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Urban Farms Are Showing Up on Homeowner Wish Lists

Posted by Lara Hermanson, Guest Columnist

Feb 13, 2018 5:12:56 PM

Homeowners have a new approach to going green: using a green thumb.

When looking to buy or rent a new home, there are many items on the future occupants’ standard wish lists: a state-of-the-art kitchen, two-car garage or a full gym space. But there’s a new green item among the residents’ most-wanted: urban farms.

Individuals and families are flocking to new homes that include raised vegetable beds, an orchard and—space permitting—a vineyard. Buyers not only want to enjoy the produce these gardens give; they want to take advantage of a fun way to reduce stress after work, digging and weeding with local farmers that maintain the beds. Decades after air conditioning drove urban and suburban dwellers indoors, the outdoors has now become as attractive as a stunning interior.

Vegetable gardens, once a far-fetched concept to homeowners obsessed with lawn and manicured hedges, have become a focal point in many urban and suburban homes. This booming edible garden scene has already captured the West Coast and is starting to expand east, attracting the masses before they even step foot inside a potential new home.

Designing the Garden

A well-maintained urban garden can typically result in hundreds of pounds of fruits or vegetables every year—and add a few hundred dollars to the value of your home.

Just as how a customer would seek out a landscaper to remake their yard, urban farming ventures like Farmscape—the nation’s largest—works with the homeowners, views the site and begins to develop a design for a dream home edible garden. Many factors go into developing the perfect design.

Location is key. A vegetable garden requires eight hours of sun, year round, for maximum success. To confirm this, sun measurements are taken to ensure the eaves of the home and trees will not block the space.

The same goes for the trees’ location: The garden needs to be placed 10 to 20 feet away from major root systems. Otherwise, tree roots could invade a heavily composted garden and suck out all the water and nutrients, especially in the drought-parched southwestern United States.

Also, designers must take into account the specific microclimate of each property. What works on the East Coast will not work in California’s central valley. Proper garden design is a huge contributor to the success of any project, and there are many environmental factors to consider.

How big should the garden be? Among the questions that homeowners must consider when it comes to design: How much food do they want to eat? Farmscape’s raised beds generally bear 2.5 pounds per square foot annually, meaning a 100-square-foot garden will yield 250 pounds a year, or roughly five pounds per week. This could be a lot of food for a one- or two-person household, but for a vegan family of four, this barely scratches the surface.

Budget is a huge factor. Raised beds, with organic soil, drip irrigation, trellising and untreated wood frames, are $70 to $100 per square foot, and hardscape (decomposed granite, flagstone, etc.) starts at $10 per square foot. Having a realistic budget going into the visual process helps the design team create a vision within [a specific] price range.

One of the most affordable design elements are dwarf fruit trees, which max out at eight to 10 feet but can be pruned much smaller. Bare root trees, which are less than one year old, are great to dot through a landscape, as they provide much beauty and visual interest on their way to delivering 100 to 200 pounds of produce a year. And, they are extremely cost effective. Generally, purchasing, planting and irrigating a bare root tree will cost around $150. Once the tree is mature (year two to four), it will pump out hundreds of dollars of organic fruit.
After considering all these factors, Farmscape draws the design plans with crop suggestions for all viable seasons. The time to build the gardens varies on the size they’re working with, as well as whether additional accents such as orchards or vineyards can be included. The same goes for price: Even though the fees are comparable to a landscape gardener, the long-term cost benefits are higher. As with a landscaper that regularly prunes and preens the land, Farmscape’s urban farmers will maintain the crops. But instead of just watching the gardener while they work away, residents are encouraged to nurture their crops.

Building the Garden

residential raised garden bed

A well-maintained urban garden can typically result in hundreds of pounds of fruits or vegetables every year—and add a few hundred dollars to the value of your home.

After a design is complete, a licensed landscape contractor (such as Farmscape) can install each project. Installation can include demolishing an existing landscape, heavily pruning overgrown trees and shrubs, and retrofitting or replacing the irrigation system.

