Washington

Urban homestead: How a Tacoma couple turned their yard into an edible garden

Straw and burlap make a berm to hold soil for pumpkin plants in the front yard of Jenny Call and Ron Geier’s home. It allows them to make use of the slope for growing while the landscape fabric underneath remains undisturbed and kills off the grass in the covered soil.
Straw and burlap make a berm to hold soil for pumpkin plants in the front yard of Jenny Call and Ron Geier’s home. It allows them to make use of the slope for growing while the landscape fabric underneath remains undisturbed and kills off the grass in the covered soil. Staff photographer

It started small, as many projects do: three veggie boxes in a sunny front yard.

The rest of the property — a small rental just opposite Metropolitan Market in Tacoma’s Proctor neighborhood — was mostly crabgrass, with some old boxwoods and a rose, plus a few trees out back. But then about three years ago, renters Jenny Call and Ron Geier began adding more boxes, a chicken coop, landscape fabric over the grass and this summer a terraced veggie patch down the steep front slope.

With recycled materials, a DIY aesthetic, organic methods and a huge variety of edibles from grains to ground cherries, Call and Geier have turned their yard into an urban homestead that feeds them year-round. The only trouble is, they may have to leave it all behind.

“We really hated the grass — it was awful to mow (on the slope) — and we knew the boxwoods had to go,” said Call, explaining why she and Geier decided to turn the yard into a farm. “I grew up on farms in the Puyallup Valley and I have a degree in sustainable agriculture, though I learned lots of things from my dad. He did it organically before it became a thing to do.”

A farm background might explain why Call, now a teacher in the Clover Park District and part-time nursery worker, has such success with growing food. Geier, who runs an entertainment production company, contributes handyman skills.

But walk around the yard with them, and it’s obvious that a passion for nurturing living things lies behind this couple’s urban homestead.

THE FRONT

“This is the first year we’ve grown amaranth in this spot,” says Geier enthusiastically, gently stroking the budding grain seed heads by the porch. “It just loves it. We’ll thresh it, but we also eat the leaves.”

“They’re great in stir-fries,” adds Call.

Up near the house a dozen wooden boxes house onions, beans, garlic, turnips, tomatoes, herbs, giant sunflowers and monster carrots, as well as the thriving amaranth. A few more square, tall boxes line the edge, overflowing with potato vines that Geier repeatedly covers with soil, nailing on more boards until there’s a vertical box of potatoes ready to harvest in fall.

Not everything works: A bucket of soil pays tribute to a failed experiment in growing rice (it got too hot) and some sad, blackish carrot tops are all that remains of a dark purple variety that also couldn’t stand the heat. But their seed heads are flowering profusely, which Call loves, as they’ll attract beneficial insects.

“I use everything in this yard: flowers, seeds, weeds,” she says.

Down on the narrow parking strip, more crops grow where grass used to be. Around two years ago Call and Geier laid down cardboard mulch and covered it with a truckload of free wood chips. After tilling and laying down some homegrown compost and chicken bedding, Geier’s growing cucumbers up a homemade frame to shade some over-wintering rutabaga, parsnip and radish. Nearby, a row of scarlet runner beans reaches for the sun, and two pots hold ground cherries, small and tart like sweetish tomatillos.

But it’s the front slope that really grabs attention from passers-by. With a 45-degree gradient it was a real challenge to mow, so last summer Call and Geier laid down black landscape fabric over the whole thing to bake and kill off the grass. This summer, Geier drove wooden stakes back into the slope and screwed on long pieces of two-by-four planking to create terraces. Then he cut horizontal holes in the fabric, tilled out the dead grass underneath, laid down more lush compost and began to plant. There are several types of bush and pole beans (“I do a lot of canning,” explains Call), tomatoes, tropical spinach and anything else that loves the heat generated by the south-facing, black-clad slope. Along the bottom, the soil is contained by a row of cinder blocks in which more beans and strawberries thrive in rich mushroom compost.

The other half of the slope isn’t planted yet —– Call and Geier only just covered it this summer, although Geier is already trailing pumpkins planted in compost that’s dumped right on top of the fabric and held in place by a straw-stuffed burlap berm. It’s a DIY, use-what-you-have vibe that ends up costing very little.

“People stop and ask all the time what we’re doing with the yard,” Call says with a smile.

THE SIDES

The homestead doesn’t just stop at the front, though. Along one side of the house is a run for the dozen-odd chickens of the household, along with several wire frames protecting patches of wheatgrass and barley grown specifically to improve their diet. Along the other side are yet more potato boxes, two grape vines, a raspberry patch and a favorite lettuce plant going deliberately to seed — Call saves much of her own seed for next year’s crops.

The couple even grow their own mushrooms — Shitake and oyster — in lidded metal pails under shade cloth and a tall holly.

“That’s an exciting moment, when we come out and they’re blooming,” Call says.

THE BACK

When Call and Geier moved into the house in 2008, the backyard was all grass and a couple of trees. Now it’s one-third chicken run, one-third veggie garden and one-third composting zone. Some of the chickens are “rescues” found at a local nursery, others are old pets; together they lay six or seven eggs a day, which “helps keep the neighbors happy,” says Call. Peas, celery, safflower and more potatoes love the dappled shade, surrounding a picnic table in recycled pots. And out near the alley Geier has set up an extreme composting station: four upturned black pots, each with compost in varying stages of rotting, another potato box filled with sifted compost, and buckets of straw, dead leaves and other ingredients.

“We compost pretty much everything,” says Call. “The only things in our trash are kitty litter and stuff we can’t recycle.”

THE FUTURE

With enough food for winter storage and canning, as well as summer eating, it sounds like an idyllic urban farm — except for one problem. Call and Geier’s landlord is part of the partnership that built the mixed-use Proctor Station apartment building several blocks north and wants to raze the half-block opposite the Metropolitan Market and construct a similar mixed-use building. Call and Geier could be moving out next spring, they say.

“This is the last year we do this,” says Call, wryly. “It will be very hard to walk away from it.”

In the future, the couple would definitely do things a little differently, especially if they owned their own home: planting more permanent food sources like fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, a gravity-based rain barrel irrigation system.

“I’d like to have some goats, they’re a hoot,” adds Call wistfully.

But it probably won’t be in Proctor, where other rent rates are too high. For now, though, Call and Geier have a full homesteading season in front of them.

“With our yard being so visible, I feel like I am doing a community service by demonstrating how a small lot in the city can be a great source of food for everyone,” says Call. “It is easier than it looks, (and) it tastes good too!”

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