We have made a lot of progress in transforming our yard. We started with removing English ivy and arborvitae, and by Fall 2008, we finally had also removed all of the grass, mostly by sheet-mulching. We now have over 100 species of plants, focusing on edibles, flowers, Willamette Valley natives, plants that attract beneficial insects, and plants for basketry. Our yard has been a Gold level Certified Backyard Habitat since July 2011.
The sunny part of our yard is now devoted to vegetable beds, which are mostly in the shape of circles, keyholes, and paisleys, plus a spiral herb mound. Farmer John and I enjoy gathering and eating food that we've grown ourselves.
The shady part is the mostly-native area, complete with a constructed dry creek bed which handles overflow from some of our rain barrels in Winter. We now have ten rain barrels scattered all around the house!
Click here to see our entire plant list. Please contact me if you would like a tour -- I love showing people what we are doing!
Worm Composting. We have always been good recyclers. In July 1999, we decreased our garbage pickup from weekly to once-a-month. I started worm composting simply as a way to help reduce garbage. We now have thousands of red wigglers living in two bins in our basement. I have given away worms to many people so they can start their own composting bins, and I have a nice supply of worm castings to use for gardening.
This is the method I use for worm composting. I started out with a combination of leaves and dirt in the bins, which I guess is a little unusual, but has been very successful. I have never had a problem with bugs or odor. It just smells like dirt. If you put an ear close to the bin, you can hear a lot of activity in there! I suppose this is a combination of the sounds of decomposition and the worms moving around.
I rough chop kitchen scraps and store them in open containers in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator.
About once a week, I put the scraps -- including torn-up coffee filters -- through my food processor and mix everything together into a big bowl. This takes about 10 minutes. The food processor is "on" less than a minute, and this effort speeds composting and keeps everything nice and tidy in the bins.
The worms live in the basement in two plastic recycling bins. The bins have holes in the bottom, and are on wood blocks to allow for air circulation. I put half of the worm food in each bin, and then very gently use a hand rake to thoroughly cover the food with dirt and worm castings (some worms get moved around too). Each time, I put the food on the low side, and then mound the dirt up on that side, over the food. (photos taken December 2005)
Collecting and using rainwater. In November 2004, we installed our first 50-gallon rain barrel next to the garage, shown here with our Tibetan terriers, Spike and Jones. As of March 2009, we have 10 barrels scattered around the house. For the first eight, we bought food-grade barrels from The Yoshida Group in Portland for $5.00 each, and installed fittings that we got from Division Hardware. The last two, in the front yard, are deluxe models from the Rainbarrel Man in Portland. We use the rainwater for watering vegetables during the summer, when it's hot and dry, and also occasionally for flushing the toilet during the rest of the year, when we have plenty of rain.
In 2009, I took the Master Gardener training in Portland. John and I made a video about our rain barrels to show on the last day of class. Click on the photo below to view the video.
Collecting and using graywater. We started collecting gray water in a very simple way -- in plastic containers in the kitchen and bathroom sinks. We pour water from these containers into buckets to use for toilet-flushing (see photo and desciption below). We now flush our toilet exclusively with a combination of gray water and rain water. I enjoy inviting visitors to participate in our water conservation practices!
Our first step in learning to change our bathroom habits was to follow the saying "if it's brown, flush it down; if it's yellow, let it mellow". Flushing with rainwater or graywater was the next step. But now instead of flushing the yellow, I take advantage of the free source of nitrogen and either put it in the compost, or dilute it 5:1 with rainwater and use it to water leafy plants.
The photo above shows the water storage unit John made for water recycling. There is a grocery bag full of dried leaves and buckets for storing water. Beneath the containers is a towel, with a plastic liner underneath. When the lid of the storage unit is down, it makes a roomy place to put things while you're in the bathroom, and a good seat to use while putting on socks and shoes.
We were surprised when we saw our first water bill after we started using gray water/rain water -- it was about half the amount for the fall of 2004 when compared to the same period of time in 2003. Some of this decline is also due to our raised consciousness about water -- when you start collecting it, you notice how much you waste, and start making small changes to cut down. For example, just letting the water run while you wait for it to change from cold to hot can be as much as a gallon. We have far more than enough water in the winter -- the rain barrels are almost always full -- but the three barrels didn't quite get us through the summer. We had to use tap water for the garden for about two weeks.
After I read The Humanure Handbook , I was convinced that I wanted to do humanure composting. But I was still afraid. I took a workshop from Ruby Bloom here in Portland, and went home with my own bucket toilet. Then my neighbor said he needed to get rid of a couple of composting bins, and suddenly I had everything I needed. So in May 2008, I started using the system. So far, so good. Details when I have something interesting to report!
Getting started with gardening in the front yard.
In Fall 2004, I started sheet-mulching by covering an area near our front steps. This was the beginning of the transformation from monoculture (grass) to diversity.
John called it my "crop circle". On the far right, a view of the same area in Fall 2006. The plants in this photo include lavendar, thyme, chard, burning bush, calendula, red osier dogwood, oxalis, yarrow, gingko, and arctic willow.
Learning to grow our own food. In 2005, we took Connie van Dyke's "Introduction to Permaculture" at Luscher Farm, and then Connie's "Urban Farming" class at Portland Community College. Books we have been reading include Gaia's Garden, Square Foot Gardening, Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, Gardening When it Counts, and The Maritime Northwest Garden Guide. (photo taken August 2005)
Building outdoor compost bins. In Summer 2005, a neighbor who was replacing her deck gave us enough cedar to build our three-section compost bin. John also built the flower cart! (photo taken June 2005)
Removing and replanting trees.
The hawthorne trees on our median strip were suffering from a chronic fungus, which left them almost leafless most of the year. The "before" photo was taken when we had them removed in December 2005. In January 2006 we planted a scarlet oak and a ginko. The "after" photo was taken in November 2011.
We also removed a row of arborvitate that had grown to over 15 feet tall along our property line in the back yard. I cut up the smaller branches of the arborviate and spread them out along a new walking path, and we sawed up the larger pieces for firewood.
John and I have had a rental house in the Lents neighborhood for about 15 years.
The front of the house is there behind the big maple tree!
When I got interested in gardening, I started looking at this property a new way, seeing the value of the land itself for the first time.
The large, sunny back yard BG (Before Gardening).
In Spring 2006, we started doing a little sheet mulching around the edges of the property.
In Fall 2006, we started digging out a spiral path for walking meditation, and piling the clods upside down to make raised beds for vegetables. We also planted a plum and a pear tree.
During 2007, this backyard joined about a dozen other urban yards as part of a CSA. The CSA farmer and his helpers double-dug the beds, and planted carrots, beets, parsnips, and squash. On the right is the Spiral Garden in Spring 2007, with the young plum tree in the foreground.
The Spiral Garden in September 2007. Our little pear tree produced one lovely pear. The root vegetables look beautiful -- and are really tasty!
Summer 2008, in the Spiral Garden with parsnips and carrots going to seed.
On the Summer Solstice, my friend Bhakti and I walked the spiral slowly and silently, and then stood in the center of this magnificent forest of parsnips for a long time, listening to the sounds of insects and birds in the garden. It was a deeply moving experience, one I will never forget.
Who knew parsnips could grow so tall? Isn't it all just glorious?!