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Entirely homegrown: An attempt at backyard subsistence

The Front Range - and especially Boulder – is a mecca for farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSAs) in which homeowners allow their yards to be turned into vegetable plots in return for a share of the produce. Then there are the thousands of Coloradans who cultivate backyard gardens for the simple satisfaction of producing their own fresh vegetables.

I don’t even qualify as a good gardener, let alone an exceptional one. I’ve tried producing a vegetable garden for the past four summers or so, and the most I’ve gotten is enough produce to satisfy a 190-pound man’s caloric needs for maybe three days.

And yet for the past year or so, I’ve been intrigued by the notion of subsisting solely on what I could product in my own Denver backyard for one month. (See introductory video).


My inspiration was Manny Howard, who in 2007 attempted to subsist for one month – August - entirely on what he could grow in his 800-square-foot Brooklyn, N.Y., backyard. He ran into some bad luck; a severe storm ripped through his yard and ravaged his garden, and at one point he got sick and had to supplement his backyard nourishment with other food. But he wrote a wonderfully illuminating and hilarious story about it for New York magazine.

For me it’s mainly curiosity. How doable would it be? When I decided in mid-May to do it – with August as the target month -- I felt an immediate psychological change, a concern bordering on paranoia about some natural or unnatural disaster derailing my project: predators invading my chicken coop and killing my four hens; my dog Spock getting into the 30-foot by 15-foot garden and romping through the fragile seedlings; bugs decimating my tomatoes, broccoli, peas, soybeans and potatoes before they produced any food.

I’d already built a 3-foot fence around the garden, but lately I’ve been thinking of heightening the security by running a wire around the fence posts to add 6 inches. I spent last weekend digging a trench around the chicken coop and installing fencing 1 foot into the ground to thwart foxes, Spock and any other would-be predators from burrowing into the coop.

At one time I had four hens producing four eggs total a day. But early this spring a fox got one of them. My cattle dog Spock took care of the others. Spock was 3 months old when I adopted him from the Denver Dumb Friends League. He seemed to get along well with the hens that I allowed to roam around the yard. During 10 days of supervision, the most he did was chase them around once in a while. After a while I felt comfortable enough to leave him alone with the hens. Bad move. I have another dog, about 13 years old, that pays the hens no mind, but Spock can’t co-exist with them. I’m sorry the lesson had to come at the expense of some hens’ lives. I’ve now got four new hens, and the oldest two aren’t due to start producing eggs for about a month from now probably – late June or early July.

Eggs are going to be crucial. Eggs and potatoes. I’d already planted some potatoes, and as soon as I decided to take on this month-long backyard-only diet, I went back to Country Fair garden center near my house and got a sackful of additional seed potatoes that can be cut up into chunks as small as one cubic inch as long as there’s at least one eye. I figure eggs and potatoes are going to go a long way in determining the easy or difficulty of this project, if not the outright success or failure of it.

In the days and weeks leading up to August, I’ll blog and share videos whenever a notable event arises. I’ll also be introducing a number of Colorado entrepreneurs and business people to help with gardening or dietary challenges that come up along the way. Next week, for example, I’ll be meeting with Pat Karnes of Colorado Pure Distilling, a custom-label vodka producer, to learn about the feasibility of making my own potato vodka. (I’m usually strictly a beer drinker, but there’s not time to grow hops, barley and yeast, let alone time for it to ferment into beer.)

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Mike Taylor

Mike Taylor is the editor of ColoradoBiz magazine. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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