Photo by Jay Paul
After last winter's lean, low-calorie diet, I wanted to maintain the progress I had made and take a little more control over what I eat. This drove my inspiration to create an organic urban farm on Richmond's North Side.
The first step was to get bees. With colonies collapsing across the nation, I thought it prudent to get my own pollinators. After taking a beginner's class from the East Richmond Beekeepers Association , ordering cedar hives from Bee Thinking in Portland, Ore., and obtaining a 3-pound package of bees with a queen from a local beekeeper, I was set to go. The bees have been buzzing all spring and summer, but honey harvesting won't start until next year.
Next up were chickens. This was a little trickier as, at the time, keeping them inside the city was still verboten. Fortunately, the City Council changed those rules this past April and, after checking on zoning and coop placement, I paid $60 for a permit to keep a small flock. Of course — and this is typical of competing government entities — the state requires that you buy six chicks, while the city only allows you to keep four. North Side predators took care of our overage and got us down to the legal limit. We happily discovered our first egg in late August. The last step was to build raised beds. Composting soil, kept loamy and friable with the addition of earthworms, is much easier to work than Virginia clay. I made the raised beds with either wooden beams or interlocking bricks from a big-box home-improvement store. The wood was cheaper, but the bricks are proving to be more versatile, allowing for adjustments to the beds. First into the ground were my perennials, fruits and veggies that should come back year after year. Planted while still in the grip of winter, nearly all survived the late March storm, but there was little produce to be had. Asparagus can't be touched the first year and only reaches full harvesting potential after the third year. Grapes and thornless blackberries also need time to bear fruit, while the artichokes were all but wiped out by Richmond's very wet summer — we'll see if what remained survives the winter. We already suspect that the strawberry patch, comprising 25 June bearers, will be back with a vengeance. Runners have been shooting out all summer, threatening to expand outside the bed. Having built the bed out of bricks, rather than wood, I easily converted it into a U shape. The plan had been to sprout an array of vegetables inside and get an early start on the spring. That strategy froze with our March snowstorm. Starting late caused much failure, between chickens picking off sprouts and the weird June weather. Mother Nature was not cooperating with my plan. Success, however, did come when Japanese midori cucumbers and various yellow and butternut squashes thrived in the new yard. We ate many of them fresh — the midori cucumbers were especially good sliced and marinated in a little soy sauce, mirin vinegar and toasted sesame oil. Extra squash was pressure-canned or stored for fall soups. The biggest disappointment came with the destruction of our zucchini patch by squash borers. Invading the plant at the base, the pests eat up into the vine, cutting off nutrition to the rest of the plant. Often, you can cut out the infected portion and replant, but I caught it too late and had middling success. In the end, the first year hasn't produced a whole lot, but between lessons learned and a good base built, the harvest should be better next year. The readily available fresh ingredients and teaching our two boys about food production have made it worthwhile. Dropping a full pants size and reducing my triglycerides by more than 100 points from the increase in exercise and vegetable consumption were the icing on the proverbial cake.