Transforming lawns to gardens means “plenty” of food and a sense of community in these suburban backyard homesteads.
Sarah Sailer never thought her life would look like this. “My neighbors have seen some interesting things,” she says, such as Sarah climbing on her roof in a full bee suit to check the hive and then biking down the street wearing the bee helmet and gloves, trailed by 20 college students. She’s been seen crossing streets carrying cabbages in both arms and transporting ducks.
Sarah, her husband, Jeremiah, and their four daughters turned their lawn into garden and began growing their own food as a solution to the family’s health concerns and the cost of organic vegetables — and they achieved a lot at their 1⁄5-acre backyard homestead in Loveland, Colorado. In fact, they were among MOTHER’s 2014 Homesteaders of the Year. Eventually, though, they began to run out of space and dreamed of expanding, but couldn’t afford to buy a big piece of land.
“I was looking longingly at farms because of the space, but we love living in our neighborhood that’s so close to downtown,” Sarah says.
Then she had an idea: Why not farm the neighborhood?
Neighbor Lynn Peterson had noticed the Sailers’ thriving garden and approached Sarah after her own failed attempts at suburban gardening. Sarah shared her vision of a neighborhood farm and offered to help the Petersons convert their lawn to garden and to share produce. A few weeks later, the Sailers, a friend, and a local youth group cleared out weeds, hauled in compost, and covered the lawn in wood chip mulch.
“Their 1⁄2-acre corner lot has a beautiful amount of sunny space, which we filled to the brim with vegetables,” Sarah says.
By the end of 2015, the backyard homesteads had grown to four plots, and now, in late 2016, there are six plots in yards around the neighborhood. Homeowners offer their space and the cost of water, and Sarah buys seeds, plant starts, compost from farmer friends who trade for her bread, and wood chip mulch sourced from local tree crews.
“My dream of being self-sufficient changed. We cannot do it alone,” Sarah writes on her blog. She says her quest for food independence became one for food interdependence.
In 2015, when the families had their first early-season crop of greens, they realized the harvest was significantly more than they could eat — so they started a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. Nine other individuals pay into the CSA program, which has a suggested $250 donation plus two hours of work per week (the cost covers maintenance of the gardens). Sarah prefers that members come to work and learn about suburban gardening, or even start backyard homesteads in their own neighborhoods, rather than buy in, and members have given each other scholarship shares.
What began as one family’s quest for affordable, healthful food has become a surprisingly rich experience that Sarah says she can’t help but share. Now called Plenty Heirloom Farms, the project has continued to develop organically, and its mission of “sharing the wealth of food and reviving the local village” is evident in many community activities.
The Sailers built a wood-fired oven, and they sell bread once a month at a local brewery. Plenty Farms hosts farm-to-table meals in fall to raise funds and to involve the community. Sarah has organized classes on a variety of suburban gardening and homesteading topics, including seed starting and fermentation, and she plans to add more classes on composting, animal husbandry, canning, and bread baking. She partners with a friend who teaches cooking classes and who shares recipes with the CSA program.
Kids from two neighborhood schools visit for field trips each year. After touring the vegetable garden; smelling lemon balm; looking at the beehive; tasting flatbread baked in the outdoor oven; learning how compost works; seeing the rabbits and chickens and discussing how these animals provide meat, eggs, and manure, Sarah hopes they’ll be inspired and that seeing a backyard homestead right there in the neighborhood will spark a new outlook on where and how we grow food in our society.
Sarah didn’t grow up with homesteading knowledge, but she’s drawn to the experiences of her ancestors, who wouldn’t have imagined that the next generation wouldn’t know how to save seed or butcher an animal.
She’s learned by reading and researching, but mostly by reaching out to others, jumping in, and encountering many trials and errors. (Read about and see a video of one of those adventures — peeling chicken feet — on Sarah’s blog.) When she tried growing winter greens unsuccessfully, she found the sister of a neighbor who had succeeded with season extension locally. When she ordered rabbits without any real plan, she happened to run into a woman at the feed store who’d been raising rabbits for years. When she struggled with a slug problem, she brought in ducks and toads.
