Not everyone has a yard where they can start a garden, which is exactly why my guest this week, Acadia Tucker, wrote her book, Tiny Victory Gardens, including lots of tips on growing food without a yard. Acadia is a farmer, writer and climate activist who promotes gardening methods that increase food resiliency, feed pollinators and draw down carbon.
Acadia was born and raised in southern New Hampshire and studied ecology as an undergraduate student in Los Angeles. She would later earn a master’s degree in soil science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Acadia has penned three books to help beginners and advanced gardeners alike to grow food successfully in an environmentally conscious way: “Growing Perennial Foods: A Field Guide to Raising Resilient Herbs, Fruits, and Vegetables,” “Growing Good Food: A Citizen’s Guide to Backyard Farming” and her latest, “Tiny Victory Gardens: Growing Food Without a Yard.”
Upon finishing her undergraduate studies, Acadia moved to Washington State where, sight unseen, she and two of her best friends signed on to run a small market farm in a town called Point Roberts, which sits on a small peninsula that hangs off the tip of British Columbia. The north part of the peninsula is part of Canada, while the 4-square-mile town at the south of the peninsula is part of the United States.
They had little in terms of real-world farming experience but are all voracious readers and absorbed every Eliot Coleman book they could find. I know first-hand that Eliot is a giver who relishes the opportunity to share his knowledge. Eliot and his wife, Barbara Damrosch, hold a special place in the farming community worldwide.
Their 2-acre farm, which they dubbed the Point Roberts Homegrown Food Co-Op, came with four greenhouses and a farm stand shed that were a little worse for wear. Half the property was covered in construction fill, which posed a challenge. There was also a field with beautiful soil, but when they dug a foot or so deep they found that the field had been lined with thick, commercial-grade landscape fabric.
Acadia and her friends had arrived on the farm in fall and wanted to be up and running by spring. They started out by building many raised beds out of cedar, which was easy for them to get their hands on, being so close to British Columbia. They filled the greenhouses with raised beds first, installed as many raised beds outside as they could, and filled them all with soil. Neighbors pitched in to help them move multiple dump-truck loads of soil into the beds, which was a great way to get acquainted with their community.
To celebrate getting all the beds filled, they turned on the greenhouse sprinklers for the first time, unsure if they would work. Fortunately, the sprinklers worked beautifully, and they skipped along in the greenhouses under the falling water, Acadia recalls fondly.
Before we go any further, I want to remind you that I have a free resource available to listeners of “The joegardener Show” to help them keep track of their seed collections. My Seed Inventory Chart and Seed Longevity Chart are available to download. By knowing what you have on hand and which seed is likely still viable, you will be off to a great start for the 2022 growing season.
Successfully Farming on the Border
Being on an international border meant the farm was subject to strange rules. For instance, whole fresh tomatoes cannot cross the border: They must be sliced first.
Having a farm on the American side of the peninsula was a boon to the residents, who had a vested interest in seeing the farm succeed. However, the new farmers had to educate the community on things like the seasonal availability of fresh produce and the true cost of raising organic vegetables.
They took the pulse of the community before deciding to grow more crops for a community-supported agriculture program, known as a CSA. In a CSA, members financially support a farm with an upfront investment in exchange for a share of the farm’s harvest each week. This gives farmers valuable predictability so they can allocate their assets and resources wisely. They found that there was, in fact, interest in a food-based CSA as well as a flower CSA, and the farm also supplied produce to three restaurants.
“A CSA program is fantastic for both the participants and the farmers, but boy, is it gut-wrenching sometimes,” Acadia says. “You have all this pressure to deliver, and you’re dealing with weather and bugs and things that sometimes — they’re out of your control.”
Another idea that helped the farm’s success is a “work for food” program. “People could come, put in a day’s work and then just leave with as many veggies as they wanted,” she says. That continued for six and a half years.
Turning Challenges Into Lessons
On the field space where landscape fabric had been installed by a previous user of the property, Acadia and her friends had a real challenge on their hands. They tried to till the field, but on the first pass, the fabric was just being shredded. That was a turning point that forced them to think about unconventional ways of farming.
Rather than tilling the field, they practiced sheet mulching, which involves layering “green” and “brown” organic materials that will break down into compost to enrich the soil. The principle is to build the soil up rather than digging down.
The team gathered as many organic materials as they could that they had on hand. “I like to look at sheet mulching as turning what would be a nuisance — so like, say, grass clippings or leaves — into something really valuable for your farm, for your garden, for your pots even,” Acadia says.
They collected grass clippings from local landscapers and coffee grounds from local restaurants, and they offered to rake up their neighbors’ leaves. They also had access to an abundance of cardboard because many Canadians get deliveries to U.S. Post Office boxes there.
They mowed down the grass as low as possible on an acre then put down a thick mat of cardboard and wet it down. They put all of the collected materials on top of the cardboard, creating beds and rows, and filled the spaces between with woodchips.
Washington gets a lot of rain during the warm season, so the materials broke down well. In that first growing season, the soil was still rough with a lot of compost and organic matter, but the squash they grew was just unbelievable, Acadia says. From then on, they knew that if they continued to take care of the soil with compost and organic soil amendments, their soil would be transformed for the better.
