It was 2006 when Amy Stross quit her job as a high school Spanish teacher in Columbus and moved to a 0.10-acre property in Delhi Township. Not sure what she wanted to do next, she started gardening. “It felt like coming home,” says Stross, who proceeded to start a blog about her experiments in small-scale permaculture, Tenth Acre Farm, and write the book The Suburban Micro-Farm: Modern Solutions for Busy People, which was published last year.
Stross recently moved to a 3-acre property in Milford, but you don’t need that much land to yield a good harvest. The first garden she planted was in a mostly shaded spot with poor soil where there used to be an in-ground pool, and she still managed to harvest 300 to 400 pounds of produce each year. So if you want to eat ultra-fresh produce, start in your own backyard (or front!) with these tips from Stross.
First things first: Why grow your own food?
There are a lot of reasons why I “should” grow my own food, including improving health, reducing my ecological footprint, and increasing the biodiversity of my lawn, to name a few. I’m motivated by all of these things. However, feeling grateful that I get to do this every day is what keeps me producing healthy food and nudging the yard toward a more ecologically positive environment, season after season, year after year.
Before you planted crops, you joined a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)—a system that allows a consumer to subscribe to a farm’s harvest. Then you installed a rain garden. Why start there?
It’s important to start with one or two smaller things before working your way up to managing a more complex, integrated home garden.
Joining a CSA allowed me to learn about all of the different vegetables that grow in our area, which times of year they come into their own, which ones I loved and didn’t care for, and how to store and prepare them. This alone can be a bit overwhelming at first, so I think it was important to learn these things before starting to grow my own. As part of the CSA’s administrative team, I learned how much effort and coordination it took to grow the variety of produce I was receiving. It helped me plan my gardens better each year.
Installing a rain garden helped me become more in tune with the water on my property—how much I received in rainfall and where water wanted to pool or run. I learned which areas of the yard could be passively irrigated by rainfall and which I might have to irrigate by hand. This helped me make decisions about where to place garden areas to reduce maintenance and municipal water use.
What should every micro-farmer know before they start digging up their yard?
An important practice in permaculture design is observing a landscape through the seasons. With notebook in hand, jot down things like, Where are the sunny areas? Is it consistent throughout the year, or do the sunny areas change as the sun changes position in the sky? Where does water pool or run? Where does it stay dry? What is the soil like? (Soil that has been disrupted by development will likely be more difficult to grow in than native soil.) What weeds are present? Are there animals that might thwart gardening activities such as deer or a dog? If so, how do you plan to keep them out?
What are the best crops for beginners?
Those that you love to eat! Do you love strawberries and raspberries? Plant those first. Excited to harvest your own salads? Sow a raised bed with lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and green onion seeds. I also think it’s super easy to start with seedlings for fruiting vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and eggplants.
Where are some of your favorite places to get plants and seeds?
A lot of nurseries spray their plant stock with pesticides, so personally, I look for chemical-free plants because these can be damaging not only to humans, but also to pollinators. I also look for heirloom, open-pollinated, and organic seeds. You can find chemical-free vegetable and herb seedlings from local farms at farmers’ markets. Other places to check for chemical-free plants and seeds are A.J. Rahn Greenhouses, Denny McKeown’s Bloomin Garden Centre, Funke’s Greenhouses, Growing Value Nursery, Feeders Feed & Seed, Keystone Flora, Osterbrock Greenhouse & Florist, and Pipkin’s Market.
In your book, you talk about planting parking strips—the space between the sidewalk and the road—and how the three dwarf cherry trees you planted in yours produced 27 pounds of fruit in a single year. What other unexpected places can people plant crops?
It only takes a little creativity to find unexpected places to grow food. Edible landscaping makes beautiful front yard gardens possible. Food crops can squeeze into surprisingly small spaces such as a border along a sidewalk or patio. And I learned in my yard that quite a few crops such as leafy greens and root vegetables grow surprisingly well in partial shade. Adding flowers helps with biodiversity and makes everything look pretty. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
How do neighbors react to your micro-farm, and how did it affect the resale value of your home?
At first, when our neighbors saw us digging up the front yard, I think they were a bit nervous about it. But once they saw that it was tidy and full of flowers, everyone relaxed. It was at this point that many of our neighbors came over to introduce themselves and offer to trade vegetables that they were growing in their backyard gardens. It was a fun bonding opportunity.
I was nervous about how my micro-farm landscape would affect the resale value of the house, and lucky for us, this story has a happy ending. The first couple to walk through the house when it came on the market were the buyers. I assumed they were thrilled about the newly remodeled kitchen and other home improvements. However, at the closing, they shared that it was the edible yard that really got them excited. Imagine being new to gardening and already having an edible landscape, a rain garden, raised beds, and a compost system all set up for you. They were thrilled to have such an amazing head start on their gardening dream.
What has surprised you most about micro-farming?
I’m surprised by how many areas of my life have been touched by the simple act of growing a food garden. The regular exercise, sunshine, and fresh air have been healing and regenerative. The organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs have contributed to my family’s health and have allowed me to share generously with family, neighbors, and those in need. I’ve been surprised by the increased number of birds, bees, and butterflies, and feel encouraged by how quickly we can work with nature to heal damaged land. I’m also incredibly surprised and grateful that the garden has helped me create a second career that inspires and excites me every day.
Your new home sits on 3 acres. What are your plans for all that extra acreage?
Our new property is made up mostly of wooded hillsides, so the area for gardening is still quite small. However, I look forward to learning more about foraging in the woods as well as creating a slightly larger and more official backyard garden than I had at the original Tenth Acre Farm. This time, I’ll have to design my gardens with deer in mind, but I appreciate a good challenge!
Your book promises a healthy yield of homegrown fruits, vegetables, and herbs that only need 15 minutes of tending a day. What other books or classes do you recommend for beginners?
I highly recommend the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati for their excellent selection of gardening classes. It’s where I got started, and I’m grateful for that community resource. My favorite book is Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permacultureby Toby Hemenway. It’s an excellent resource for anyone interested in permaculture and ecological food production.