Farming the Garden Feat

Farming the Garden

How small is too small? Depending in what year you asked this question I would have given a different answer.

I came across Permaculture in 2004 while searching the web for ‘intensive growing systems’. I lived in the burbs and only had access to small areas. Many techniques for gardening were attempted as I jumped from garden to garden in my parents and friends yards. Permaculture just seemed to rattle around in my head until 2007.

Permaculture Student

I was introduced to Joel Salatin, and his book You Can Farm, and I was hooked. Over the following years I read, watched, and researched everything permaculture, gardening and farming.

I met the woman who would soon become my wife in 2011 and we began to search for a homestead. I was interested in the land; my wife, the house. I thought I would need 50 acres to farm but that was so far out of financial reach so we looked for 10 acres.

The land was right but the house was not acceptable (for my wife) so we looked for 5 acres. I could still farm something on 5 acres but it was still too expensive; Okay, so 2 acres?

We settled on .9 acres just outside of the 5th largest city in Canada (where my wife works) and I thought “I can have a great garden!” but, well you can’t farm on .9 acres, right?

I watched the land for nearly 2 years, the flow of water, the access, and layout. I knew when we first saw the property that it had all the bones for a hugely productive space, but I didn’t realize at the time just how productive.

The first two years had a few fruit trees and berry bushes planted around the edge as I dreamed about the future. A dozen laying hens and 4 beehives joined us that first year.

In 2014 I took Geoff Lawton’s online PDC. After studying Permaculture for ten years I thought I had a great understanding of its techniques, ethics and principles. Geoff’s presentation, however, was truly enlightening; for before this I had most of the pieces but couldn’t see the picture.

During the course, the students must assemble a mainframe design; and while it is recommended to choose someone else’s property, most of us of course chose our own.

During the summer and fall of 2014 I dug a pond and swales, planted 50 fruit trees and a few support species, 65 berry bushes, vines, herbs, perennial vegetables. I turned the flattest, sunniest 1/8th acre into raised bed annuals, increased my hives to 16 that year (30 today). I read, planned, dreamed.

Farming the Garden 01

Entering 2015 I was armed with optimism, a holistic goal, a business plan, and a mainframe design. That first year of farming I joined two local farmers markets, selling annuals from the 5000sq’ garden, and honey. It was enough to completely pay for all the investments, trees, structures, and earthworks I had performed the year before.

Within weeks of attending the market I was offered and have continued to be offered new hive sites and land to farm. More land than I can currently use. At the end of 2015, my neighbor offered me a 1 acre site of gently sloped grass right across the road from my homestead.

So, for 2016 I invested in more trees and perennials, built a walk in cooler, and have farmed full time. I supplied 10 families (plus my own) and 2 markets weekly for 8 months. I made a profit despite only having 30 hives and 1/3 acres of annual crops; the forest orchard is still young and not producing yet.

The goal is $100,000 per acre and while I am not yet there (I am currently in year 2) I am already ahead of my projections. Daily as I wander the garden, I ‘see’ it as it will be 10, 20 and 50 years from today and realize that as productive as it currently seems, I am barely scratching the surface. Every day I notice ‘the hidden farm’; all the underutilized spaces, the nooks and niches left unfilled, connections unrealized.

The greatest joy is not the direct production of the site, or the realization of a goal. It is not the soil on my hands but rather the cultivation of life; my own and the growing number of species that seem to gather as if drawn here.

Farming the Garden 02

I am often greeted by songbirds I am told are uncommon or rare in this area, and the appearance of frogs was rather exciting. Not all denizens have been desired as the earthworks I performed created perfect vole (fuzzy field mice) habitat and their numbers exploded.

I decided to wait and see and the next spring the garter snake numbers grew while the vole population collapsed. Nature always finds balance.

So how small is too small? Well on .9 acres, even as underutilized as the space may be, and as yet unrealized forest orchard production, I am able to produce about 60 percent of our food, and with the addition of the ¼ acre off site, enough to sell for a full time salary.

