Business helps build eco-friendly backyards
By Greg Elias
Grass carpets the typical suburban yard. On warm-weather weekends, homeowners mow, occasionally applying pesticide and fertilizer.
Ethan Thompson offers alternatives to time-consuming lawn care. He shows homeowners how to convert a portion of their property into a self-fertilizing gardens or compost piles that can produce hot water.
Thompson’s Burlington-based business, The Urban Homesteader, helps homeowners transition grassy backyards into spaces that are kinder to the environment and provide food for the family table.
In an interview at the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library, Thompson described how he helps homeowners decide how to improve the sustainability of their land.
First, he determines their goals. Does the homeowner just want a few vegetables? What does he consider visually pleasing? How much time and money is he willing to invest?
“Whenever I’m approaching a person who is interested in alterations to their backyard, I always start with setting a vision and goals,” Thompson said.
The possibilities extend far beyond just a vegetable garden, he notes. That’s where the homesteading concept comes in.
Homesteading encompasses thinking beyond a traditional garden and considering how the land can help its owners sustain themselves and cut dependence on outside sources of energy, food and medicine. For example, growing medicinal herbs might mean one less trip to the pharmacy.
But while he steers homeowners toward more alterative land uses, he also considers limits on their time, space and money.
“I find that people will often start to think, ‘this is something for someone with 20 acres of land and it’s not for me,’” Thompson said. “I really strongly believe that there are things we can all do that are in the homesteading vein, that can start to move us away from some of those other systems. We don’t all have to make the big step and grow all of our own food and turn off the oil, turn off the gas.”
He outlined how the average suburban home that includes about a half-acre of open land might become a more sustainable landscape.
Thompson’s first suggestion is to stop using non-organic fertilizers and insecticides. Then he likely would propose a 20-by-20 foot vegetable garden in a location that gets six hours of sun daily.
“That’s going to be enough for a person to make a significant contribution to their home food budget,” he said.
The garden could employ sheet mulching, a raised bed that layers compost, leaves, hay and topsoil. He said gardens planted this way need far less weeding than those planted in tilled soil.
For a more ambitious homeowner, Thompson might suggest a bio-heat mound – in essence, a compost pile with plumbing – that can produce hot water to help heat a house.
He said this is accomplished by forming a mound 15 feet across and 4-6 feet high containing wood mulch. Water is funneled through coiled plastic tubing that winds through the mound. Microbial action heats the water.
The setup produces non-potable hot water for up to 18 months after it is installed, he said. Afterwards, the homeowner harvests a large volume of compost.
Thompson said the cost of his services vary wildly depending on the scope of the project. Establishing a sheet mulch garden, for example, could cost $400-$600 for materials, he said, adding labor could double that price tag.
Thompson headed toward his career path after earning a masters degree in community development and applied economics from the University of Vermont in 2012.
During his coursework, he read an academic journal article dating back to the ‘90s advocating for community-based food systems that resonated with him. So when he graduated and found a tough job market, he opted to start a business that would meld his interest in sustainability and his need to make a living.
Thompson’s mission is to move urban and suburban land toward more sustainable and ecologically sound uses. But he always first considers what is doable for busy homeowners and what fits their lifestyles.
“I don’t want someone to get two years into it and to say, ‘this is a lot of work, this is costing me a lot of money, this isn’t what I wanted, gardening is not for me.’ I really want them to be successful at it.”
Sustainable gardening resources
Dorothy Alling Memorial Library Director Marti Fiske provided a list of books about sustainable gardening and homesteading available at the library.
“The Complete Guide to Growing Healing and Medicinal Herbs: Everything You Need to Know Explained Simply” by Wendy M. Vincent
“Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Gig with 150 Plants that Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter” by Kristin Green
“The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible: How to Grow a Bounty of Food in Pots, Tubs, and Other Containers” by Edward C. Smith
“The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Your Own Food 365 Days a Year, No Matter Where You Live” by Niki Jabbour
“Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City” by Eric Toensmeier and JonathanBates
“The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It: The Complete Back-to-Basics Guide” by John Seymour and Will Sutherland
“The Edible Front Yard: the Mow-Less, Grow-More Plan for a Beautiful, Bountiful Garden” by Ivette Soler and Ann Summa
“Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre” by Brett L. Markham
“Barnyard In Your Backyard: A Beginner’s Guide to Raising Chickens, Ducks, Geese, Rabbits, Goats, Sheep, and Cattle” by Gail Damerow
“Living with Chickens: Everything You Need to Know to Raise Your Own Backyard Flock” by Jay Rossier
“Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening” by Louise Riotte
“Crockett’s Victory Garden” by James Underwood Crockett
“The Woodchuck’s Guide to Gardening” by Ron Krupp