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From Urban Plot to CSA

Backyard Gardener Becomes Neighborhood Vegetable Source

Robert Kilmer
Robert Kilmer with a plate of his tomatoes.

Robert Kilmer of Manassas, Va., is a self-proclaimed "compost wacko" and his neighbors are quite happy about it. Robert has transformed his 20,000-square-foot urban lot into an edible landscape where he produces vegetables and fruits for his family and many of his neighbors as well. He's even started growing on the yard next door and now calculates he has roughly 7,000 square feet under cultivation. "I just love growing food," says the retired high school English teacher. "I was giving away so much produce to neighbors that I decided to turn my urban yard into a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation. Each week I deliver home grown produce to 10 families within a 2-mile radius of my home," says Robert. "I like the challenge of the CSA," says Robert. "It takes a lot of effort to plan and feed that many people, but I like the idea I'm delivering healthy, fresh food to my neighbors," he says.

Starting with Compost

Robert is quick to point out that his gardening success starts with the soil. And by that means compost. He has four Wire Bin Composters, two Compost Tumblers and several other free-standing compost piles that yield yards of black gold. "I love the Wire Bin Composters because they are modular and I can configure the shape to what I need," says Robert. He can have the sides open or closed or combine bins to create a larger pile. "The bins are a good size, very sturdy and haven't rusted in five years of use," he says. Robert layers the compost in the bins and doesn't turn it. It's ready to use after one full season of decomposition. Robert uses the wire bins to produce the bulk of his compost that he adds to beds in spring. He uses tumblers to make smaller amounts for side-dressing and amending beds for succession plantings. In the tumblers he's able to make finished compost in just 14 days.

 

Robert has also devised a special "in situ" composting technique. Inspired by the idea of lasagna gardening, he layers carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials, such as coffee grounds, leaves and newspaper right in the garden, wherever he wants to improve the soil. One year after building the lasagna compost pile, the area is ready to plant. "I have watermelons and raspberries in the area I made last year and they're growing great," he says.

Love Those Veggies

Robert uses succession planting and intercropping to get maximum production out of his vegetables beds. He loves to experiment with unusual varieties—especially tomatoes. He typically grows as many as 17 different varieties of tomatoes. Favorites include Stump of the World, Big Rainbow, Japanese Black Trifele and Sungold.

To keep his tomato plants growing upright, Robert uses Tomato Ladders. "The Tomato Ladders are rugged. I can push them down into the soil with my foot and they don't bend," he says. "I like the design because I can tie up the vines loosely to the support and that ensures good air circulation around the plants and less disease," says Robert.

Robert stretches his growing season with cold frames that are made from recycled window sashes, and plastic cloches called Solar Bells. "I use the plastic cloches in the spring to protect young broccoli seedlings from cold winds," says Robert. He anchors them to the ground with Earth Staples. Using these season-extending techniques, he is able to continue producing salad greens right until Christmas.

While his garden is filled with the usual cast of vegetable favorites, Robert makes sure there's always still room for more unusual crops such as artichokes and figs. "We produced over 80 pounds of figs last year," he says. And fresh figs really do taste great!

Roberts' philosophy for pest control is simple. "I plant one for the rabbits, one for the bugs, and one for me," he says. Over the years, he has learned to expect a few failures. This summer the first planting of summer squash was devoured by stink bugs just as it was coming into production. Robert often uses Summerweight Garden Fabric to protect his plants from insect pests. "I crush up egg shells, let them dry and sprinkle them around plants slugs love," he says. "I also use sharp sand, diatomaceous earth and wood ashes the same way," says Robert. "I've used a pheromone trap for control of squash vine borers. It works great keeping them out of the squash patch without having to spray," says Robert.

With his commitment to composting, soil-building and non-chemical pest control remedies, Robert is able to grow a tremendous amount of fresh, healthy, super-flavorful organic vegetables in a modest amount of space. His organic gardening expertise is a key factor in his success—a success many others get to enjoy as well.

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