Responsible landscapers unanimously agree that drip irrigation is the appropriate method for environmental purposes and plant health. Drip emitters deliver water deep into the soil, protecting it from the evaporation that overhead spraying incurs. Also, drip emitters don’t spray the sides of houses or sidewalks. Finally, drip irrigating encourages tree roots to grow deep into the soil, producing sturdier, longer-lived plants.
Another key factor of installations is choosing an appropriate soil blend. For raised beds, a good mix of organic planting compost and potting soil will help create a loamy soil that delicate root tips can push through. Every month, it is wise to amend this blend with a balanced organic vegetable fertilizer. On a seasonal basis, this is to be topped off with fresh compost to feed next season’s plants.  

Finally, good structure has to be employed to support vines and stalks to grow tall and spread out. For example, tomatoes can grow to be five feet tall and produce until October in California, if they are properly supported. Peppers and eggplants must be staked to keep them from getting top-heavy and falling over. Beans and peas need 5-by-5 trellises to reach their full potential. Without proper support structures, plants will contract diseases from laying in a jumble on the soil, and all the hard work put into producing them will be for naught.

Organic Maintenance

Homeowners and property managers (for multi-family dwellings) work with Farmscape’s team to determine the crops for each season. Every few months, residents can expect to see lettuce beds replaced with tomatoes or carrots taking over the cabbage section. The knowledge to implement great crop rotation on a small residential scale has been honed over 17 seasons and via more than 700 projects so during maintenance, farmers can educate the residents about seasonal crop cycles.

In addition, farmers and homeowners will trellis, prune, harvest and handle pest issues without using chemicals. Doing so requires a lot of hand-removal of damaging insects like aphids, use of beneficial plants like marigolds which repel insects, and organic pest control items like Sluggo (iron pellets) or B.T. (a naturally occurring soil bacteria that decimates larval insect populations).

Mature trees will always be the focus of a home’s foundation. They keep properties cool during the heat and create windbreak barriers in the cold weather. They filter pollutants out of the air.

Native plants that are self-sustaining can be cost effective to maintain. They also provide a sensational aesthetic to a home’s line of sight. Lose the greenery, and property heating and cooling systems tend to be higher, validating that the pleasant appearance of a great garden is also a natural cost reduction to the homeowners. Additionally, large trees and perennial native plants sequester carbon into the soil, literally pulling pollutants out of the air and storing them in the ground.

Bringing Communities Together

Urban gardens are also resulting in a natural gravitational pull for busy, tech-dependent urbanites. Edible beds can turn a home into a vibrant farmhouse ripe for entertaining. They can also produce a particular strain of “garden envy.” Once one neighbor gets the outdoor bed bug, it tends to spread through the community like wildfire.

Because city dwellers are glued to their devices and pretty much only see the sun when they’re racing from A to B, good old-fashioned fresh air is usually now taken for granted as its own healthy attribute. Making a conscious effort to head to the gym or put on those sneakers for a run can be rebutted by any excuse to reject real exercise. But regular nurturing of an edible garden offers a way to get outside and burn calories while connecting mentally and physically with the land.

It’s common for homeowners to work side by side with the farmers, and learn a thing or two about radish picking. An hour later, they are savvier on seasonal crop changes and the positive environmental effects of urban farming, and they have done something good for their minds, bodies and hearts. The neighbors pop over to help out, decide they’d also like an edible garden and the seed is planted.

As a result, it’s not uncommon for the maintenance farmers to witness neighbors chatting away while harvesting the beds together. This also helps urbanites learn more about who lives on their street, instead of the interaction being a quick wave and hello every few days.

There’s one more neighborhood bonus: The National Association of Realtors HouseLogic magazine notes that excellent landscaping can boost property values by up to 28 percent. A typical large oak can also add $410 to a home’s property value, according to the National Tree Benefit calculator. Silver maples can increase home values by $2,500, according to HouseLogic. It’s all under the same rationale that a better-maintained home will sell faster and at a higher price on the market than a rundown, tired-looking property.

A garden can be a dated, maintenance-heavy space that’s stressful, toxic and expensive to maintain. Or, it can be easily transformed into Narnia by using native plants, fruit trees and a couple of vegetable beds. Homeowners will scoot friends and family right through the front door and into the garden, where they’ll then actively pump energy back into their bodies knowing that every cucumber growing is adding value to their nest egg. 

Lara Hermanson is co-founder and principal at Farmscape (http://farmscapegardens.com), the nation’s largest urban-farming company. Farmscape has worked on more than 700 urban farming projects, including agri-hoods, individual homes and corporate clients such as Levi’s Stadium, AT&T Park and Oracle.

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