2017 will see again an increase in hive numbers and more of my neighbours land will be used. Further tree and shrub plantings as well as the addition of meat chicken and nursery stock production. The future does indeed look fruitful.

As the seasons turn to winter here in Canada I have more time before a computer, if you would like to hear more about my business plans, cropping systems or any other topic please leave a comment below.

Looking south from the bedroom window 06/16
Looking south from the bedroom window 06/16

Shawn McCarty is a Chef, Baker, Butcher and now candlestick maker. Obsessed with food since ‘75 he operates Chickabee farm, a small profitable apiary and market garden located on .9 Acres just outside Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Here he rejects sustainable living in favor of regenerative systems. Permaculture teaches us how to garden and the garden teaches us how to live. Visit his site at www.chickabee.ca or contact [email protected]

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7 thoughts on “Farming the Garden

  1. Hey Shawn,

    My name’s Nick Jennison, and that was a great post. I have similar dreams for the near future and hope to transition into homesteading and full time permaculture farming in the next 5 years. I was introduced to permaculture a year ago and it hasn’t left my mind since. I just transitioned out of my career as a theatre technician to work somewhere that I could be outdoors and practice all facets of permaculture as much as possible. I have a lot to learn.

    I am writing because your initial goals seemed so similar to mine and I am planning on taking Geoff’s online course this year. I was recently hired at 21 Acres in Woodinville, Wa northeast of Seattle, a nonprofit center for educating on sustainable living , eating, and growing to help with climate change. We’re not quite regenerative living, yet, but we’re heading in the right direction.

    As a part of my PDC , I’ve been given permission to design a small (25’x35′) permaculture installation right outside of the building. My idea/concept is to show how much you can produce in a small “backyard” in order to put permaculture principles on display for the general public while researching different methods/plant combinations and how they work.

    While I’ll be using my PDC to gain much of the knowledge, permaculture is also about community, and I was wondering if you’d be willing to have a conversation about your experience and and tips you might have to get started.

    Thanks for your time! I hope to hear from you as time allows. I’ll look forward to reading more articles about your farm endeavors in the future.

    Have a great day!

    Best,

    Nick

  2. When you say, “on .9 acres, even as underutilized as the space may be, and as yet unrealized forest orchard production, I am able to produce about 60 percent of our food”, I’m curious as to exactly what it is that you are growing. How do you cover the hunger months from first frost to last frost/first harvest?

    1. Hello dg green
      I grow over 125 varieties of vegetables and herbs. This diversity ensures if the weather doesn’t favour one lettuce (or cucurbit, etc.) another will flourish (hedging my bets). Many of my crops are storage crops for myself, brassicas, cucurbit, potato, carrot, onion as well as canning all the seconds or sauerkraut etc. I make pickles, vegetable stew and others.
      Frost is not a kill everything proposition, I harvested the last of my carrots this week, the cold makes them sweeter but does reduce their preservation. Sure there are many crops that die with frost but others get better (kale) or will continue to grow even after, (beets).
      Once it Gets cold I move my microgreens indoors and continue to grow enough for my wife and I.
      My “hunger gap” should be into April this year, (unless it spoils…a very real possibility). last Year our stores ran out in February.
      I still have 5 dozen eggs, this should get us through until the hens begin to lay again (usually beginning of February)

  3. Hey Shawn,
    Thanks for posting this very positive story of yours! :-)
    I too did the PDC in 2014 & totally agree when you say, “for before this I had most of the pieces but couldn’t see the picture”. PDC did the same with me.
    Right now I am in the same phase of yours 2014, i.e. I am planting trees and about to start with my hives in the coming Feb. Wish me good luck.

    I agree when you say” The greatest joy is not the direct production of the site, or the realization of a goal. It is not the soil on my hands but rather the cultivation of life; my own and the growing number of species that seem to gather as if drawn here.”

    If you can make a post about your personal experience with bee hives. That will be great!

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