Starting Our Own Backyard Farm

Reader Contribution by Brent And Leanna Alderman Sterste
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As we’ve been contemplating ways to make our life both more homemade and more old-fashioned, my wife, LeAnna, and I decided to scrap our CSA farm share and strike out on our own. We had no complaint about our farm, we loved it pretty dearly despite its incomprehensible fascination with tatsoi. But we decided that really what we wanted was not just a tangential connection to the land our food grew on, but we wanted to be the ones out there getting dirty and making it happen. So we planned to dig up half of our backyard and forego the usual impatiens in our front borders and see how many vegetables and herbs we could squeeze into our tiny, urban lot.

The problem with marrying someone very much like yourself is that it can really cut down on the chances of having a voice of reason enter into your marital decision making. Before we knew it, we were not only growing all our own vegetables and herbs, but we were also planning to start them all from seed. And furthermore, we were going to use open-pollinated, heirloom seeds so that we could save seeds this fall for next year’s crop. And, because the houses in our neighborhood are packed so tightly together that our windows receive little direct sun, we’d have to come up with some kind of grow light and seed starting system to make all this possible. You can see how these things snowball!

In for a penny in for a pound, as they say, I decided that if we were going to honor our rural roots, we’d have to do this up right. Even if we could have afforded it, running out and buying a fancy seed starting system was just out of the question. Mercifully, we’ve owned our home long enough to have accumulated an attic, cellar, and garage full of potentially useful junk and castoff construction waste. As I began planning for my seed starting rack, I realized that I had never gotten rid of the horrible 1970s fluorescent light fixture that used to hang in our kitchen. It had been hard-wired, but, I thought, I bet I could rewire it with a plug. I also had a bunch of old lumber in the cellar that my father had dropped off after he disassembled my late grandfather’s wheelchair ramp. Before you know it, we had a perfectly functional, if not entirely attractive, seed starting rack with an adjustable-height light – and all we had to buy was a pack of screws.

Having set the rack up on our back porch, we set to planting seeds. In ordering our seeds, we made some pragmatic choices – paste tomatoes for sauce, basil both for pesto to freeze for the winter and to eat fresh with sliced tomatoes and homemade mozzarella, marigolds for companion planting, red peppers for our toddler, and so on. We also made some whimsical choices – attempting to start plants like caraway, strawberries, huckleberries, and lemongrass (a very pleasant herb popular in Thai cooking).

A couple weeks in, we don’t have 100% germination, but we do have at least some of everything sprouted. Since they’re on the porch and we’re in New England, they do a nearly daily shuffle inside to avoid the still-cold nights as we wait and long and plan for the day when our tiny plot will finally be warm and ready for planting. The agricultural life is, on some deep level, a life of faith – that seeds will grow, that Massachusetts will finally warm up, and that life is better choosing against mainstream culture and opting for homemade. Even now, with our little sprouts not much more than a hint of a promise, we believe.

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