Farmers should make house-calls

John Robb wants us to stop landscaping our lawns, and start foodscaping them -- growing food for our families. And he thinks the way to jumpstart it is for farmers to make house-calls. I love this idea, but don't think I could participate in it: when we applied to Hackney Council in London for permission to add a greenhouse frame to our balcony they rejected it because it would "interrupt the vertical rhythm" of our building. As far as I can tell, "vertical rhythm" is an imaginary aesthetic quality that is more important than real food.

Of course, since most people in the developed world don’t know how to grow food anymore and many of the methods and tools used to grow high quality food are still being developed, we are going to need to some help.

One great way to do that is to join a local foodscaping program.

This type of program is like a food subscription at a CSA. However, in this program, the farmer comes to you. He/she converts your yard into a high performance garden and teaches you how to garden it successfully.

I think that if we are smart, we’ll be spending more money on foodscaping in ten years than landscaping. If so, good food will be available everywhere.

What if Farmers made House Calls?


  1. I love that idea.
    In the last couple years, we converted the two back corners of our yard into raised beds, but imagine if someone could come and help a bunch of us urban farmers in our neighborhood be more efficient and give us growing tips?  That would be amazing.  Most of us in our old city neighborhood don’t have a lot of space, but we do have space.  Collectively, it could be amazing. 

  2. If you get all your neighbours above and below in on it, you can preserve the vertical rhythm, and trap them in their fancy word-smithing attempts!

  3. Hackney are second only to Camden for awkward mentalness. Have you considered rotating the plans 90 degrees and resubmitting them?

  4. We have that already in NYC, though I don’t think it’s taken off that well. BK Farmyards is the organization and their hope is to turn Brooklyn and Queens homes into mini-farms, but how many people have participated since they started, I’m not sure. They have accomplished a lot of other cool things, though, including an Egg CSA with chickens living in the back lot of an old church. Great stuff.

  5. As someone who grew up on a farm I think it’s a great, but flawed idea.
    Farmers are not gardeners. The processes and foods modern farmers are familiar with are not really suitable for home gardens. Better, I suppose, than nothing, but not great. It would be like hiring an electrical engineer to help you buy a mobile phone. You’d get the one with the most efficient charger, the most cleverly laid out circuit board, and that used chips from the engineer’s favorite chipmaker, but would you get a good phone? Impossible to say.

    In the US we have the Cooperative Extension Offices. Few people seem to know they exist, but this is exactly what they’re for. They’re funded by the USDA and can provide all kinds of knowledge about food production to anyone who asks.

    1. I think some farmers would likely hate the idea, but I’ve known retired farmers with large gardens.  Yes, it’s a different knowledge base and skill set, but there’s a lot of overlap.  Some will be better at teaching novice then others.  I agree that cooperate extension offices are a good resource. 

    2. Yes. I checked the comments to see if anyone had mentioned extension agents. They do great work. They’re like the reference librarians of growing things.

    3. It’s actually more like hiring an electrical engineer to assemble a special mobile phone for you. The basic problem is one of efficiency (lack of economies of scale). As a way of spreading knowledge about hobby gardening, and perhaps improving the landscape, it’s a great idea. For food production… not so much. Growing row crops by hand just isn’t competitive with large-scale production unless your effective labor costs are tiny or negative (because it’s your hobby).

    4.  Aye, you’d probably be better asking for advice from your local allotments’ Supreme Soviet (anyone who’s dealt with ’em knows what I mean…).

  6. There are companies that do this in Massachusetts. They’ll come and build your raised beds for you (or with you), and teach you how to garden. I know a couple of families who have done this as a way to get their kids into gardening.

    Looking online, I see Green City Growers does this — the prices look expensive, though, so I think there are others as well. (Personally, I think anyone can build a raised bed, but having someone come to look at how to re-landscape your yard to make the most of it could be really helpful for many people).

    1. You’d think anyone should be capable of building raised beds.  Sadly, we’ll be rebuilding the raised beds in our backyard that the previous owner built because the dude just didn’t know how to build things.  Wrong wood, poor jointing methods and nails instead of screws.  What the hell?  

      1. Screws, really?  Not going all out on a pegged mortise and tenon joint….

        /jk  I run into a lot of those types of things….like really you spent time doing this and did what?

      2. You don’t really need screws, either. Install uprights, place planks, fill with soil. The laws of physics will do the rest to keep everything in place.

        1. Give it 5 or 6 years.  As I said, wrong wood, too.  The wood is peeling away from the moist soil, tearing the nails out (not even ring-shanks, FFS).  It’s a disgrace of carpentry.  The professional at home (a real-live carpenter) and I will be building new ones this spring.

