Table of Contents
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This week on Backyard Bounty podcast we Nicole talks with Greg from UrbanFarm.org about fixing the broken food system in our backyard.
What You’ll Learn
- Why fixing the broken food system in your backyard is important
- Ideas on how to urban garden within a HOA area
- How to get started with permaculture even in a small area
Greg Peterson is passionate and driven with his mission in life is being fuelled by the idea that “I am the person on the planet repsonsible for transforming our food system.”
Greg is the founder of The Urban Farm where on the website you will find free and paid courses, classes, and podcasts, that will help you gain the understanding, the confidence, and the inspiration to grow your own food. We have included links in the show notes below to The Urban Farm website and podcast.
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Resources & Links Mentioned
- Urban Farm Website, Podcast, Instagram, Facebook page and email [email protected]
- Other resources mentioned by Greg Monthly Garden Chat
- Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison
- Permaculture Manual – Bill Mollison
- The Edible Ecosystem Solution: Growing Biodiversity in Your Backyard and Beyond – Zach Loeks
*Denotes affiliate links
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Welcome to the Backyard Bounty podcast from HeritageAcresMarket.com, where each week you'll be hearing inspiring stories and educational interviews with expert guests to help your hobby farm thrive. And now, here's your host, Nicole.
Hello, everyone. And thank you so much for joining me for another episode of Backyard Bounty. I'm your host Nicole., and today I'm joined by Greg from UrbanFarm.org and the Urban farm podcast. And today we are going to talk about our broken food system and how we can fix it in our backyards. So Greg, thank you so much for joining me today.
Oh my gosh, thanks for having me. I always love having these chats.
Absolutely. So I know that you have a wildly popular podcast and your UrbanFarmer.org business is super exciting as well. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?
Sure. So I actually started this whole notion of urban farming, growing food in the city when I was 15 years old. That was in 1975. That same year, I wrote a paper on how we were overfishing the oceans. How a 15 year old back in 1975 knew that I have no idea.
Wise beyond your years.
Well, there you go. Thank you. I have been watching what's been happening with how we live on the planet for you know that 45 years. And, you know, we have some challenges coming. And for years, I've said that "The" with a capital "T" solution to our global food problem is growing food in the city. So urban agriculture, and that can take many shapes. You know, one for sure is your backyard or your front yard, I grow more food in my front yard than I do in my backyard. And you know, it can take other shapes like container farms, or hydroponic greenhouses on roofs. But growing food in the cities where we actually consume it is I believe, over the course of the next 50 years is going to be a really important place for us to go.
Sure. And I think that was sort of highlighted with COVID. You know, there is certainly some scares with food insecurity.
And, you know, people, I don't think fully realize that whole farm to table and where their food comes from until all of a sudden it came a little bit harder to find.
Yeah, I've said this for years, the most important thing we can be doing right now is discovering where our food comes from, and how to grow our own. There was a study done in the UK, I want to say about 1516 years ago. And what they discovered is that we have a three day supply of food in any grocery store. And you mentioned a little earlier with COVID. And with the big storms that we had in the United States last winter, the grocery store shelves empty. I actually say that we have a three hour supply of food in our grocery stores. Because the moment, the moment something happens, people are going to run to the grocery store and harvest what they can harvest out of the grocery store. And then what do we do?
Yeah, it can get kind of scary, fast.
Right? That's why I'm a huge believer in growing food in our backyards. And see, here's the thing, I now have two, but there's 20, about 26 houses on my street, and I have been working this for decades. And I now have a second house on the street that is turning their landscape into edible. And what we really need to see is, you know, not two out of 26 on my street, but we need to have 26 out of 26 on my street actually growing something in the yard. Because when this stuff hits the fan, if you have food growing in your yard, you know people are going to come knocking and you're going to run out.
Probably sooner than later. So we get we have to figure out how to make this a community moved forward project.
Absolutely. And so just for context, when you said in your neighborhood, can you share with us where you're at?
Sure. I'm in Phoenix, Arizona, if you stand on my roof, and look 50 miles in all directions, you're gonna see city, I am right smack in the middle-ish of 4.8 million people in Maricopa County.
Yeah, so my property is on a side street, and it's a little under a third of an acre that's 80 feet wide, and 160 feet deep. And I have been practicing permaculture here on the property for 32 years. That's over half my life I realized recently and what I've created here is a self regenerating landscape. So I have a few garden beds, but most of my yard just grows. Things go to seed, the seeds drop, they come up next year, and carrots. So at any given moment, I have 5, 10,15, 20 depending on the season, things growing that I can go out and harvest in the yard like right now. Here's what grows wild: carrots, parsley, Basil, cilantro, lettuce, nasturtiums, cowpeas (which is a kind of bean), celery, fennel, and I know I'm missing a bunch more.
