Summer Guide 2012: Grow Your Own

Marisha Auerbach is growing all of her own produce—in a typical yard.

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As she guides me through the deliberately plotted pathways of her backyard garden on a cautiously sunny Saturday afternoon, dressed in pink overalls and muddy work boots, that idiom sounds less like a cliché with every fruit, vegetable and edible flower she points out. Auerbach and her boyfriend, Zane Ingersoll, moved onto this 6,900-square-foot plot just south of Southeast Holgate Boulevard in late February, and already it's a veritable farmers market.

She's got tomatoes, onions, lettuce, celery, cauliflower, carrots, beets, squash, kale, fennel, bok choy, potatoes, chickweed, lemongrass, gladiolas, snapdragons, pansies, chives, two kinds of thyme, four kinds of mint, an apple tree, a lemon tree, an Asian pear tree, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, gooseberries, mulberries, raspberries…you get the idea.

Oh, and the kiwis, cherries and assorted herbs planted out front.

Maybe it's more accurate to say abundance is Auerbach's life. Her goal is to grow all of her own fruits and vegetables—year-round—on less than an acre in Portland. She says she can make this happen at her yard-turned-farm in less than three years.

Her quest is inspired by the principles of permaculture, a strand of ecological design theory stressing sustainability and efficiency, of which the 36-year-old teacher and herbalist is a disciple. In agricultural terms, it involves observing patterns in nature and using them to create self-maintaining miniature ecosystems.

"The strength of our system lies in the diversity of the system," Auerbach says, projecting an earthy intensity belying her career as a lecturer. "It's through all these different things in the system that creates the health. We've got plants to build soil. We've got plants to attract beneficial insects. We've got fragrant plants to discourage pests."

Auerbach learned her techniques living and working on a 150-acre farm in western Washington. But she says the concept can be applied anywhere. So when she relocated to Oregon, she sought the most average home she could find to prove her point about agricultural self-reliance in the middle of an urbanized area.

Auerbach did not grow up in the country. She was raised in Cleveland, by parents who couldn't quite be described as green thumbs: Her dad couldn't identify corn growing on the side of the highway. Her interest in learning to grow her own food came indirectly, from her Jewish grandparents, who fled from Poland to Siberia during World War II. "There was definitely this survivalist thing that happened for them," she says. "They lived in Poland and had their whole family there. Who would have expected, in the situation they were in, that they'd be refugees such a short time later? I think it's really important for us to have skills that we need for our life."

After graduating from Evergreen State College in 2005, Auerbach honed her own skills at Wild Thyme Farm, an "eco-retreat" near Olympia, Wash. She started there as an intern and eventually became the caretaker. "Everything we wanted was right in front of us," she says. As she expanded her career into permaculture education, however, those benefits became a burden.

"Being from the farm and coming down here and telling people to grow at least some of their own food, the attitude was, 'That's easy for you to say, you live on 150 acres out in the country,'" says Ingersoll, 50, in a heavy Wisconsin accent.

Hoping to legitimize their advocacy—and make it easier for Auerbach to travel for workshops—they moved to Portland last year. In addition to convenience and a temperate climate that makes it possible to grow almost anything, the relocation made sense for cultural reasons. This is a city open to communal living and obsessed with sustainability, making it fertile ground for the permaculture gospel. 

Initially, Auerbach lived in a rental home near Mount Tabor with a 22-by-26-foot yard. Seeking more space and freedom, she and Ingersoll started shopping for houses, eventually coming across a foreclosed house on Southeast 50th Avenue. It had what they were looking for: an average-sized backyard with lots of sunlight. 

Auerbach and Ingersoll meticulously diagrammed their new garden to maximize space. Ingersoll took apart the pre-existing raised beds and replaced them with straw bales from a local farmer, then covered the bales with organic cow manure from Craigslist. Nothing went to waste: They buried the decayed wood from the beds to act as soil nutrients, and stacked the excess bales on the porch to sleep on when temperatures rise in the summertime. They installed five rain barrels, which they estimate can collect 5,000 gallons of water yearly from the patio roof alone. They bought three chickens and trained them to eat slugs and other pests. Then, they started planting.

Four months later, the system is beginning to thrive. It's not finished: Auerbach is hoping to add rabbits and bees, and she wants to put in a graywater system, recently legalized in Oregon, so she can irrigate crops with water from sinks, showers and the washing machine.

Obviously, Auerbach doesn't go to the supermarket often. Her cupboards are stocked with jams, sauces and dried fruit made of products taken from her own backyard. She doesn't have a refrigerator: It takes up space, uses energy, and what's the use when your food is coming straight out of the ground, anyway? But the point, she says, is not to break off from society. It's to put more into it.

"My goal is not to be independent. It's to be interdependent," she says. "As a culture, we need to look at becoming net producers rather than net consumers, and everyone needs to come to the table with something to offer."

Auerbach pauses. She points toward the corner of the garden, where a hummingbird is buzzing among the burgeoning blueberry bushes. For Auerbach, it's a moment of validation. “That reminds me,” she says, “that I’m not my only client.” 

The Berry Best

The Willamette Valley has been called the berry capital of the world. They're everywhere. And let's be frank—our berries taste better. That makes it easy to enjoy our bounty, even if you don't want to grow anything. In Portland, strawberries and blueberries are in season now through September. Raspberries ripen in July and blackberries in August. Pull out your Tupperware and get picking. 

Public parks
Find the right park and it's like being at a U-pick without the cash register. In Portland, Powell Butte Nature Park is known for abundant blackberries in August. Forest Park has more variety, with wild salmonberries, salal berries, thimbleberries and blackberries growing dense along Highway 30 and the park's powerline corridors. Trails tend to be picked over; you'll do better at the edge of less-trafficked clearings.

Portland's Farmers Markets
You can't walk ten 10 without bumping into a berry stand at any Portland farmers market. But Aichele Farms at the King Sunday Market, Groundworks Organics at the PSU Saturday market, and Unger's Farms at the Hollywood Saturday market are known to have some of the best berries. Expect to pay $2.75 per pint.

Albeke's Farms in Oregon City and Kruger's on Sauvie Island are now open to sticky-fingered strawberry pickers. Bella Organic, also on Sauvie Island, offers up Totems, Seascapes and the famously sweet Hood strawberries in June. Expect to pay $3.50 per pint. More info at —KIMBERLY HURSH.

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