Our neighbor feeds her family from her little suburban yard
0.15 acres is all it takes
Right before the pandemic began, I visited my neighbors Elizabeth and Tom Boegel to ask them how they’re able to grow almost all the fruits and vegetables their family eats (plus honey and eggs), in their small suburban yard.
Now, as our leaving date nears, I’m looking back nostalgically on our time together and the wonderful neighbors we’ll miss. I’m thinking about the people that make the Bay Area home for me. So I’m revisiting my conversation with Elizabeth and Tom here.
(At the end of this piece, the Boegels also share some Pretty Good Californian Places they enjoy as long-time residents, including farms they like visiting. They have some superior tips.)
Elizabeth Boegel and her family live down the street and around the corner from me. Long before we met her, we were familiar with her urban farm, Poppy Corners, which is visible from the sidewalk. We’d walk past and admire the glorious spring wildflowers and vibrant vegetable beds dotting her yard. Where others have lawn, she has fruit trees and big, round cabbages, kale, and other Useful and Yummy things.
It all looks beautifully unmanicured, a place where nature has been allowed to thrive and be natural. A beehive lives in the back, a little home for thousands of bees that dart in and out of the entrance on their orientation dance. A cozy chicken coop sits on one end of the garden, with plump chickens wandering around in the sun, clucking contentedly.
On this visit, I stretch my hand out to feed a big cabbage leaf to Molly the chicken, and after a moment of stillness, she comes over and earnestly pecks a big chunk out of the leaf.
Elizabeth and I live in what the USDA classifies as ‘plant hardiness zone 9b,’ where the minimum average daily temperature in the winter stays between 25 and 30 Fahrenheit. Carrots and peas, lavender and irises all thrive in this zone. Elizabeth has created her urban farm in harmony with our Mediterranean climate, and around us are these plants and more.
“I try to have something in bloom all the time for the pollinators,” Elizabeth says. We tell her we’ve enjoyed her colorful blooms for many years.
The Reluctant Homesteader
Elizabeth’s husband Tom, who joins us as we look around their yard today, built the infrastructure of Poppy Gardens. The raised beds where the veggies and fruit live are his handiwork.
“We started with two small beds. Then we did this over here and we did this over there and, you know, just did different areas,” Elizabeth says. “It took probably four years before we were done.”
Elizabeth has built Poppy Gardens with the goal of maintaining a robust native ecosystem; when we notice aphids on a plant, she points out that aphids are good prey.
“If I get rid of that prey, then I won't bring in the predators. I don't kill anything here,” she says.
The garden at Poppy Corners is the size of a typical California suburban yard, which is to say, not huge. The 0.15 acres of space is used efficiently, and the Boegels tell me it yields almost all of the produce their family eats.
I ask if the average person can really attempt urban farming. Doesn’t it take a great deal of time?
“Anybody could do this. I just spend a few hours out here every weekend. I wish I had done this with my kids when they were small, because we would have really gotten them involved more in the process of growing food.”
Both Elizabeth and Tom moved here from the East Coast. Like many other Californians-by-choice, they came, enjoyed, and stayed. During Elizabeth’s childhood in the suburbs of Maryland, her parents grew their own vegetables and her mother canned everything for the winter. “They did a lot of what you’d call urban homesteading now,” Elizabeth says. “So I grew up with that and I said, ‘I'm never ever going to do this'—because it was awful, as a kid!”
Never say never. As an adult, Elizabeth came to urban farming through a growing environmental awareness and desire to have control over her family’s food sources.
“We just wanted to take it another step and I’d always gardened, and I wanted to do more. So this way, I know exactly where the seeds come from, how it's been grown, what's in the soil,“ Elizabeth says. ”I know what I've done to everything, so there's no question what's happened to it.“
“We also were thinking a lot about water and the amount of water that people use to maintain their lawns and their shrubs and whatnot,” Tom adds. “And you know, you can't eat your lawn, but you can eat cabbage. So if we're going to have something that we're going to use water for, why not use it for something you can eat?”
