardeners out there! Thank you for inviting me to tell our story, Lisa. And thanks for reading, “you guys” (Michiganese for y’all).
Lisa here again: In the spirit of cross-pollination, I’ve written a guest post over at The Suburb Farm. If you’re new to Brunette Gardens as well, you might enjoy our origin story. Happy fall, y’all!