Rental Property Permaculture

Building a low maintenance urban garden on a rental property

Three years ago I was cutting tree limbs in a very dark and dank backyard in an old three unit row home rental property. The strategy for the yard was to chop out as many of the decades old overgrowth and lighten up the backyard so something would grow besides weeds and moss in this dreary little yard.

After hacking and slashing for two hours there was a good 5 foot high pile of brush that normally I haul away to the dump. Having to haul yard waste always bothered me. Time, gas, dump fees, diesel fuel for their trucks and other useless process when all this natural material breaks down all by itself, right here if we let it.

I needed a compost pit!

The idea was right in front of my face for years but I never thought about it until then. It was time to bring a little permaculture to this urban rental.

I pulled out my sawsall, started cutting out the thicker branches and soon had a pile big enough to make a bin 5' x 4' and about 2' deep. Then I stuffed that big pile of brush into the new pit after breaking it down with a sharp pair of branch cutters to about 6" pieces.

The tenant watching this thought I was being shady and trying to hide a pile of brush but I knew what I was doing.

Codes gave me a once over after hearing complaints about this "mess" I'm leaving in the backyard to breed skunks and other rodents in. Turns out composting is a "gray area" if you look at the old codes for rental properties but they left me alone seeing it's clearly a well kept and organized waste eater and not an old pile of brush.

The next few years I bagged all the lawn/weeds clippings and threw in as much junk as I could that would break down. The worms were doing their job and I had to keep up my end of the deal.

The pit was working and continued to consume everything I threw in it until this spring. 3 years after I started, this pit has saved me 6 dump runs and didn't burn a single ounce of gas or consume more than a few minutes of time to chuck organic stuff in it.

This spring I decided to look into the broken down material because I noticed vines growing like crazy on the top of the pile. I dug in and found 2 solid feet of worm castings (poop) and broken down organic matter which gave me another idea.

What if I could grow a tomato plant, unattended in this back yard? Unwatered and unloved, would it grow?

A week later I dug out a small Cherry tomato plant and Sooyo cucumber plant from my home garden, planted them in a sunny spot in the yard. I prepped the test garden with a full yard of that home made mulch and piled it high to make a big water soaking sponge around the plant to give it the best shot possible. When I returned two weeks later, the plants were thriving and the tomato needed a stake to help prop it up.

Within two years I'd like to build a full blown urban back-to-eden garden and let the tenants eat the harvest. I was growing grass that I had to mow weekly and that chore is now gone. If I'm growing something, I prefer grow food.

As far as upkeep, it's a good idea to keep eyes on a property like this at least every few weeks and those visits are a good time to do a quick prune here or tie up there as needed. End of the season, cut the plants at the base and toss them in the bin.

The next step for this urban garden 4-6 inches of raw wood chips to jump start soil building, soak up all rainwater and level out the rutted, rooty backyard.

Next spring it should be ready for plants but now it's time to find a truck load of raw wood chips.

That's how this urban permaculture experiment started and I can't wait to show the progress along the way.

~ Corey Bornmann

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