  7. sheesh, growing food isn’t that hard people. just stick some seed in the ground and water it, the plants and the sun do all the real work for you

    1. Hahaha ! Sounds like you have never tried this personally.

      Ask me about my 5 % success rate using this method, with no advice from experienced gardeners in my vicinity.

      1. I’ve been growing food from seed since ’97.  What big ryan wrote holds true for tomatoes, lettuce, most vining veggies and some herbs.  If you don’t get around to cleaning out the garden in late fall, you’ll have ‘volunteers’ of these plants come spring.  

        1. Hmm… must depend on where you live. I don’t think any vegetable I’ve grown has survived the winter, and for growing in the summer it has been a pretty hit and miss. Carrots and peas have done pretty well each summer, but for instance lettuce grew like crazy the other summer where last summer it just would not grow.

          1. I’m in the Detroit area.  It’s USDA zone 5.  These plants do not survive the winter, however, they are really, really good at self-seeding.  Lettuce is a cool-ish weather crop.  Last summer was too effin’ hot for cool-weather crops to do even OK.  Peas and beans were an absolute waste of time and space last summer.  Ditto for lettuce.  It grew, but it bolted so fast that we never even got a damned salad out of it.

    2. I agree with this pretty much.  So things can be a bit finiky, but for the most part if it makes it to a decent sized plant there isn’t to much to worry about.  Sure everything has its own set of special problems, but there isn’t much that can’t be figured out from the web or visiting a real gardening shop.  Besides my parents go about a 1/2 acre garden every year, the biggest problem they have…animals eating everything.

      (A solar powered electric fence works wonders.)

      1. I’ve been meaning to look up reviews for solar electric fence equipment.  Do they work well to deter large, urban rodents such as racoons, skunks and groundhogs?  Other than the odd traveling cat, those are our only critter problems.

        1. My father purchased his from Tractor Supply (mostly because he won’t buy things online…):

          It has worked pretty good.  The first one he got lasted about 5 years.  Really the only issue with it was corrosion to the PCB inside.  If you took it apart and applied a little clear lacquer to it the unit should hold up fine.  Their problem is mostly deer and it handles those with ease.

          Groundhogs are a problem as well, but he handles those in a more permanent way.

          1. What we can get away with for dispatching large rodents permanently is quite a bit quieter than what one’s allowed on the farm.  :(  

    3. Really? Try that here where the temperature goes up to 123°F and the dew point dips down to -10°F.

      At any rate, growing food on a London street might just be a way to ingest more pollution.

  8. The city where I live has, in the past few years, allowed residents to keep chickens. Oddly enough a couple of people I know who have installed chicken coops in their backyards aren’t also planting their own food gardens.

    It never occurred to me before, but it seems like it would be really easy to use chicken waste as fertilizer, not to mention that, by eating bugs, the chickens could help keep the plants healthy. 

      1. No roosters. That was part of the deal that finally got the bill to pass. Although there have been times when, leaving the gym after an early morning workout, I’ve heard a rooster crowing. (Insert cock joke here.)

  9. Here in Michigan (USA), my wife and I have grown food for our family for years. Luckily, I DO have a local farmer who comes over with tips and whatnot – we call him Farmer Jim, seriously. Now if I could just talk all my neighbors into doing it too.

  10. If the somewhat pushy government’s many layers will let you do this thing, then good.
    Orlando Florida:

    Never expect your idea is so sensible and pleasant that some municipal official won’t take offense that you forgot to bribe him.

    1. Apparently, we need to amend the fucking Constitution to make it legal for people to grow food.

    2. Where’d this douche in Michigan read his definition for suitable? No part of the definition of suitable includes the property of ‘common.

      1. Michigan’s not monolithic.  I live in a different part of the Detroit area and growing food is totally fine.  We also have a permit for keeping chickens.

        1. Didn’t ever say it was. I asked where this one idiot read his definition of suitable. 

          I visited Michigan recently, Detroit was interesting (Cliff Bell’s was amazing) and Ann Arbour was a very nice town I’d love to return to.

          1. Ah yes.  Ann Arbor, nice to visit not always so awesome to live in or near.  But, hey, at least we can have foodscaping and backyard chickens!  

            Oh, and sorry about the shitty roads.  Hope you didn’t drive your own car.

  11. just as a mild counter to this … when i moved to philadelphia (technically suburbs by about 300 meters) 16 years ago from Seattle I was appalled by the lack of back or front yard gardens here. We had gardened intensively in Seattle and loved it, and there were gardens all over.

    it took me just a couple of years to understand at least part of the reason. what we have instead of gardens here are trees. specifically trees that cast a huge amount of shade in the summer time, making the weather more bearable without A/C. but also enough shade to more or less make any intensive food production difficult without large swathes of open space between homes.

    i don’t know if people here have ever consciously traded food production for trees and shade, but that it is the net result, and i’m not sure that i don’t like it in some way, even though i’d love to be growing more food that we do in the tiny patch that we have which occasionally sees the spring+summer sun.