Oh, garlic, onions, what I do is I just let them go to seed. I don't even bother collecting the seeds. In fact, you know, the joke around here is that I'll walk up to a carrot flower. They're beautiful. And I just grab it, crunch it up, and throw it in the yard. And this, the carrots come back year after year. In fact, I had something really interesting happen. I'm going to say six months ago, in the winter, here, I was walking the dog and one of my neighbors had a lettuce plant growing in their front yard in the lawn. You know, nobody else grows lettuce in your neighborhood. So I know that seed came from, you know what I'm doing, and it planted. So that's how it works. Basically, what I've done here at the urban farm is I put in what's called regenerative systems, systems that recreate themselves just like in nature.
So when you say, you know, growing food in our backyard, you have the great perspective of it growing food in a small space. So that I think probably eliminates a lot of the stress. People probably assume they need acres, or at least an acre of land to be semi sustainable anyways.
Right. I interviewed Zach Loeks on my podcast recently. And he's written a new book. And he actually is talking about 25 square feet.
That's a five foot by five foot plot. He says start with 25 square feet, five foot by five foot. And you can grow a lot of food in a space like that. One of the things I've discovered over the years is that the only place that lack lives, not having enough is right between our ears. It's our mind construct. Because when I look at the huge amount of abundance that happens in my yard, I probably harvested a quarter million carrot seeds this year.
Oh my goodness.
From my front yard.
That I didn't plant this year. And I didn't plant them last year. In fact, something really fun happened a few years ago. I get interns in occasionally I have this intern come to me and say "I want to you know, I want to work in plants." And so it's like, "Alright, great. No problem. Have you ever planted carrots?" He said, "Yeah." It's like, "Cool. So you know how to plant carrots, right?" He says, "Yeah, no problem." So I handed him four ounces of carrot seeds. Now, in four ounces of carrot seeds, there can easily be 50,000 seeds.
He planted the entire four ounces of seeds.
Right? So that first year, that first year, I didn't have carrots, because none of them, they were so closely packed together. But I had a ton of seeds. One might think, Oh my gosh, the system broke down. I lost all my carrot seeds. That's a problem. And it's not. Because what that did about five years ago, is that put a system of carrots growing wild, in my front yard in the desert.
That's great. It's amazing how many ideas or innovations come from mistakes?
Right? Yeah, in fact, in my podcast, one of my questions that I ask people is, tell me about a time you failed. And what you learn from it. Because the people I believe that people in life that never fail, they're not stretching enough. They're not working hard enough. And when we fail, it's not really a fail. It's what you learn from it.
I tell people all the time, "I've killed more plants than you have I promise." I've been gardening for 45 years. Not on purpose. But once you kill a plant, it's like, "Okay, that didn't work. I won't do that again."
Yeah, then then you know what not to do.
Right? Exactly. So with your yard, are you able to pretty much grow all of the vegetables and potentially fruit I guess I don't know what all you have growing in your yard specifically, but everything that you and your family needs, and then some or, you know, obviously there's some that you're not going to be able to grow. But what does that look like?
It depends is the answer to your question.
So if we're talking about April, May and June, I have an abundance of peaches, apricots, plums, apples, mulberries and grapes. For that three month period, we don't even have to go to the grocery store for any fresh fruit. And during the period of December through about April. I have about 25 citrus trees here on the property. I don't have to buy citrus. So it depends what time of year. So those are the fruits, on the vegetables. You know, we still have to buy a fair amount at the grocery store because we live in the desert, and lettuce doesn't grow in the summertime in the desert.
On a year over year basis, I would guess that we get about... And I'm going to preface this by saying my hobby is growing food. My profession is doing my podcast, doing online education, doing our fruit tree education program. So remember, as a hobby gardener, hobby farmer, I would say maybe 20% of our food comes out of the yard on a year to year basis.
So I think once I retire, whenever that happens, and I'm gardening more, with what I've learned in the past 45 years, I think I'll be able to grow a lot more food week over week so that we can you know that we won't have to be buying as much as the grocery store. Plus, I'll have more time to can and preserve and pickle and dehydrate and all that stuff.
Sure. So earlier, you mentioned that you do a lot with permaculture. That seems to be a word that kind of gets thrown around a lot. Can you define what permaculture means?