The difference between the soil that they had purchased and the soil that they had made by sheet mulching was night and day, she says. After just a year of growing in it, the purchased soil was sandier with a lot less organic matter and almost hydrophobic. Meanwhile, the soil in the field was gold, she says.
Moving On to New Things
Though Acadia and her friends loved the farm, it was hard to make a living. Because they did not own the land, scaling up the business and making capital improvements like building a barn was not a feasible option. When they moved on to new things, they turned the farm over to the community. “It was important for us to maintain that resource to the community, even once we were gone,” Acadia says. It became a community garden for Point Roberts residents.
Starting an Indoor Garden
After a decade away, Acadia returned to New Hampshire. She got a job on a hopyard but missed raising food — that feeling of pulling a carrot out of the ground and eating it. Due to how cold and harsh the weather can be in New Hampshire, raising food would mean growing indoors. That set her on a journey of figuring out the best way to raise food inside a house or apartment.
Acadia currently has three banana trees, four citrus plants, a passion fruit vine, and windowsill boxes of lettuce, spinach and arugula. She’s not suggesting that everyone take it to the extreme that she has, but she does think everyone can enjoy at least a few food plants indoors. “Even if they grow herbs on their window sill and make pasta sauce at night with fresh oregano, thyme and rosemary … it really is transformational.”
Growing Perennial Foods
Acadia’s first book, “Growing Perennial Foods,” was based on some of the challenges she saw at the Point Roberts Homegrown Food Co-Op, including poor soil and periods of drought followed by torrential rain. She studied soil at the University of British Columbia to learn why the soil management practices they were using at the farm were effective.
“It supports all life, first of all, so without soil we’d be pretty in trouble,” Acadia says. “… Once you care for it and feed it and nourish it, it can draw carbon from the atmosphere and park it underground. And as long as this soil remains undisturbed you’re actually helping to sequester carbon.” She says she wanted to share how this is one more way we can combat climate change.
Soil has this amazing capacity to store carbon, and through the collective action of gardeners and farmers adopting methods that retain carbon in the ground — such as no-till gardening — we can make an impact.
Perennials are great plant choices for carbon sequestration for a number of reasons.
“Perennial plants can do a lot towards improving your soil’s health, and a lot of that comes from their extensive root system,” Acadia says. As plants die back in the winter, so do some of their roots, which leaves carbon behind in the soil, she points out.
Her favorite thing about perennial plants is that they create amazing ecosystems for soil microbes, bugs, beetles and earthworms to live around.
“It’s like Epcot for bugs,” she says.
“The more of these creatures and critters you support in your soil, the healthier it’s going to be,” Acadia says. “It’s going to be better at sequestering carbon. It’s going to be better at recycling nutrients. It’s going to be better at warding off pests and diseases for plants. So it’s really this harmonious vacation-type situation that goes a long way for improving soil health.”
Growing Good Food
“Growing Good Food,” Acadia’s second book, was more tailored toward backyard gardeners. She took all the tips, tricks and advice that she gleaned as a market gardener and made them applicable to backyard space.
“All of my books are written with the beginner in mind,” she says. “The goal of these books is to motivate and empower people to be like: ‘You know what? I can do this too, and I want to do this.’”
Tiny Victory Gardens
In “Tiny Victory Gardens,” Acadia sought to expand her message to a wider audience.
“As I’m going around sharing my story, telling people the power of soil and growing food, I realized I was leaving so many people out of the conversation,” she says. “Not everybody has the luxury of a backyard, especially in an urban environment. So I again wanted to take all the information I learned through my market gardening and say, ‘Can I apply it to a container scale?’ And I think I make the argument in the book that you can.”
She named the book “Tiny Victory Gardens” because part of her mission is to promote what she calls “climate victory gardens.” It’s a rallying cry, just like victory gardens during World War I and World War II were about collective action. While early victory gardens were about supporting war efforts, climate victory gardens are about achieving carbon drawdown — the point at which the level of carbon in the atmosphere stops accumulating and actually declines.
While container gardens won’t realistically sequester a meaningful amount of garden, Acadia says, the same regenerative farming principles can be applied. Container gardens, though small, can still provide significant support to our important pollinators.
Acadia says there is no such thing as the perfect container. She uses what’s available to her, and in her book illustrations show off the “crazy container ideas” she has used over the years: everything from an old canoe to a tea kettle.
Whether a container is storebought or improvised, Acadia emphasizes the importance of having drainage. If a container lacks drainage holes, they can be added.
The type of container will influence the soil. Containers fall into two camps: breathable and non-breathable. Terracotta pots and fabric grow bags are examples of breathable containers because air can exit and enter through the sides. The soil gets better oxygenation and overwatering is less of a concern — though it’s necessary to water more frequently. Plastic and metal containers are examples of non-breathable containers. They can be overwatered quite easily, and if they are a dark color they may heat up in the sun more than the plants growing in them like.