Lynn Peterson didn’t have previous knowledge of gardening, either. “I’ve never gardened before in my life. I was drawn in by Sarah’s contagious excitement to share and my willingness to accept a good challenge and learn something new.” And now the Petersons have the garden and chickens, and they’ve butchered a rooster and added a beehive, which Sarah ordered on a whim, called Lynn up, and said, “OK — the bees come in two weekends!”
Lynn says she would usually be one to research exhaustively but has learned to jump in. “Everyone in Plenty has learned to take a step of faith, even if we don’t know everything,” she says. Sarah adds, “Every time you fail, you say ‘Well, I’ll never do that again!’ ”
Plenty Farms has continued to attract like-minded people, and partnering has helped all of them achieve more than they could alone. Sarah met Heather Goldstein, who makes and sells organic skin care products through her company, Herbal Heart Apothecary, a venture also inspired by family health concerns. Sarah and Heather quickly realized they shared a similar vision. At Heather’s rental house, they put in 80 garden beds, requiring them to haul more than 200 wheelbarrows of wood chips, and they added chickens and bees. They’re companion planting Heather’s herbs and Sarah’s vegetables — a perfect collaboration.
“I was doing all of this on my own, which was fulfilling,” Heather says, “but it’s so much more fulfilling with a group of people. We’re supposed to do this as a community — to have relationships and learn from each other.”
All three women note the hard work (especially on garden workdays), and the rewards that have come from days when CSA program members gather to learn about canning or pickling, to share recipes, or ask each other, “What are you doing with all this squash we’re growing?” Lynn says they often meet with an idea to try something no one has done before, and they figure it out together.
Those relationships have been a support as members have faced challenges and had to make tough choices. “It’s a lot of responsibility. But we have each other — all of these shoulders,” Heather says.
For one, Sarah has learned that this suburban homesteading is not a hobby but a way of life. “Homesteading requires a thoughtful slowing down in all areas of life — and this sometimes is a challenge when we have been trained to stay busy,” Sarah says.
She continues: “I live in two worlds. I have a foot in one and a foot in the other. One is, I’m planning for the harvest, asking, ‘Are we growing enough food?’ and thinking about keeping the animals fed. And the other foot is in the 21st century … trying to live in a world that’s busy and expects you to do so many things.”
Lynn sees that her kids have gained appreciation for how food is grown and how it should taste. Even though the kids may occasionally grumble about garden work, they’ve taken ownership and proudly talk to people who stop and ask about the garden. Her oldest daughter wants to raise rabbits and to change city ordinances to permit goats, and she wrote a letter to her school principal to help start a school garden.
Most of all, Lynn says, prioritizing these choices, even when it would be easier not to, has been worthwhile because of the connection that has grown within her family and with others in the community.
Besides busy schedules, the families also face the reality of limited funds, but Sarah says it’s actually been a joy to figure out how to use celery leaves if the crop fails, or to make something delicious from all the bacon fat they have if they can’t afford to buy half a hog — just as her grandparents would have. Lynn says they’ve figured out how to use free, repurposed, or borrowed items; have bartered; and have learned the value of patience, persistence, and delayed gratification.
Overall, the response has been positive. Heather, who lives on a busier downtown street on the corner, talks to people about the garden all the time. Passersby ask, “Are you allowed to turn your lawn into a garden?”; “How much does that cost to water?”; or they simply say, “It’s beautiful!”
Lynn adds that Plenty Farms has “sparked and rekindled a desire in our town to reconnect with food, land, and community.”
“People look at it and think, ‘I could never do that,’ ” Lynn says. “But you could. I’m doing it, and I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t had that one conversation.”
See more about Plenty Heirloom Farms, or visit the Plenty Heirloom Farms Facebook page. You can read more about the Sailer family’s adventures at www.ThriftyGoodLife.com, or search “ThriftyGoodLife” on Instagram to see pictures of their suburban homesteading life.