Sunday, August 22, 2010

22 Square Feet Farm

There is something truly amazing about growing your own food. Watching an unremarkable leafy plant suddenly sprout a big, beautiful vegetable that you can simply pluck off and eat... It’s as fresh and local as possible and infinitely more satisfying than a trip to the grocery store. The first time a tomato appeared on our vine, I felt like a little kid, full of wonder and excitement. I had never thought much of tomatoes. My main experience with them was the dinky, flavorless slice on my fast food chicken sandwich or as the main ingredient (usually) in a jar of pasta sauce. But we grew these tomatoes – we GREW them – from nothing but dirt and water and a little green plant. My husband had assured me that a fresh, homegrown tomato would be something completely different from my previous tomato experiences, but when we plucked and sliced the very first tomato from our vine - and he handed it to me like a slice of apple, as though tomato could be enjoyed all on its own - well, I was skeptical to say the least. He was completely and totally right. That first tomato was sweet and juicy and delicious! AND WE MADE IT!


My husband and I both grew up in Arizona. For those of you who have never visited, the desert is quite a beautiful place with lots of amazing, water-thrifty plants and unique wildlife. However, as a child, I was never very successful at growing things under the hot, Arizona sun. No... For me, food was something that came from the grocery store. And, as the daughter of a single teacher, it often came from the drive-through. Although my mother was an avid label-reader and enjoyed cooking, her busy life and later battle with cancer tended to get in the way of wholesome food.

When we relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, my husband and I realized that perhaps a real garden was at last possible - until we saw the amount of patio space available to us. Both the front patio and back porch of our townhouse were cemented over, with only a small raised planter in the back measuring a measly 22 square feet. One spring, though, my husband decided to try planting tomatoes and zucchini. The tomatoes were a success, but the zucchini was an abysmal failure. Apparently, zucchini is among the easiest vegetables to grow, which suggests something about the quality of the soil in our aged planter. The next year, we managed to grow precisely one bell pepper and a couple of onions in addition to the tomatoes. But, after a couple of seasons and a drip system and automatic watering timer that my husband was able to install in only one weekend of work, we finally started producing a garden full of food. This year, we have successfully grown spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, chard, parsley, cilantro, mint, and even blackberries! We also just planted a cucumber plant and are making another attempt at the dreaded zucchini. We get most of our gardening advice from the internet. Different plants require different treatment, but once you know the tricks, food just pops up all over the place. It’s really a lot easier than I ever imagined. One of the most interesting things about growing food has been learning how different fruits and vegetables actually grow. Broccoli, for example, had me completely baffled. Here is a picture of a broccoli plant from our garden:

The little baby broccoli spears eventually grow into larger florets. The baby broccoli, full-grown florets, and broccoli flowers are all edible and delicious!


When I eat fruits and vegetables from my garden, I think of all the food problems I am avoiding. I have full control over this food. I can determine the fertilizer, pest control method, and brand of seed/plant that eventually makes its way into my body. I also have a supply of cheap, healthy food, and I don’t even have to put shoes on to go get it! Gardening has other advantages as well. It is a hobby that, once set up, takes little time but provides a good reason to go outside and work with the Earth and watch things grow rather than laying on the couch. I can only imagine how much fun it would be to garden with kids.

The merits of small-scale gardening have lead to increased programs throughout the US to promote community gardens, urban farming, and school farming projects in which students grow food in campus gardens that is then incorporated into school lunches. These programs give people the opportunity to learn about food, gain more control over their access to nutritious food, and engage with other members of the community in a positive, healthful setting. Getting involved is really easy. A quick web search can show you community gardens and other gardening programs in your area. If there isn’t a community garden near you, maybe you could start one! Volunteering to establish or assist an urban, community, or school gardening project is a great way to give back to your community. Check out The American Community Gardening Association for more info on community gardens, volunteering or starting a program, or simply locating a garden near you. For tips on gardening in a small space, you might want to check out Urban Gardens.

In closing, here are a few pics of 22 Square Feet Farm. I hope our tiny backyard farm will inspire you to take control of your food supply as well and create a little garden of your own.

The left side of the garden.

The right side of the garden.

Our cucumber plant just starting out!

One teeny zucchini hiding in our giant zucchini plant.

Tomatoes. Yum.

We added a couple of small planters on the front patio for chard and a big one for the blackberry bush. We got about 100 blackberries this year but the bush has been trimmed back for the fall. Maybe I can get a good picture of it next year!


  1. So how much food do you get from the 22 square feet? How much space do you think you'd need to not have to go shopping?

  2. We typically get about 50-80 medium tomatoes per 3-month season. This year we had enough chard, spinach, and broccoli to have had leafy greens about once a week for about the same time period. We got enough blackberries not to need any for several months as well. The other plants are still experimental. We have had trouble growing some vegetables due to lack of full sun on our back patio, which brings me to your second question. The limiting factor for our productivity is sunlight. We probably only have 1/2 our growing space in full sun. Also, I think we'd need about 3 times the space to grow all the produce we usually use. A typical backyard to a single family home could probably provide enough produce to feed us throughout the year IF there was plenty of sunlight, it was well-tended, and we had a few years to develop things like fruit trees. We would probably also participate in a produce swap with other backyard farmers to increase the variety of food we got to eat. In summary, for now I view home gardening as an excellent supplement to purchasing produce. Perhaps someday, when I own a home with a real backyard or can access a community garden space, I will be able to produce all my own fruits and veggies. Yum!