I built a small, raised garden bed on the terrace in front of my near-west-side house last spring. I was pretty proud of the few tomatoes, peppers, green beans and herbs I raised, but I'm a total amateur compared with the growing population of serious backyard farmers in Madison. Take a stroll around almost any neighborhood this spring and you'll find people tilling up their lawns for vegetables, building grape arbors and planting fruit trees and berries. And a growing number have added some livestock - chickens, bees and rabbits.
"Interest in growing your own food has taken off in the last five years," says Lisa Johnson, horticulture educator with the Dane County UW-Extension. "We used to have trouble filling our classes on vegetable gardening. People were much more interested in perennials and landscapes until recently. And now, we are also getting more queries about keeping bees and chickens."
Part of the movement may be motivated by the economy, she says, but she doesn't think that's the main driver.
"I'm just amazed by the energy and passion people have for doing this," Johnson says. "People are much more concerned about where their food comes from and how it's raised. And there is more interest in environmental stewardship and food safety."
Cindy and Steve Colombo moved into their small home on a standard city lot on Madison's east side five years ago. Since then, they have established gardens in both their front and back yards. A tree died last year, so they plan to take advantage of the added sun to expand the back garden this year. Their four chickens keep them in eggs. A beehive produced 32 pounds of honey. And they have three rabbits and will try to breed them this summer.
"I'd say that, in a normal growing season, we probably buy only about 5% of our produce," Cindy explains. "We buy more in the winter, of course, but I do a lot of canning and freezing, and we stock the pantry when the produce is abundant."
North-siders Laurie Larson and Dennis Presser also are raising a significant amount of the food that goes on their table, and they add to the bounty by foraging for wild edible plants, fishing and hunting for deer and game birds. They enjoy the fresh harvest during the season and can or freeze the excess for winter.
Larson sat down last summer and figured out that her family harvested about $1,150 worth of vegetables, fruits, hops, eggs, honey and herbs on their standard-size urban lot.
"I was very conservative in my estimate," Larson said. "And I didn't include a lot of things that we foraged or hunted." For example, the doe that Presser shot last fall provided about 75 pounds of lean meat worth about $8 a pound.
As a result of all this effort, the couple estimate that, if they did not have two teenaged children, they would probably purchase only about 25% of their food from a supermarket, to supplement what they raise and receive from their CSA (community-supported agriculture) share.
"But you know kids - they like Doritos and processed cereal," Larson laughs.
Both couples produce and preserve all this food in their spare time. Larson works full-time as a scientist at the UW-Madison Vet School; Presser is a land and water planner at DATCP. Cindy Colombo works for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and Steve Colombo is a veterinary technician.
So, what drives them to spend virtually all their evenings and weekends producing and socking away so much of their food?
"For me, it's fun," Larson says. "I really like to garden. I love to cook nice food from good ingredients. And I'm really cheap."
Cindy Colombo radiates pride in the couple's accomplishment as she opens a pantry off her kitchen to show off the remaining jars of last summer's harvest.
"It does take a lot of time," she says, "but it is worth it to know that you can become more self-sufficient."
In addition, she believes that their little urban farm promotes community and education among her neighbors.
"We have a corner lot, so the beehive and the rabbit and chicken coops are visible from the street. We have gotten to know a lot of the neighbors who stop to ask about the animals. Kids slow down, and you can tell they want to see the chickens."
The Colombos hope they can move to a place in the country someday where they could add goats and, perhaps, a pig to their food-production resources. But Presser and Larson enjoy city life - the easy commute to their jobs, the bus system and the arts and culture.
"It is very satisfying to be creative with what you have," Presser says. "You look around and realize that you don't need very much land to do a lot. And there's less grass to mow."
Talking to these backyard farmers was inspiring, but on my unusually tiny and mostly shady lot, there's no space for much of a garden or for a chicken coop. I am expanding this year, though, thanks to a suggestion from Larson.
"You could raise shiitakes with all that shade," she said, handing me a catalog for a local source of mushroom spawn and information about an upcoming workshop. I signed up.
A tour of the Larson-Presser farm
Almost every square foot of the small lot on a busy north-side street is producing something for the Larson-Presser family's table.
The garden in the backyard measures about 500 square feet and produces many pounds of vegetables and berries.
The back fence is laden with Concord grape vines. There are plum, cherry and peach trees, as well as raspberry and elderberry bushes.
On the sunny south side of the house a row of upright drainage pipes, scavenged from a wetlands restoration project, and narrow raised beds provide early greens in the spring and an ideal location for heat-loving plants like eggplant and peppers later in the season.
An arbor over the back patio supports hops vines. Larson and Presser brewed about 20 gallons of beer last year, and the vines provide shade from the afternoon sun and keep the house cooler. They're pretty, too, and make the patio a pleasant place to sit on summer days.
The couple encourage wild plants to grow around the edges, and, among what most people would consider "weeds," they collect burdock root for pickles; dandelion greens and nettles that make a tasty substitute for domesticated greens; and purslane for salads.
The chickens, when turned out from their coop, peck for bugs and seeds in the fenced backyard. Larson says they are particularly fond of the pesky Japanese beetles she shakes off the grape vines for them. "I got chickens just as soon as the ordinance to allow them in the city was passed," Larson says.
Three rabbits occupy another coop. One angora provides exotic fiber for Larson's knitting projects. The others are New Zealanders Larson intends to breed for meat, but the breeding project has proved tricky. Rabbits do really "breed like rabbits," but the babies don't always live.
"It's taken me awhile to figure out how to breed them successfully. Sometimes, the does [female rabbits] are not good mothers, and their babies don't survive," Larson says.
The beehive was established last spring and produced five pounds of honey in the first year. The couple plan to add a second hive this year. "I had no idea bees would be so much fun," Larson says. "I was completely smitten by the bees."
Want to become an urban farmer?
Information, classes and advice
Dane County UW-Extension
Lisa Johnson, 608-224-3715
Ann Munson, 608-224-3721
Training for Master Gardeners; educational programs for the public; and an extensive collection of horticultural publications.
Mad City Chickens
Coalition of poultry enthusiasts offers classes and advice about getting started with city chickens, building a coop, and caring for the birds.
Dane County Beekeepers Association
Information about urban beekeeping; workshops.