Brian and Marianne Grow Their Urban Homestead

Brian’s academic training is in groundwater geology and environmental engineering, but his interests are much broader and have been always evolving. He spent a lot of time at his grandparents’ house on Lake Michigan, which imbued in him a deep reverence for water. He also spent some time living on a hobby farm in rural northeast Wisconsin, where he worked on dairy farms. In the past, his jobs involved remediating contaminated groundwater—mostly from leaking underground storage tanks. He wanted to help clean the planet. His job at Chevron, and later engineering consulting work, allowed him to see oil production in far-flung places (Azerbaijan, Angola, Kazakhstan).

I began to realize that humans were mis-using this one-time bounty of stored energy from the sun—cars and plastic bags being examples of mis-use. We’re using this carbon too quickly—and we might just eliminate our species in the process. Not to mention all the others. I am trying to fight my own anthrocentrism.

Marianne Combs and Brian Davis

Marianne works as an arts reporter at Minnesota Public Radio, and has always had a strong connection to the environment, which has deepened significantly over the past decade. She grew up along the Pacific Ocean, and remembers picking up plastic trash that washed up on the shore with her mother. Her mother and walking buddy Laurie would using a Swiss Army knife to release birds caught up in fishing wire.

When I return to the coast these days, I’m always saddened to see how the wildlife—starfish, sea anemones, mussels—has diminished.

As a high school exchange student in France, she learned the importance of locally-sourced food, but didn’t connect it to her own actions until she bought a house in 2002. She planned to fill the yard with roses, lilies and tulips, but her mother suggested she start a little herb garden behind the kitchen. Now the tulips she planted have been overrun by strawberries, and the lilies are crowded out by the tomato beds.

 

Continue on to read the interview with Bran’s 3 Tips for Urban Gardeners and Marianne’s 3 Tips for Reducing Household Waste.

Tomatos

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How did you begin to embark on this urban growing journey together?

Brian: Marianne had started a vegetable garden at our house before we met—four 4 foot by 4 foot raised beds in the backyard. In 2008, we purchased four trees (apple and pear) and four vines (grape and hardy kiwifruit) and added another raised bed. Toward the end of that growing season I just developed this interest in helping out with what Marianne was doing to take care of these plants—and her great cooking helped motivate me! We added a strawberry bed, the raspberries continued their campaign to try and take over the entire backyard (unsuccessfully), and I was spending more and more time back there and realizing some great mental and physical benefits in the process.

Marianne: Brian’s interest in the garden has made all the difference. While I work on garden planning, harvesting and storing, he’s out there doing the planting, weeding and watering. Together we’ve been able to take on so much more than either one of us could have done alone. And we inspire each other to do more. We’ve definitely got a synergistic thing going on here.

What also helped was a 1000 Watt grow light that Brian was given from a former employer that was shutting down. We start many of our plants in the basement at the end of March, and by Memorial Day weekend they are big, luscious, and ready to go in the ground. Our tomatoes, peppers and eggplant harvests have all increased significantly as a result.

Marianne Combs and Brian Davis

Plants on the Porch

How large is your yard and what percentage of that land is currently used for gardening?

Marianne: Our home is on a typical city lot—40 feet by 100 feet—so a little under a tenth of an acre. We’re currently dedicating approximately 400 square feet (or 10%) to vegetables, plus there’s the strawberry patch, the raspberry canes, and a bunch of vertical plants—peach tree, apple tree, pear trees, grapes, kiwi vines, etc.

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FYI—Our 2.5 car garage takes up WAY too much space, considering we have only one compact care we use, and that only occasionally. Our plan is to phase out our car, and eventually tear down the garage, converting that space to more vegetable beds, a garden shed and a chicken coop. I would love to see us using upwards of 25% of our yard for food production.

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Minnesota’s growing season is short. How do you extend the season?

Brian: We start tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and kale under basement grow lights around the end of March. The 1000 watt grow light gives us a big head start when transplanting occurs—around Memorial Day after the plants have spend about 5 days on the front porch, getting used to life in the real world. In July and August, we spend most weekends canning tomatoes and cucumbers that we grow, as well as beets that we purchase at the Saint Paul Farmers Market at the peak of season. These last us through the winter and into the next year. We pick about 35 pounds of blueberries at a place near Maiden Rock, Wisconsin and freeze them, as well as carrots and beans that we grow. Garlic, potatoes, and onions we store in our root cellar. Winter squash decorates the living and dining rooms until we eat them.

Marianne: We are looking into building a couple of cold frames for an earlier lettuce harvest next year, and I’m also planning to dry some of our tomato harvest this fall.

Plants on the Porch

Approximately how much food do you grow vs. amount of purchased food?

Marianne: We haven’t been too detailed in measuring this, but I’d estimate it’s about 40/60. We will always buy our flour, dairy, legumes and nuts from the co-op. We only eat meat once every couple of weeks, and in the next few years we hope to have a chicken coop up and running, providing us with eggs and the occasional roast bird.

Most all of our fruits and veggies come from our yard—except for lemons and avocados. Our pear, apple and peach trees have yet to produce enough to satisfy our eating habits, but I think they’ll get close in the next few years.

Bulk

Has growing food changed the way that you share meals?

Marianne: It’s interesting—we love having people over for garden tours, and giving excess veggies and fruits to our neighbors and friends. But I also recognize that I’m throwing fewer dinner parties than I used to. I have an inner voice telling me that I need to meet a certain culinary standard, and that often means buying exotic food items that are packaged in plastic or traveled a long ways to get here. But I’m working on tackling that voice, and inviting people to share the local bounty without worrying about it being “perfect.”

Brian: Our meals are now influenced by the seasons to a great extent. When the lettuce is ready, it’s really ready, and we have many big salads for a few weeks. Strawberry season (June) means a big bowl of strawberries every night for about three weeks. The same goes for raspberries in July. Sometimes we invited relatives and neighbors over to help us eat it all! In the fall we have a lot of squash and potatoes, into the winter, and we also use the canned tomatoes (last year we canned something like 30 quarts).

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What can be done to improve soil quality that has been treated with chemical fertilizers or may have unknown pollutants. If the goal is organic gardening, can this soil be refined?

Brian: Fertilizers (providing nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other elements plants need) are not inherently bad—and of course all fertilizers are chemicals, whether sourced from fermented fish or a precipitation reaction in a reactor. So it’s not the fertilizers that I think about—but for example if the land was once a service station or dry cleaners, then one would want to have the soil sampled and tested for volatile organic compounds (e.g., benzene) or chlorinated solvents (e.g., trichloroethene) before farming it. Another concern is lead from paint chips as well as the soil-borne legacy of 60 years of leaded gasoline usage. “The Nation” has a great article about “The Secret History of Lead” that I highly recommend.

Soil that has contaminant concentrations above state standards might just have to be removed and remediated somewhere else, and new soil brought in to the site. That is a decision for the experts, and it varies from site to site.

Irrigation

When you installed the rain barrel, how did this change or improve your growing process? What are the benefits, and the challenges?

Brian: We have five rain barrels, all re-purposed bourbon barrels from Kentucky. Each is connected to a low pressure soaker hose that is routed into part of the vegetable growing areas. The soaker hoses are designed to work at the low water pressure of a rain barrel (compared with the city water pressure). Unfortunately these soaker hoses don’t work as designed so I drilled holes in them—now it’s more like a drip irrigation system. The spigots are always open on the barrels so the rainwater from the roof simply flows into the barrel, to the soaker hose and into the garden. When the barrel is filled (the soaker hose continues to flow at a low rate and the overflow is routed out of a hose/downspout away from the house.

The soil in our neighborhood is well-drained or excessively-drained so any additional water we can provide is helpful. We’re slowly building up the organic carbon in the soil which increases the water retention capacity, too. For those with low permeability soils our system might not work well—it could flood the plants. But the last round of glaciations dropped about 30 feet of sand in our part of Saint Paul, so drainage here is not a problem.

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Can you speak to your habit shifts toward less consumption, less waste production, and more consciousness around using all or most of what you grow, produce, buy, and acquire? 

Brian: I’ve always liked understanding systems, and following the origin, use, and “end” of all of the materials in life is something that interests me. What is going to happen to all of this “stuff?” If it’s made of plants (paper, wood) it will rot within a reasonable time frame. If it’s made of metal it might be able to be recycled. Same with glass. But if it’s made of oil (plastic), then it will be around for a long, long time. I am trying to reduce how much stuff I purchase/use and especially avoid purchasing/using plastic. Why would we want to use a precious and limited resource (oil and natural gas) to create an item that will end up buried in the earth (in a landfill) within one human lifetime? That being said, I am working on eliminating my chewing gum habit—since I learned that gum is made of plastic!!! So I still have a lot of learning to do. A good resource for learning about this is the book (and website) “My Plastic-Free Life” by Beth Terry.

Brian Davis

Marianne: Being exposed to Beth Terry’s work was really a watershed moment for me. We kept track of every piece of plastic that passed through our hands and into the trash for several weeks, and the results were eye-opening. So much of our waste is thoughtless! I don’t think everyone needs to go to the extremes we do, but it’s surprisingly easy to eliminate 80% or more of the trash you create. And you have to think in geologic time when you’re taking these baby steps. One plastic bag might not seem like a big deal, but replacing a plastic bag with a cloth bag a couple of times a week for the next forty years… that’s a real difference you’ve made.

For me these kinds of behavior changes are addictive. When I need to buy lunch at the nearby food court, I now take a plate from the office kitchen so that I don’t need my food packaged in Styrofoam. And every few months I take a mental inventory, and look at where I could be doing better to reduce the waste in our home.

We also have a European-sized refrigerator—about half the size of a typical American fridge. That means it’s easy to reach everything, and you don’t lose track of food stuck in the back. It is a rare occurrence that a food item ends up in the compost pile because we didn’t eat it in time.

Tomato

Marianne, you have a garden journal that helps you plan, plot, harvest, and prepare food. How important is this in the overall operation of your food growing operation?

Marianne: It’s become increasingly important as the years go by—it’s easy to forget what we learned one summer over the course of a long winter. I use it to record what we planted, where we planted it, how well it did, etc. How many quarts of tomatoes did we can last summer? Based on how many we still have in the pantry, how many should we can this year? It helps us keep track of our crop rotation, and which varietals we’ve tried but aren’t interested in planting again.

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Do you have a rough idea of monthly food cost before you started really cultivating your urban garden, and what you spend now on maintaining the gardens, soil, etc… How much is cost a driver for you in this, and how much is about consumption and personal values?

Marianne: Oh, this is a complex issue. For one thing, food costs are going up, so we can’t really make a direct comparison to our old shopping bills and our new ones. And when we do shop, we shop at our local co-op, not at Cub or Rainbow, so we definitely pay more there. But even so, our grocery bills often hover around $60 to $80 a week, which is really not bad. Meanwhile, Brian is working on increasing the efficiency of our gardening, reducing costs of the grow lamp, fertilizer, water, etc.

While we definitely see a monetary benefit, it has increasingly become about knowing where our food comes from and reducing our carbon footprint. I like knowing that the flour I buy comes from a mill in the Fargo/Moorhead area and our butter comes from a town called Hope. We’re supporting local businesses and jobs, and eating healthy all at the same time. The fact is that “cheap food” often hides real costs; we may not pay for it out of our wallet, but the planet and underpaid labor are paying for it on their end.

Onions

With an ongoing commitment to growing food and homemade items, your household waste has significantly reduced, so much that you have on-call garbage service. Another option for reduced garbage is shared service between neighbors. What other ways can you suggest to reduce impact, cost, and energy impact, when we start making that shift toward less waste in our own households, especially in a culture that is invested in the consumption model, even in many of our utility companies?

Brian: Here are some ideas: for leftovers at restaurants, specifically request that the food be placed in aluminum foil—this foil can be cleaned and recycled. Ask for paper bags when purchasing something, or no bag at all. Or bring cloth bags. Start a compost pile—a good source for building the organic carbon content of your soil. On a deeper level, learn what your values and goals in life are, and using that, see what “things” are wants and what “things” are needs. See if you can reduce purchasing “wants,” or substitute used items for new in that category. Cancel your Internet service. Cancel your cable TV service. Turn off your air conditioner. Get out in your neighborhood, in your alley, on your front yard, and do something with your hands.

Marianne: Get to know your neighbors—barter with them, share tools, and look after each other’s kids. Fall in love with your local library. Limit your exposure to advertising as much as possible. Get outside every day for at least an hour. Walk or bike wherever you can. In winter, learn to love your sweater collection, and turn down the thermostat. Try disconnecting from your smartphone and the Internet one day a week. Try living without a car one day a week.

Shovel

With the opening of Minneapolis/St. Paul’s light rail (the Green Line), and your proximity to it, there was mention of selling your car. How do you see this choice impacting your day-to-day life? What will be the pay-offs, and the challenges?

Brian: We’re already taking the Green Line to places where we would have previously driven. Even without it, we’d still be planning on selling our car. Most of the gasoline and diesel produced in the Twin Cities is made at the Flint Hills Refinery, which is owned by the Koch Brothers, whose politics abhor me. I am tired of financing their greedy organization. We will have to be much more planful about our trips since we will be losing the ability that a car provides to go anywhere, anytime, for any reason. Our lives will slow down, and we want that.

Marianne: I’ve only had limited access to cars in my life—I never quite understood the appeal. I didn’t learn to drive until I was 21, and then only owned a car for three and a half years. After returning from a stint in Peace Corps, I decided to rely on public transit. When Brian moved in we started sharing his car, but I’m looking forward to getting back to a car-free life.

Tomatos

With no cars in the garage, that space can be repurposed for cultivation, rather than storage. Marianne showed me drawings outlining a plan to take down the garage and build a chicken coop. What is the primary motivation behind this choice? (Is it value-based, cost-based, fresher food, ability to share food?)

Brian: With no car we will have no need for a garage, and the land underneath that structure can then be put to good use for food production, including chickens for eggs and meat. At its core this is a values-based decision, with significant financial benefits (no car payments, no car insurance, no car repairs, etc.)

Marianne: It may seem like an odd decision—since it may cost quite a bit of money to tear down the old building, bust up the concrete, and remediate the soil underneath—but it’s also a statement. Look at all this land that’s being used for storing cars. With light rail and “Hour Cars,” “Car 2 Go” and “Nice Ride” there’s a host of transit options for the able-bodied. Why not take advantage of them, and convert your garage into something more beautiful and environmentally-friendly?

How many chickens will you have? Can you share a cost breakdown of costs to build the coop, buy the chickens and buy their feed? How many eggs do you expect to be produced and in what frequency?

Marianne: We’re still figuring this one out. We plan to have three or four chickens, depending on the city permitting fees (we hope they’ll be more lax by the time we get around to building our coop). Our understanding is that we won’t be making money off of these chickens, but we will learn a lot and they will provide hours of entertainment, plus they’ll eat bugs and provide compost.

Brian’s 3 Tips for Urban Gardeners

1. Make your land attractive to native bees and butterflies: convert your grassed areas to white clover (seeds are available from many sources). (Marianne adds: this is not only good for the planet, it will also boost your pollination rate—more fruits and veggies!)

2. Plant nasturtiums with your squash to deter squash bugs, and plant basil with your tomatoes to deter tomato hornworms.

3. Learn to live in harmony with wasps. They are your friends in the garden, munching on some of your plants’ insect enemies.

Brian Davis

Marianne’s 3 Tips for Reducing Household Waste

1. First, learn where you’re at. Track your household waste for a month, week by week, and see what your biggest culprits are.

2. Baby steps: commit to making a single small change each week, whether it’s giving up bottled water, or taking canvas bags to the grocery store, or bringing your own lunch to work. After a few months look back and take stock of all the changes you’ve made, and what an impact they’ve had on your life, and your trash can.

3. Find a community of like-minded people to encourage and inspire you. When it comes to reducing your plastic, I highly recommend Beth Terry’s website www.myplasticfreelife.com.

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4 thoughts on “Brian and Marianne Grow Their Urban Homestead

  1. Pingback: Brian and Marianne Grow Their Urban Homestead | Gaia Gazette

  2. Great lifestyle and great tips!
    My roommate and I have the trash down to one small bag a week. We compost and recycle religiously. Right now I live in a rural area with very poor public transportation, so I still have to drive a lot. But I try to be car-free at least one day a week. My goal is to move to a more urban location and cut my car use but 50% or more.

  3. I’m so excited to hear about how people are reducing waste and consumption. My belief is that it’s key is to create small, but powerful shifts in habit so that changes last and don’t become overwhelming.

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