    1. A good observation — that the east side of the USA has trees everywhere and that to garden inside the city or ‘burbs you’ll have to have a lot of land or convince your neighbors to cut down trees.   Good luck with that!

      Not in response to PaulDavis’s message but to the topic as a whole, I suspect that a lot of people simply do not want to garden.  Oh sure it is fun to have a tomato plant or two or a fresh herb window box but to actually grow enough to eat — and the canning/preserving for winter — is hard.  I happen to enjoy it (and have a couple acres of non-tree land to do a proper “big” garden) but it certainly is not easier than sitting on my rear end at my job.  One hour at work is more than enough to pay for several days of food from the local farmers’ market.   I suspect most of my co-workers would rather just join a CSA or go to the farmers’ market or the local “organic food” supermarket … if they even care about local organic food.

  12. Or better idea, make basic horticulture a mandatory requirement for HS diplomas. You plant a garden, keep it alive, and if you survive eating what you’ve grown, you pass. 

    Or you could just call your local extension office, since that’s what their there for, rather than expecting some farmer who in all likelihood has enough to deal with managing his own several acres rather than expecting him to come out and help every ignoramus in suburbia with a tomato plant for free. Seriously. you already pay them via taxes, so you might as well use them. And really those plants went thru millenia of evolution, they don’t need that much help to do what they do. If they did no one would have bothered domesticating them.  

    1. Or better idea, make basic horticulture a mandatory requirement for HS diplomas.

      Schools have evolved to teach mostly academic subjects because of the assumption that families were teaching life skills.  It would be great if everyone graduated from high school knowing how to manage a checking account, change a diaper, grow a tomato, etc.  They’re certainly not learning at home.

  13. Sounds like a prime market for a fruit tree nursery, or nuts. Plus food trees you pay for and plant once, but which can produce food for decades. 

  14. Sounds like a prime market for a fruit tree nursery, or nuts. Plus food trees you pay for and plant once, but which can produce food for decades. 

  15. Here in Austin we have a volunteer organization called The Green Corn Project. According to the mission statement, “GCP installs organic food gardens for elderly, low-income, and disabled community members as well as for elementary schools, community centers, and shelters in underserved areas of Austin.”

  16. oh, man, I’d kill for a proper agri-consultant session.  I’m just starting a circle-raised-bed this year: 

  17. there’s an awesome guy in Atlanta that does this type of thing, I’ve heard him on the college radio community affairs program.  K. Rashid Nuri.  He’s a straight-up-and-down guy and a total happy mutant.

    though I rent and my job is physically laborious enough without doing “real” gardening on my off days, I applaud those who do; several (if not all) generations of my family have maintained gardens.  My grandpa had one that took up half his backyard (mostly food) and another huge one on his vacation property that was all food.  leave it to my grandpa to spend his vacation farming, but that’s the kinda guy he was.

  18. I don’t want them to teach me how to do it. I just want them to do it. I grew up with farming and while I appreciate it I’m not personally interested in spending my time farming.
    I guess if I can afford to pay someone to mow my lawn and trim my hedges I could just as easily pay some one to farm my backyard farm.

  19. I think it’d be neat if every municipality had some type of program like this.  Maybe have a “Master Gardener” who could help teach and oversee residents in planning and constructing their edible gardens, and a few other people to help with “foodscape” upkeep in people’s lawns.  Maybe even have a central “town garden” that supplies food to the community and where people can take lessons.

    Also, along along the lines of garbage/recyclables pick-up, each village/city/whatever could have a compost program where, if households weren’t making their own compost, they could have their food waste (which reaches 40% in America) picked up once a week and taken to some anaerobic composting center (which can also handle stuff like milk and meat).  Residents could then use that compost in their garden beds.

    I know, it wouldn’t be cheap (mainly with start-up costs), but if there’s anything that would be a worthwhile investment I’d imagine it would be this.

    1. Remove the meat from the household compostable waste stream, and welcome to Ann Arbor.  There’s not a master gardener service, but MSU extension has an office just to the west of town.  

      1. Neat!  My little sister goes to Madison and I guess the city is going to start some composting pilot program within the next few years.  I think it’s gonna be something along the lines of this:

        1. MSU has extension offices all over the state.  It’s not in the city proper, it’s in Scio Township.  You’re never very far from an operating farm around here.

  20. I would love to do this if it weren’t for:

    A. The Stepford-like community would never go for heads of lettuce on the lawn.

    B. I live in the 10th level of hell and pretty much everything gets scorched on the vine. I learned the hard way when my tomatoes and beloved lemon tree burned in my courtyard. *sob*

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