Yeah, absolutely. So I like to call permaculture, the art and science of working with nature. So I wrote this in 1996. I still have the journal that I wrote it in. And it goes like this. Are you listening?
I'm listening, I'm ready.
Our downfall as a species is we're arrogant enough to think we can control Mother Nature, and stupid enough to think it's our job. Toby Hemingway, the late great Toby Hemingway used to say, "Nature always bats last". Nature has the last word. And we human beings trying to think we can outdo nature, figure out a better than nature, we're kind of in trouble if we keep going down that route. So one of the things that I really like about permaculture is that we look at natural systems and how natural systems work. And then we replicate that in our landscapes. So we're essentially mimicking nature, rather than trying to control and manipulate nature. I mean, look where it's gotten us. You know, here in Phoenix, we've had our hottest summer ever two years ago, we had our hottest summer ever last year. And here we are in July. And we had our hottest june of all time this year, and we're in a mega drought. And, you know, it's, we have to start paying attention to how nature works. And human systems are all designed in a particular way. And natural systems, nature systems are all designed in a particular way. They're not the same way. Do you happen to know what the words I'm talking about?
I guess not.
You're shaking your head. I know you know the concept. It's okay. It's a pop quiz. Regenerative as opposed to degenerative.
And I've been looking at this for a very long time. In 1981, I didn't call it regenerative in 1981. But that's what 40 years ago? I wrote a plan to create a fish farm where everything on the fish farm got used, and nothing got wasted. Because back then they were harvesting the fish and throwing away that everything that was left over after the meat and that just didn't make sense to me. So I designed what would now be called a regenerative fish farm, a system that self replicates itself, kind of like my front yard. It goes to seed every year. And I get carrots every year and I get celery every year and I get lettuce every year, just because that's how nature works. That's a regenerative system. It recreates itself year over year. Every single human system and I challenge I've been challenging people this for over a decade, I challenge your listeners to find a regenerative human created system. There isn't one. The problem with degenerative systems is they go away over time. They break down and they go away over time. And that is a problem for human beings. Because that means we've created a system or a set of systems in our culture that aren't recreating themselves. They break down, this chair that I'm sitting, on the office building that I'm sitting in, it all has to have time, energy and money thrown at it over time, in order to make it self I'm not even gonna say self perpetuate, make it perpetuate itself forward. And so we would be served very well by watching nature and then replicating nature. And that's what we do in permaculture. Permaculture is a concept that was penned by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in the early 70s. And it's a world wide concept, people are teaching it all over the world. And, you know, for your listeners, it's just replicating natural systems in your yard and go see how you can do that. It's a really important system.
Well and I imagine too, that incorporating that system, you obviously live in an area that I would assume gardening can be a real challenge with the heat and, and the lack of water. And so incorporating these things are going to help you be more successful and, you know, increase your garden output. And I imagine that all especially in the challenging areas that that really helps.
So what about things like aways or, you know, rules and regulations about manicured lawns and things like that? Have you had any issues with that? Do you have anything like that in your area? And is there a way to have this urban farm but when you have these regulations?
Well, that's that, and I'm gonna say it depends, again, it really depends on you know, what the guidelines are, and you figuring out how to navigate through them, quite honestly, sometimes, my yard, because I remember I let things go to seed and a carrot can grow to six feet tall.
It's shooting up a flower. And so if somebody reported me to the city of Phoenix for weeds that are really flowers, which are carrots, drying up in my yard, that could be a problem. So there's actually several answers to that. One of the things that I've done, remember I said there were like 26 houses on the street. Over the course, last 25 years, I've given them fruit trees. Oh, anybody on my street that wants a free fruit tree, they can have it. So I'm kind of bribing them a little bit. Number one, number two, what I did in my front yard, and there's a concept in permaculture called edge. And basically it looks at the edge of forests and the edge of the ocean and the edge of lakes and the edge of places. And what you find is a lot of life at edge. And so what I've done is I've utilized the concept of edge, the 60-70 feet across the front of my property, and I planted a citrus hedge.
So it goes street, berm, citrus hedge, my front yard. I can't put up a wall around the front of my property like that. But I can put up plants and grow plants. So I have actually created an edible citrus hedge that runs the entire distance of my front yard. So it kind of mitigates people's view of anything that's going on in the front yard. So that helps. As far as HOA goes, change your HOA. That's what I tell people about HOA is I have a friend in Mesa, Arizona, who lives in an HOA. And when he moved in, he wanted to have chickens. And the HOA was like, yeah, no chickens. So he looked around his neighborhood and somebody was actually keeping tropical jungle birds in their backyard. And they were doing it legally with the tropical birds.
