Transforming A Suburban Property: Early Projects

Reader Contribution by Jan Spencer
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Transforming this suburban property has been one of the most satisfying and creative adventures in my life. No need to go anywhere. Making big changes was the plan from the beginning, 15 years ago, when I bought this quarter acre property with a modest 1,100 square foot mid fifties suburban house. If I reincarnated as a house and suburban property, this would be it.

The previous blog provides an informative overview about re purposing suburbia – turning a land use liability into a social and economic tool for a greener way of life. Suburbia has much to offer for taking care of more needs closer to home – food, energy, water, culture, creativity. There are already many pioneers on the suburban frontier and future blogs will include profiles describing some of them. Not all suburbia is created equal but just about every property and neighborhood has surprising assets to work with. This blog will describe some of the projects here at my place, more or less in the order they took place. The reader will easily find many photos on my website, that show what these projects actually look like – look under the “On Site Features” tab.

This property, two miles northwest of downtown Eugene, Oregon is flat. Its a rectangle with its long dimension north to south. The house is longer east – west and the back yard is on the south side of the house. The quarter acre has great solar access and the soil is good.

First Major Project

A friend and I turned the one car garage into a living space. This was a simple remodel. The open north end was closed in by an insulated wall with a door. The south end was cut open to install an eight foot slider for solar gain. Surprise to me, cutting through the painted wooden siding, I found immaculate red wood. Fifty years old and beautiful straight grain. Perfect condition. We built a wooden deck elevated several inches above the concrete floor in the garage and laid rigid foam insulation over the concrete. The west wall has several windows, was insulated and the ceiling was insulated.

Reclaiming automobile space made this a three bedroom house so I could rent both the other two bedrooms. Since then, the remodel has been paid back many times. Now I live in a passive solar detached structure I built behind the main house so the garage remodel is now rented which will eventually pay for the detached structure. More on the newer passive solar structure in a future blog but safe to say, a house can be a very useful working asset for making income.

Another early project was trading grass for garden. Grass is one of the most iconic symbols of suburbia. Some say the suburban landscape of grass and scattered trees is a sub conscious re creation of the primeval savanna of our distant ancestors. Regardless, the millions of of acres taken up by suburban grass can produce an enormous amount of food.

There are a variety of ways to get rid of the grass. Scalp it with a machine, dig it up. I laid out large pieces of cardboard and covered it with eight inches [the more the better] of compost and leaves from October to March. Over that time, the leaves mostly broke down, the cardboard rotted and the grass and weeds underneath became a dead slimy black mass. Perfect. Caution, roto tilling the grass not recommended. I did dig out the dead sod. It was really thick even when dead. I identified best places for garden paths and left them alone. No need to dig them up. The dead sod was composted and the remains were later added to the garden. I had a garden my first spring in residence while other part of the former lawn became water features and planted to raspberries and blueberries.

Notes From The Suburban Frontier

One image I came upon was a graphic comparison of the surface area of Atlanta, Georgia and Barcelona, Spain. Both cities are about equal in population. What absolutely shocked me was the difference in area the two cities occupy. Atlanta, with its design for automobiles takes up almost 30 times as much space as Barcelona – for the same population. For public transportation, Atlanta is a challenge because of the low population density. For urban agriculture, there is enormous opportunity. The graphic can be found within a blog on my website that explains more about highways, dispersed land use and transportation.

Fence Lines Are Readily Available in Suburbia

They are a great place for long and narrow use. Nearly all my fence lines have been put into food production. Some of these design features were planted early on, others were added over the years. One fifty foot section of fence line is bamboo. At this moment, I will limit the blog to describing early work. Along the east side in the back yard, I planted a fig, four apples and two pears. Other than the fig, the apples and pears are semi dwarf. I wanted to manage the shape and size of the trees so I constructed a wire and wood frame parallel and partly supported by the fence. It looks something like a power line.

This built structure is in the shape of a loosely manicured hedge. The trees have been pruned and branches tied to the wire to create a food hedge. There is no space between trees. Branches from the neighboring trees mingle and overlap within the hedge form. Note: there is need to prune and shape the hedge every year. This is a great use of a fence line. Future blogs will describe other approaches to elevated and edible landscaping.

Again, photos of all these projects with more detailed description are on my website. Future blogs will touch on taking out a driveway, water features, front yard gardens, rain water catchment and solar features. Social aspects of the suburban frontier will also be described. Please comment, share what you know. Ask questions. Check out my website.

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