Here are a few sunny summer stories to warm you as the snow flies, originally printed in the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram in June, July & August 2014.
Our friends the Murrays came to a party with a small basket of eggs instead of the usual bottle of wine. The note read: “We couldn’t rush ‘the girls’ to pump out any more!” Surprise: Deb and Peter live a few blocks from us on Munjoy Hill — this isn’t Durham or Buxton.
I decide to take a closer look at what’s happening all over Portland as people embark on micro urban farms. I visit two successful and sustainable urban homesteaders in the densely populated Rosemont neighborhood, near Deering Center, who are more than making a go of family-operated, productive city farms.
Len Allen is a seventh-generation Mainer and urban homesteading pioneer. Like so many of us, Allen and his wife Kyra’s first impulse was to move to the country. They were discouraged by the commute, and decided to find a place for their big ideas in the city. Their wish list included solar panels for hot water and radiant heat, bees, chickens, fruit trees and a garden. They wanted to live sustainably — “ideally, to be self-sufficient.”
Fast-forward 10 years. Len and Kyra now enjoy abundant hot water from a rooftop array of solar panels. The furnace is off from April-October, which dramatically reduces heating costs year-round. In a decade, their small garden has grown to include carrots, squash, cucumbers, potatoes, beets, Brussels sprouts, blueberries, rhubarb, fragrant rosemary, dill, basil, parsley, sage and tarragon, plus 240 pungent heads of garlic in lovely, light purple skin and an equal number of tasty garlic scapes.
And of course, there’s more. They have a flock of “girl” chickens — no roosters allowed — who happily produce six eggs a day. Allen is a licensed beekeeper who added eight new hives this year, despite 2014 being a devastating winter for bees. He now sells hives to other farmers. The Allens produce an impressive 200 pounds of honey a year, much of which is sold at Rosemont Market. They donate their surplus beeswax to local artists.
Masters of canning, preserving and pickling, the intrepid couple dabbles in fermentation, making their own mead and wine. Kyra’s grape jelly is a neighborhood staple, robust and jammy. They freeze five gallons of blueberries a year, and will add raspberries and introduce more grapevines in the coming year. The couple also produces 15-20 gallons of maple syrup a year from their small sugaring operation.
The Allens are able to can and freeze so much produce that they “rarely, if ever, go to the grocery store.” Allen powers his car with biodiesel fuel — recycled vegetable oil from local restaurants. The mini-farm generates between 2-3 cubic yards of compost a year of kitchen scraps, lawn clippings and chicken manure. They are proud of their brand of urban homesteading. “We get enjoyment and satisfaction both from doing it, and knowing we can do it,” they say. “Ideally, if you live sustainably, your housing costs go way down — getting to zero is the ultimate goal.” And the closer they get to being off the grid, the happier they are.
Maureen Costello began urban farming as a mother of four young children in Rosemont. A self-described “intensive gardener,” she wanted to create an edible landscape. Little by little, she planted cranberries, blueberries, eventually adding peach, apple and cherry trees. Along the way she became a master gardener, adding lingonberries, elderberries, and a gnarly weeping mulberry tree.
“Until I got my hands in the dirt, I didn’t feel rooted,” she says, “now I definitely do. My heart and soul are here; my husband Brian and I are committed to this place and to the idea of urban homesteading.” Her goal is to be able to be able to produce and sell enough “to sustain the whole set-up,” she says.
The mini-farm’s colorful profusion is the result of “companion planting,” an abundant mix of flowers and vegetables. A wild aesthetic rules this rambling urban oasis, where edible red, orange and yellow nasturtiums wander amid bright green leaves. Kale, the “queen of greens,” climbs high, as do various beans and 13 varieties of bright cherry tomatoes. I pop a few tomatoes — they taste like sunshine.
Costello practices Hügelculture, a method using natural decomposition to create moisture, with hardy garlic and “volunteers” growing in mounded beds that require amazingly little water. She also practices permaculture, a sophisticated eco-system that carefully locates garden plants for maximum results while minimizing waste, labor and energy. I am impressed. “Living in Maine with cold winters, there is something so satisfying about going down to your basement and getting the best food you could ever imagine,” Costello says, adding, “Sustainability is a lot easier than you think!”
Hm. It doesn’t look easy to me, but it all seems smart. Rich compost nourishes the soil and takes care of farm-waste. Like the Allens, Costello’s bees busily pollinate the gardens, and a flock of chickens supplies a small, steady stream of eggs. Her urban farm sells to nearby Rosemont Market, plus friends, neighbors and fans. Recently, she has been experimenting with botanicals, creating great smelling lavender-and-calendula lotion bars to recycle beeswax and smooth farm-roughened hands. Costello also creates totebags from recycled grain sacks. What doesn’t she do?
“Yes, this is urban homesteading,” she says, “right here in the middle of the city. Urban homesteading is inspiring and affirming — it doesn’t just feed your body, it feeds your soul.”
These two urban homesteaders offer successful, real-life working models of sustainable agriculture and environmentally conscious living within the city limits. Their flourishing, self-sufficient lifestyle uses a minimum of resources — a progressive and forward-thinking model of what is possible. •