So this guy changes what he called his chickens to tropical jungle fowl, and sidestep the HOA.
There you go.
Okay, so that was one thing he did. Now the other cool thing is, is that now, Last I heard there were five or six people in his HOA that were keeping chickens. So really what that perpetuated forward was a change in the HOA, because the HOA is just your community. You have a say in your community. Their HOA is as in Arizona, where it is illegal, according to the HOA rules to grow food in your yard.
That's a silly rule.
And as far as I'm concerned, that's a travesty of justice. That should if I lived in one of those HOAs, I would never live in an HOA but if I lived in one of those HOAs, I would be suing the HOA because telling me whether I can or cannot grow food in my yard. That is a basic human right. So there are ways to work around it. You know, you either change your HOA or you push HOA Hoa or, and then city city planning, you know, that's a different story in itself. And you know, you have to work with it and change the system.
Right? Yeah, I know that. You know, with my focus being on the backyard chickens. There's a lot of people that have issues with places not allowing chickens and some people are successful in changing them and some aren't, but they're a little noisier than plants, though. I see no reason why you can't have them in my yard.
Well, and here's the thing. Our hens aren't any noisier, than the birds that live in our neighborhood.
Remember I said hens, I'm not talking roosters, I'm talking hens so...
Right. And I'm sure they're quieter than the neighbor's dog or you know.
Exactly, exactly. Yeah. Yep. Yeah, I there's a neighborhood dog two doors down from me that we can hear.
And I can guarantee you that two doors down. They can't hear our chickens.
Yep. silly, silly rules. So when it comes to these permaculture practices that we talked about earlier, let's say I live in southern Colorado, you live in Phoenix, I want to make some of these changes and change my garden from what it is now into more permaculture style garden. How do I start? what's the what's step one of that?
Find a introduction to permaculture class that you can take. Even if it's just a one hour one online to start getting going. You can email me at Greg at UrbanFarm.org and I can get you one of our you know, it's just an hour long. "What is permaculture?" If it's something that you know really piques your interest, there is a introduction to permaculture manual that's about 40 bucks. It's about 200 pages that Bill Mollison wrote, so that would be a good place to do it. If you're still interested in curious there's something called a PDC. That's a permaculture design course. Find one type in the or the name of your city and permaculture design course and see what comes up. I know we do one here in Phoenix. I know they do one in Tucson. I know LA has, um, you know, they're, they're all over the world. There are 1000s of permaculture design courses around the world, they do offer some online, I am not a fan of online permaculture design courses, because there is a huge community piece that you just don't get online.
Sure. That makes sense.
Yeah, so that's kind of a pathway in.
Okay. And then of course, we'll put your email address in the show notes too, so that folks listening don't have to scramble and and write that down. And I know that you do a lot, you mentioned with the fruit trees. So can you tell us a little bit more about that program and what that's like?
Sure. So about 20 years ago, I had a couple of things happen that has been more like 25 years ago. First thing I wanted to plant an orchard, I was really wanting to plant an orchard like hundreds of trees. In fact, my goal in 1999 was to plant 500 fruit trees in Phoenix. And the other thing that I discovered back then is that you can go into most nurseries and every single big box store, and they will sell you a fruit tree. And all the vegetables and stuff that will never make fruit that will never produce here. I was on TV a couple of years ago. And they asked me to stop at one of the big box stores and do a survey of what would grow and produce food have the plants that they were selling at this particular big box store. And so I went in and I found that less than 50% of what they were selling would ever produce fruit or vegetables here in the low desert. And you know the they will gladly sell you a fruit tree here in Phoenix, that will never make fruit.
Gladly, and a lot of them know that that's the case and that just frosts me. So about 20 years ago, I started educating people, actually 22 years ago, I started educating people about the ways to successfully grow fruit trees in your yard and the correct ones to get your there are easily 1000 varieties of apples. And only two varieties will grow reliably and produce fruit in the low desert. And so I have gone on a mission the past 22 years to really educate people about how to successfully grow fruit trees in your yard. And remember that 500 fruit trees I wanted to plant in like 1999 so my fruit tree program offers free education. You can come to all the free classes you want about fruit trees, and then you can buy fruit trees from us. And we sell about 5000 fruit trees a year.
Sounds like you've accomplished your goal.