Container size is another important factor. When choosing a container, consider the root system that the container is intended for. If a plant is put in a pot that’s too big, its roots can’t wick up the water in the soil before mold and milder issues arise. Conversely, a large plant in a small container will have stunted growth.
“It can take some trial and error to figure out what’s good, but I always want at least a few inches of space around the entirety of the container of the root system that I’m putting in,” Acadia says. And if the pot proves to be too big or too small, the plant can be re-potted, she adds.
Watering an Indoor Garden
Watering indoor plants can be time-consuming, but Acadia has found ways to reduce the workload.
When potting up plants, Acadia adds sponges to the bottom of the new pots so they can hold excess water and then release that water when the plant calls for it. Then there are water stakes, which are bulbs full of water that slowly release the moisture as the soil dries. These bulbs can be made of glass and quite ornate or be as cheap and simple as an upside-down plastic bottle with a hole poked in the cap. “It’s not the most attractive solution, but it allows me to leave my plants for a week if I go away and not have to worry about it,” Acadia says.
Sometimes the soil in a pot can become so dry that water runs off the surface of the potting mix and down the sides, right out the drain hole. Acadia has found that the bottle technique is an effective way to slowly rehydrate soil.
Mulch for Container Gardens
Acadia says she is just as much a mulch fanatic as she is a compost zealot. Mulch is helpful in container gardening because it retains moisture in the soil between waterings. Mulch will also suppress weeds in containers. “Now you’re retaining moisture, you’re fighting back weeds, and then if you’re going to go with a traditional organic mulch, you’re also helping to feed the soil as it slowly breaks down,” she says. “So it’s kind of like that trifecta of just awesomeness.”
Straw, leaves and grass are a few examples of organic mulch that will enrich soil as they decompose. For indoor containers, where cleaner and neater options are called for, mulch options include coconut coir, decorative pebbles and pumice stone, among others.
Choosing Potting Mix for Container Gardens
Choosing the right potting mix is a challenge for eco-conscious and regenerative gardeners. That’s because most potting mixes contain peat moss harvested from peat bogs, which are carbon sinks. Peat is used in potting mix to make soil light and fluffy and to retain water.
An alternative found in peat-free potting mixes is coconut coir, a fiber collected from coconut husks. Acadia notes that coconut coir still raises ecological concerns because it is shipped from far away, but the good side of coconut coir is that it is a byproduct. “It’s something that would’ve been thrown away and now we’re giving it a new life,” she says.
I find that coir does not work well for seed starting because it is potassium-rich and contains salt, which stunts the growth of new plants. That potassium also makes coir toxic to pets. Acadia uses very-well-finished compost or worm-casting based soil to start seeds rather than coir.
Perlite and vermiculite are two minerals often found in seed-starting mix and potting mix. There are great because they are light, they retain moisture and they create air pockets to mimic natural soil. However, the minerals are mined and chemically treated, which poses environmental issues.
Acadia likes potting mix that instead contains humus, which is naturally occurring organic matter that is the result of decomposition. But even humus is mined. “It seemed to me to be the more wholesome version of trying to find this airy, light, pocketed substrate that’s going to help to mimic a more natural soil,” she says.
Choosing Organic Amendments for Container Gardens
Acadia relies on powdered organic soil amendments for her new containers. She mixes them into the soil rather than applying fertilizer overhead. For plants that have been in containers for some time, she fertilizes them with fish emulsion, which is a liquid fertilizer option. There are numerous organic options to give your plants a nutrient boost and improve soil biology.
- Nitrogen fertilizers — blood meal, neem seed meal, crab meal, fish emulsion
- Phosphorus fertilizers — bone meal, fish bone meal, seabird guano, rock phosphate
- Potassium fertilizers — seaweed extract, greensand, kelp meal and langbeinite
Acadia advises using what’s around you — your local resources. For example, seabird guano is collected from rock croppings not far from Acadia’s home, so it travels a short distance to garden center shelves near her.
“Anytime you’re using organic amendments, you want to make sure you really study the back of that package to figure out what are the right ratios to use for your potting mix because you can easily overdo it,” Acadia warns.
Choose Plants Bred Specifically for Container Gardens
Container gardens have been growing in popularity, and even more so during the pandemic. In response, plant breeders are looking to container gardens are viable sources of income, Acadia says. So plants that right now don’t make sense in containers, such as corn, could one day be viable container plants.
“Choosing the varieties that are already tried and true for a container-growing environment is going to make the success of your container garden that much simpler,” Acadia says. “You’re not fighting against nature in the way that plant wants to grow.”
Some plants are less demanding than others when it comes to light, and that is another important consideration for an indoor container garden. A south-facing window if your best option, and there is supplemental lighting that you can use.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Acadia Tucker and picked up a few ideas. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
Do you grow food indoors? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“Growing Perennial Foods: A Field Guide to Raising Resilient Herbs, Fruits, and Vegetables” by Acadia Tucker and Krishna Chavda
“Growing Good Food: A Citizen’s Guide to Backyard Farming” by Acadia Tucker and Joe Wirtheim
“Tiny Victory Gardens: Growing Food Without a Yard” by Acadia Tucker and Emily Castle
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Wild Alaskan Seafood Box and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.