Earth Day for Beginning Backyard Farmers
It started with a couple of tomato plants and a wish to reduce their carbon footprint. But in just two years, Warren and Lovejoy Ontiveros have managed to turn their modest Highland Park homestead into an urban mini-farm, complete with fruit trees, a couple of bee hives, and, very soon, laying chickens. They even sell some of their produce to area restaurant chefs.
“In the summer we had a lot of corn and squash and beans,” Ontiveros said, showing a visitor around the backyard garden. “Now we have lettuces. We plant mostly from seed; this is arugula, and there are some beets and radishes.”
The Ontiveros family is one of the presenters scheduled for the Autry’s first Earth Day celebration on May 1. Built around empowering people to heal the planet by changing their own habits and practices, the celebration will feature an entire day of demonstrations, panel discussions, World music performances, exhibits, organic recipes and kids’ activities, all related to greener living.
“About this time last year, we started planting vegetables for the first time,” Ontiveros said. “Everything else was a bunch of weeds and trash…. We just put a lot of work into cleaning it up.”
The whole urban farming project has been a learn-as-you-go exercise for the Ontiveroses, with bouts of intensely physical work punctuated with hours on Google, researching how-tos for everything from soil preparation to starting a bee colony. In between, there’s been the harvesting, including learning to cook with new vegetables they once might have considered exotic.
“I’ll buy weird stuff at the farmers market, or if I go to a nursery,” Ontiveros said. “I bought what they call a Brazilian eggplant, and it gave a bunch of little eggplants and we didn’t know what to do with them; so I had to research that one.”
They’ve also learned a little about how to get their supplies cheap, dirt cheap. Actually, their dirt, or more precisely their mulch, was more than cheap. It was free from the city, which gives away its ground-up street trees free to anyone who’ll take them off its hands.
“We got them to dump a couple of truckloads for us in the driveway,” Ontiveros said. “We just covered everything, to keep the weeds down and the moisture in …. When you now dig into it you can see a lot of worms. It helps with the critters.”
Worms are good, don’t you know. They help distribute nutrients through the soil and are a sign of a healthy biosystem. They squirm through at least two raised beds that are about 15 feet long and 3 feet wide, and grow a little bit of everything year-round, all of it carefully selected.
“We were trying to plant things that help each other,” Ontiveros said. “For example, we put a bunch of cilantro here because it’s supposed to help the kale, and helps attract insects that eat the things that eat the kale. It’s like trying to help encourage a healthy balanced ecosystem.”
And they want something in the ground at all times.
“The idea here is to have something growing always,” he said. “If something is on its way out then you plant something in its place so it’ll be ready to take over when you take the old one out.”
It hasn’t taken them long to get a bumper crop, so not long ago they went looking for someone to sell it to.
“We have a relationship with a couple of restaurants and we’re starting to take some of our stuff to them,” Ontiveros said. “Technically, a small grower can sell to anybody from their front porch, or whatever, as long as they provide a receipt that says what they sold and how much and has the name and address of the grower.”
In fact, one trendy restaurant in Silver Lake, Forage, made local home growers part of their supply chain, allowing them until recently to bring in their produce in exchange for store credit. Gives new meaning to the idea of local sourcing. The county stopped the practice but gave restaurateurs and growers a workaround. Now it inspects and certifies the growers. The Ontiveroses got certified and now supply eateries in their own neighborhood.
“Anybody can do it,” Ontiveros said. “Lots of people have been doing it for a long time.”
But the Ontiveroses are not stopping merely at produce. In the back of their property, they are building a chicken coop. They hope eventually to get both eggs and chicken meat, and they just received their shipment of 24 chicks last week. And a few months ago, they got involved with a local bee keeping group and got set up with a couple of hives of their own.
“A lot of people ask us why, why do you have bees?” Ontiveros said. “Of course, the initial attraction was the honey. You think you’re going to get all this honey, so you get bees.”
But the other benefit is pollination of fruit trees like their guavas, which do not bear fruit otherwise. Ontiveros sees canning and preserves in their future — once they learn how.
But it isn’t like this couple has a set plan on how far they will take all this sustainability. Like their vegetables, the whole idea is growing organically.
“I used to garden with my mom as a kid, so it was just something we did,” Ontiveros said. “And then after our son was born, I wanted to get back into it. Just ’cause I had the itch…. Being good to the Earth, I don’t know how much we can help, but we can definitely do less harm if we grow food at home.”
Here’s some video of the Ontiveros chicks at mealtime: