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Saturday, April 9, 2011 in , , , , , , , ,

Blissoma is Urban Homesteading in St. Louis

Today I am proud to share with you that Blissoma and my family are participating avidly in the Urban Homesteading movement and spearheading the development of a community garden.

Our path began 4 years ago when we began searching for a building to purchase. Our budget was very limited and we needed a great deal of square footage. We were unable to consider real estate in some of the more trendy, populated areas of St. Louis because of these practical restrictions.

Eventually our building search led us to North St. Louis City where we found our current base of operations. Old North St. Louis and Hyde Park have an array of large buildings that were priced within reach for us because the area has largely been considered a dangerous urban ghetto by locals. The attrition of population and decaying architecture has left vast vacant lots interspersed between the remaining buildings.

Some might think of North City as a strange place and often I am commended by casual visitors for my bravery in purchasing property here. I respond that bravery had little to do with it, really, as the area is not nearly as dangerous as people think and had all the resources we desired. The moment that I saw all the empty land I instantaneously envisioned massive gardens on all of them. A blank canvas has delightful appeal to someone that loves to create, and this neighborhood was just that. It was and has been poised for reinvention and many residents have been at work behind the facades of what looks aged and decaying. We are restructuring, refinishing, and recreating.

The first few years here were spent on interior building improvements. I have spearheaded the improvements to the house myself with a marginal amount of outside help and construction work can be all-consuming. The building is essentially a very slow gut rehab with every surface and system in the house needing at least some work and some needing complete replacement.

Last year I reached a juncture where it made sense to take the work outside. So, without official announcement, I decided it was time to begin gardening - finally!

I saw Fresh and Food Inc. last spring and it lit quite a fire. Rather than just being disgusted with our current food infrastructure I decided it was time to do something, and that it was indeed within my power to take action towards change. I am sharing our projects in the hope that others that may be teetering on the edge of action will also be heartened and empowered to act as well. I am a busy entrepreneur, mother, and rehabber, and now organic food gardener. There are sacrifices that I have had to make but the rewards are tremendous and I enjoy the activity as well. It is providing a platform for my daughter to learn about plants, worms, science, and sustainability and furnishing as much delectable produce as we can consume as well as some for the neighbors.
I was working on a very, very tight budget last year, but financial restrictions did not stop me. I salvaged much of what I needed and the small investments of our limited money came back to us completely in food.

I am going to do my best to detail and share our activities this year. Given limited time and a choice between planting and blog posting I'll probably be planting, but updates will come as often as I am able.

This last week I seeded our raised bed that we built last spring. The photo above is from last June when we planted it after completion. By fall it was overflowing with plants. I definitely got things too close together but I have problems disposing of seedlings - so hard to get rid of beautiful little live plants just because room is limited! I am told that this year the growth and results should be exponentially better because the soil will have had time to establish the proper ecosystem of micronutrients and flora.

I often hear people say that home gardening is so expensive compared to the yield. My answer is well, yes, it is if you are purchasing all your plants at $4 and $5 each from a big box garden center. Every plant we grew last year I sprouted from seed, making the cost to yield ratio really work in our favor. I am no sprouting expert but I was able to get a successful system down. This enabled us to spend very little, grow an immense variety of plants, try again and again if something happened to a first batch (caterpillars, storms, disease), and choose organic and heirloom varieties that yielded seed for this year, making my seed investment for this year even smaller. I'll probably never have to buy a bell pepper seed again and I've had enough to give to others as well so they can sprout and grow freely.

Our yard is actually quite small, so I have maximized the space by trellising plants up fences, creating a hanging garden on the porch, and putting pots on every square inch of available patio. If you think you don't have enough room for food production you might want to think again, as there are many ways to maximize space and garden creatively.

By contrast we now also have what we call "The Farm" or "The Hundred Acre Farm" in a loving tribute to A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh and the Hundred Acre Wood. The Farm is a massive vacant lot across the alley from our backyard. It used to look like this:

Row houses from approximately 1900 stood decaying when we first moved into our house. Then they were torn down....

This picture is a night shot of the bricks stacked in pallets for reuse, and the final building of the 4 yet standing. Here is another view from our backyard of the final building on the day it was knocked down.

It was sad to see these valuable pieces of architectural history disappear. The land sat vacant for the last 2 years with mostly weeds and scattered trash adorning it. My latent ambitions grew and grew. Finally after maximizing my backyard and chattering about my guerrilla farming dreams for months we tilled a patch of the lot last August for fall planting.

We began with just simple crops of spinach, bok choy, kale, and anything we could manage to grow in the limited few months before the cold set in. The soil is mostly clay, new dirt brought in to fill the stone basement foundations of the prior buildings. We brought in several truckloads of compost and manure and laid down approximately 4" in which to grow our first round of crops. We'll be adding more, I'm sure. Everything grew beautifully and we harvested as much as we could eat. Here is a picture of the last bits of produce on the land before we froze hard last fall:

Today I begin preparing the same plot for our early spring crops. I've got many of the same items as last fall to go out as well as new varietals. Beautiful red cabbages, Red Core Chantenay carrots, miniature Romaine lettuce, lots of greens, and the leeks that actually survived the winter and are already growing. I'm excited to start planting so I'll save further news and pictures for another day! The sun will only last so long and there's a lot to do.

I have lots of schemes in my head for flowers, paths, fruit trees, berry bushes and more for this piece of land. I'll be excited to share our progress with you. For now it is time to get growing on our homestead. Have a blessed and beautiful Saturday and we hope you'll get out there and grow something.

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