Yeah, we've sold over 50,000 fruit trees in the Phoenix area in the past 22 years.
That's amazing. Congratulations. That's great.
Thanks and you know, just kind of builds on itself and like that, you know, there's one more topic that we haven't touched on yet that I want to kind of touch on if that's okay, and that's healthy soil.
Okay, yeah, sure.
I am a huge proponent and I will preach about this until the sun goes down every day. The importance of healthy soil and there are five components of healthy soil. Dirt is one of them. And don't call dirt soil. Dirt is compacted, broken down rock. It's you know, it can be really fine like clay can not be so fine, like sand, but it is decomposing minerals. And if that's all you have good luck growing anything. There's five components of healthy soil, dirt is one of them. dirt's a really important piece. But if that's all you got good luck growing anything. So it's dirt, airspace, water, organic matter, and everything that's alive in the soil. And the way to fix dirt is to add lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of organic matter, especially in the desert.
Any particular type of organic matter, or can you elaborate on that?
Great question. And I'm gonna say that depends.
I'm good at the depends questions!
Yeah. Well, and you know, really, when we look at permaculture, you know, that's the answer to 98% of the questions people ask me. And that's "It depends." So if you're growing a garden, you know, add compost, planting next, that kind of stuff. If you have pathways around fruit trees, you can put woody mulch around your fruit trees.
So one question that I wanted to ask you about the fruit trees and how they relate to permaculture. When it comes to permaculture, do the plant selection, be it fruit trees, or otherwise, do they necessarily have to be native? Or do they just need to be something that can grow in your area? So we don't exactly have peach trees out here. I planted several peach trees and had a... I have one left. So just that's a story for a different day. But with permaculture, you know, we can incorporate things that I guess, to go full circle here that aren't aren't necessarily native?
Yes. So, again, it depends.
And it depends on a lot of things. So here in the desert, we have to be really conscious about planting fruit trees. And there's many things that we have to do in order to successfully grow fruit trees, you know, in our in our spaces because of the heat. Remember permaculture is the concept of looking at how natural systems work. And that's specific to your area and specific to my area.
So if we're going to plant some fruit trees in our landscape, we have to be really super conscious about the climate we're in. Now there's about two dozen fruit trees that will actually grow and produce fruit here in the desert. And when we're planting them, we have to go to extreme measures to make sure that they thrive. And that would be different than in your place. And, you know, I invite you, Nicole to come to some of my free classes that I give this fall on fruit trees, because you could learn a lot on why your fruit trees died.
I present a what you need to know. Basically, I present the how to kill your fruit trees class.
Oh, I could probably teach that one. I did a good job killing ours.
Yeah. So when I look to permaculture, I look to the surrounding systems around my property to see what's working and what's not. And that's really what you have to do.
And I just happen to have been growing fruit trees here in the valley for over 40 years. And I've developed a system of processes for success for growing trees in and this is you know, it's not just fruit trees, it's really any trees for growing trees in extreme climates. So...
Well, it sounds like I needed to take that class before before I delve into my dreams of a peach orchard in our backyard. It was great for a few years. So you mentioned your courses, what other resources and things do you have available between your website and then I know obviously your Urban Farm podcast.
So Urban Farm podcast is UrbanFarmPodcast.com. UrbanFarm.org is my website. And we do a lot of freebies as well. We have a monthly gardening chat, a monthly fruit tree chat, and monthly seed saving chat that we do. Probably one of the best ones for your listeners is Garden Chat.org.
Check out GardenChat.org. And also, we talked about soil a little while ago, HealthySoil Hacked.com is a series of videos on how to be successful growing healthy soil.
Okay, great. And then of course, we'll put those in the show notes as well. Yeah, I know that the soil is the foundation of growing anything. So I think that is a resource that everybody could use.
And then are you on social media as well?
You can find it yes on we're Instagram, I think it's Urban Farm U and Facebook is The Urban Farm. So you can find us in those two places.
I'm old. I don't do a whole lot of social media. But I have a team that's starting up for me.
Sure, of course. I know that a lot of our listeners use social media. So anyway, we can send people your way.
Nice. Right, thank you.
Of course. Well, Greg, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time. It was really exciting to talk to you and you're obviously a wealth of knowledge. Hopefully folks will take advantage of your resources and hopefully that that can help them become better gardeners, whether it's in a backyard or land. But thank you so much for your time today.
You bet, I've enjoyed it. Thank you for having me.
Of course. And for those listening, thank you so much for joining us for another episode, and we'll see you again next week.
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