“Lawn doesn't do anything for the ecosystem,” Elizabeth says. “Zero. Whereas all of this is feeding the soil, feeding the ecosystem.”
Our hosts lead us around and point out the garlic and the shallots, the shelling peas and snap peas. Elizabeth pulls some carrots up from the ground, and Tom pops inside to wash and cut them. We partake. Very sweet and crispy.
I wonder if people need to know a lot about what plants go where, and pair well with other plants, to be able to design a garden of their own.
“So here’s my best advice about that: just do it and see what happens. That’s what I did,” Elizabeth says. “There are some things you need to know, but we get so much sun and so much heat here, that you don’t really have to worry too much.”
“Not to get too nerdy, but the most recent scientific knowledge is that plants help each other,” she says. She points to her garlic, cilantro and clover, all in the same area. “There’s reasons for that. The clover is providing some nitrogen to the soil, the cilantro grows up nicely over the winter, so that we have some all winter. I try not to grow anything by itself anymore because they seem to do well together.”
“But there are also a lot of things about California that make it hard to grow, and the lack of water is one of them. That's probably the biggest deterrent to gardening here, period. So we have a drip system and that is probably the source of our biggest arguments, because we're always constantly trying to figure out how to keep things alive without too much water,” she laughs. “We want to be conscious and good stewards of our resources, but this requires a lot of water too.”
Pretty Good Californian Places
We got to talking about exploring, and the Boegels gave me many recommendations for less-traveled places not far from where we live. Here are some highlights, in Elizabeth’s words:
Bat Talk and Walk
Elizabeth: One of the funnest things we’ve ever done in this area was going and looking at the bats. near Davis at the Yolo Causeway.
Bats nest under that causeway all summer, and so you go there and it’s called a Bat Talk and Walk.
You learn about bats, and they have bats they’re rehabilitating that you can see up close. And you can listen to them with this special equipment, and then you take this drive out into this rice farmer’s field to get to this super secret place and then you stay there until dusk and the bats come out and they make these big sine waves. It’s incredible! It’s incredible.
(The Bat Talk and Walk is organized by the Yolo Basin Foundation and run from mid-June to mid-September.)
We really like to go up to the Capay Valley. It’s a beautiful place, especially the further back you go, and we really like Full Belly Farm; you can go visit them and they’ll take you around the farm. You can just say, “I’m here!” And they’ll say, “Have fun, go walk around!” And you can go look at all the animals, and in the summer all of the flowers. They have cut flowers too, it’s just gorgeous. We had a Mother’s Day dinner there, and that was wonderful.
Singing Frogs in Sebastopol, I think does tours. [Singing Frogs has private and public tours, consultations, workshops and more to educate the public on eco-farming practices.]
We used to go cherry-picking in Brentwood every summer and we liked to go visit all of the roadside stands on the way to Sacramento, in Rio Vista, and then sit by the river.
Philo Apple Farm
That road that runs between Mendocino and 101, in Anderson Valley, there’s a place called the Philo Apple Farm where you can stay. That’s not cheap: we did that as a treat one year and it was like the best weekend of our lives, because we did a cooking school there. They would go out and just pick stuff from their farm and bring it in, and we would cook it. Spent the whole day cooking. I would do that every year if I could—it wasn’t cheap but it was worth it.
Family activities in the Bay Area
Oh, and Howe Homestead in Walnut Creek—all those community gardens, we used to like to walk around with the kids and look and see what people were growing. That’s fun.
What else did we do with the kids? What didn’t we do! Alameda Beach all the time—Crab Cove and climbing on the rocks and looking for stuff. And the tide pools down in Half Moon Bay—we used to go to Half Moon Bay all the time in the winter. And China Camp. Sometimes we’d go look at waterfalls on Mt. Tam and climb around on there.
Thanks to Elizabeth and Tom. Elizabeth writes about urban farming (and more) at Poppy Corners Urban Farm.