The Green ‘Micro’ Revolution
JMU Seniors Turn Passion Into Successful Backyard Garden
Posted: October 13, 2012
James Madison University senior Sam Frere, 21, sprays kale with homemade tomato leaf tea, which will kill white aphids, in his backyard garden on Collicello Street in Harrisonburg. He and roommate Dan Warren have so taken to heart the “microgarden” concept that they now grow enough produce to help feed 14 area families. (Photos by Nikki Fox)
Daniel Warren, 22, plants loose leaf lettuce between other plants he grows with his roommate, Sam Frere, in the backyard plot they’ve dubbed Collicello Gardens in Harrisonburg.
Or serendipitously, some might argue.
The James Madison University freshmen were assigned to the same suite on campus and quickly realized they held a common passion for healthy food and gardening.
Fast forward to August 2011, and Frere and Warren are moving into a large, off-white house on Collicello Street. They soon start interning as gardeners with A Bowl of Good restaurant, quickly picking up on the tricks of the sustainable-agriculture trade.
A year later finds the students, now seniors, feeding 14 families in the city with plants grown in the yard of less than an acre that surrounds their rental.
Well, they’ve got plants sprouting in recycled tin cans hanging from their fence and in their basement, too.
“We like to push boundaries,” Frere says.
To the untrained eye, the students’ backyard might look unsophisticated, wild even.
“Our idea was, ‘let’s never have to cut grass,’” Frere said, and it’s worked. “We finally have turned almost everything in this yard into a garden.”
But everything has its place and a distinct purpose.
The tall tomato plants, twisted around bamboo stakes, stand strategically located so their shadows won’t deny nearby plants sunshine.
As part of their adherence to companion planting, Frere, 21, and Warren, 22, both in JMU’s Department of Integrated Science and Technology, have marigolds blooming in the center of the sprawl to keep away destructive bugs.
With worm castings and rainwater runoff, they’ve created their own worm tea, lauded for its ability to enrich soil and repel pests.
They use sprays but only homemade, plant-based ones, such as tomato leaf tea, which kills aphids.
To Frere and Warren, this “experiment” is nowhere near completion. Talk to them for just a few minutes about their plans, and you’ll hear a rundown of ideas, including creating enough energy with a bicycle to keep their basement lights, which have been warming thousands of seedlings since a recent frost scare, off the electrical grid.
They’re very concerned about staying eco-friendly, evidenced in part by using no-till practices, homemade compost derived from downtown restaurant scraps and a bike trailer to deliver produce when weather allows.
The jungle, tucked neatly into its urban landscape, has had its struggles, and the gardeners aren’t afraid to admit it.
“There’s small failures all over the place,” Frere half-joked, explaining that many of their 50 tomato plants succumbed to blight in late August. “It was almost a tearful day.”
But what outnumbers the small failures are the major successes: namely, the newfound ability to pay rent with what’s officially been called Collicello Gardens.
The students only decided to become full-time farmers in June, when they quit their jobs.
Since then, they’ve picked up 14 “donors” for their community-supported agriculture program, with packages ranging from $30 to $75 each month. They’re hoping to keep the goods coming throughout the winter, which would make their program the only year-round one in the area.
The CSA is donation-based for now, though, because it has to be. The two have fought a months-long battle to acquire a business license, and it doesn’t look to be over anytime soon.
“We, the city, are interpreting what they are doing as an agriculture use, which is not a permitted use within any district in Harrisonburg,” said Alison Banks, Harrisonburg zoning administrator.
The students could apply for a pricey special-use permit, but that would only make a difference in their specific situation. Their scope is much broader.
“We’d like to be a foundation for a push,” Frere said, explaining that the guys want to see an amendment to the zoning ordinance, adding language that would sanction business licenses for horticulture land uses citywide.
The microfarmers are deciding on the best route to reach their goal and know they’re supported by the local community. Their property manager, for one, is very impressed with their “landscaping.”
“They keep the yard in great shape and they’re great tenants,” said Brian Twiddy with Matchbox Realty. “If they want to stay the rest of their lives, we’ll be good with that.”
The guys exchange jalapenos for fresh homemade salsa with neighbors across the street and swap produce for massages from a city masseuse. People stop by the house often to donate recyclable materials, plants and other items.
“Everyone on this street is OK with what we’re doing,” Frere said. “We just want to grow food and sell it to people.”
Contact Candace Sipos at 574-6275 or firstname.lastname@example.org