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“Everyone I know goes away in the end. And you could have it all, my empire of dirt. I will let you down, I will make you hurt” Nine Inch Nails, Hurt and then by Johnny Cash

Many of us would love to have a garden in our backyards but living in the city doesn’t always work with that dream. Brooklyn writer Manny Howard not only built a garden in his 800 square foot backyard but went one step further attempting to survive for a month on foods produced only within that space. Not just plants but also animals turned him into an urban farmer as he dealt with the pain and success of his goal. Many things went wrong including family drama and Mother Nature but in the end it left him with a new outlook on life and value of the food we eat. The story of his empire of dirt.

I got the opportunity to chat with friendly, laidback Manny at his book release event at Hook in Georgetown and asked him a few questions on what it takes to successfully operate a farm, or at least a garden, in our cramped city backyards.

If you want to have the most yield per area or bang for your buck, he says to grow kale or collard greens. Throwing some seeds in the soil will get you great results in about 2 months. Tomatoes, he says, are also easy and can grow pretty much anywhere. Friends with backyard gardens also suggested lettuce for great quality and simplicity or peas which don’t take up much ground space but grow vertically as a vine. Personally, I enjoy the herb garden in my backyard as well as peppers and squash. The vegetables you want to avoid for their difficulty in producing any decent results are those which grow entirely underground: carrots, turnips, potatoes, beets, etc.

photos from meganpru

We discussed raising chickens in an urban environment as I easily did on a farm my entire childhood in a rural area. The great amount of eggs produced and ease in raising the chickens are unfortunately hampered by the laws of many cities. While Brooklyn allows up to 99 chickens in a backyard, DC is stricter and requires them to be 50 feet from any residence which is virtually impossible. Unless you want to test that Animal Control Code, I’d recommend holding off on the chicken coop until you live somewhere with a bigger yard or more lenient laws. Honestly, raising chickens is pretty easy and they’re kind of fun pets to have.

photo from furtwangl

A lot of people are enjoying the benefits of a backyard garden, especially because of the grocery money it saves you. Michelle Obama even has an organic garden growing in the White House lawn. Don’t have the yard space for a garden? Check out the community gardens in your area, DMV community gardens can be found here.

DC community garden photo from mkuhnert

Read more about Manny’s backyard adventures and the pros and cons of starting your own urban garden in his new book My Empire of Dirt – How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into a Farm. To win a copy of the book post a comment on what you would have living in your dream urban backyard garden. Winner will be chosen on Friday, May 21.



Enjoy the rest of BYT FOOD Month and don’t forget to get tickets to the DC central kitchen benefit SOUNDBITES THIS SUNDAY