Edible Landscapes

Why Your Front Yard Is The Next Big Thing In Sustainable Agriculture

Laura Marrich
15 min read
New Mexico Foodscapes owner Eric Garretson, an edible landscaper, peeks out of a lush grove of bamboo he planted in the backyard of one of his clients. (Tina Larkin)
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Look up the word "vital" and you might see a picture of Eric Gattetson smiling right back at you. At 49 years, Eric has the energy of someone half his age. Eric is the director of the Albuquerque Downtown Growers’ Market, a local agriculture advocate and a business owner. Three years ago, he merged a lifelong love of farming with his 10-year-old landscaping business. New Mexico Foodscapes was born.

Eric is a part of a growing movement of "edible landscaping," where dormant yards and water-guzzling lawns are transformed into sustainable, multiuse agricultural plots–and pack the same aesthetic punch as professionally landscaped terrain. "There needs to be a trend toward small farms," Eric says with gentle, clear-eyed conviction. The key is thinking of your front yard as a very small-scale one.

What’s the difference between edible landscaping and farming or gardening?

Well, there are more similarities than there are differences. With edible landscaping, what you’re trying to do is create a system in your yard that provides food all year long. So I am eating something out of the yard 365 days a year. It’s actually very simple to do. The initial design depends on where your yard is, where the location is, and there’s lots of microclimates–but it’s really not that hard to do because there are so many different fruits and vegetables you can grow, and there are berries that are more drought-tolerant than other berries.

What kind of berries grow well here?

Oh, you can do raspberries, strawberries and blackberries. And all the fruits you can think of–kiwis actually grow here and figs do well in certain locations. A lot of the berries like the Nanking cherry do really well here. It’s not a very sweet cherry but it’s really nice and tart. And then not only are you creating a habitat for you and your family but also for the wildlife. There are a lot of birds that like them, too.

Spring must be a busy time for you.

I’ve got about nine jobs lined up this spring. It’s pretty crazy. You know, everyone wants landscaping in the spring, but fall is a great time to landscape! And all the winter gardens I put in can be started in August–you just have to have enough room among your tomatoes to put stuff in.

Why not just xeriscape our yards and run to the market for food?

In an edible landscape, you’re trying to create an environment that, with proper soil management, drip irrigation and lots of mulch, you’re not going to be using any more water than a xeriscape. The food [you grow] is going to be a lot tastier, for one thing, and have much better nutrition. Nowadays, food travels 1,500 miles on average to get to your grocery store and can loose 50 percent of its nutrients, because by the time it gets here, it’s two weeks old. Not only that, it’s not going to last as long in the refrigerator and there’s not going to be any flavor left. There’s a problem with kids not eating vegetables nowadays—the biggest problem, really, is that [commercially farmed] vegetables don’t have any flavor. Kids aren’t going to eat something that tastes bad, they’re going to eat something that’s artificial that actually has flavor. They’re growing up with vegetables that are tasteless–no wonder they don’t eat them!

Growing food can be an educational experience as well.

It’s extremely educational. If you have a family, you can allow your kids to actually know where their food comes from. People don’t know where their food comes from–even restaurateurs. I once asked a waitress at Shogun restaurant where the salmon was from, and she said it was from L.A. Well, there’s no salmon in L.A.—obviously, it’s a distributing point for the salmon from wherever else it could possibly be from. That’s where there’s a real disconnect between the land and people now. They don’t have any idea who the farmer is, where the food is from, how it was grown.

Why do you think that is?

Twenty percent of our food is now coming from outside of the United States, and we shouldn’t be importing any food. We have an incredible bread basket growing in this country, but there are a lot of politicians that don’t think that’s a big deal. "It can grow cheaper somewhere else, so why not get it there?" Well, one of those reasons is our health. We could literally turn around the health of this country if we started eating more local foods, added more farmers’ markets and more community-supported agriculture systems. There’re a lot of solutions. That’s the thing I think people need to hear: There are solutions. Albuquerque still has a lot of available farm land for growth.

How much food is Albuquerque producing for itself right now?

Look what happened with this winter storm, when the freeway was closed for half a day and all of a sudden stores in Albuquerque started running out of food. Santa Fe has enough food to support itself for one week–and Santa Fe County grows 3 percent of its food. How ’bout Albuquerque? I doubt it grows more than 1 percent of its own. What happens in a major disaster? Where are we going to get our food? Not here. We’re going to run out … it’s a scary proposition. But I think Albuquerque can still do it if we get our act together.

We live in a desert. How are people supposed to water crops at all, and especially in a drought?

It takes a certain amount of knowledge from the landscaper and also a willingness from the homeowner to improve the soil. Really good soil is going to retain the moisture. If you’ve got a backyard that nothing has been done to and you put water on it, it’s going to disappear—the soil is basically dead. A living soil is filled with millions of organisms that are working to preserve that soil. The healthier the soil, the healthier your plants. But you need proper irrigation, gray water systems and roof catchment systems–which none of the new developments are putting in, by the way. Where are we going to get the water for these new developments? Nobody’s catching it off the roof. If I had a 750-square-foot roof I could catch, in an average year, 10,000 gallons of water–off one roof. So that feeds into your drip irrigation system and waters your landscape.

Let’s say I want to makeover my yard–what am I in for?

Most soil in Albuquerque is depleted and not in very good shape. Which is OK for some of the native plants and OK for grapes—grapes don’t like good soil—but for a lot of vegetables crops and fruit trees, you need good soil, then you need to mulch. You can also interplant among fruit trees. You can have fruit trees and herbs or flowers, with some of the native grasses under the trees. You create a nice, cool area. You create your own ecosystem in your yard. And from one or two vegetable beds you can feed a family of four something—not everything everyday, but something—every day of the year.

Is that your primary objective?

One of the goals is to reconnect people to the land, to know where their food is from. When you come home at the end of the day, you can flip on the news and get depressed or you can go to your yard and pick a plum–you have a choice. In this country there are a lot of choices we can still make. Bring it back to WWII to the victory gardens, where people
had to grow vegetables. There were so many things that were missing, so everyone put in a garden. It was just something they did and they got used to that. You create something that becomes a part of your life. You don’t say, "Well, I don’t have time for that." Do you not have time to be healthy? You can either go to the doctor or you can stay healthy with what’s in your yard. You have the choice of pharmaceutical companies or a landscape that keeps you away from the pharmaceutical company. This is preventative medicine.

What percentage of your diet would you say comes from locally farmed foods?

It’s less in the winter, depending on how organized I am about getting my vegetables in shape in the fall [through canning, freezing, etc.]. This time of year, I’d say it’s close to 50 percent local. When I eat meat, I try to stay as local as possible, too. In the summer it increases–gosh, it must be close to 75 percent. It probably fluctuates between 25 and 75 percent during the year. The winter is the hardest time. And right now I’m renting and I don’t have a farm anymore, so I’m limited on space. If you were really organized you could keep it at 75 percent most the year. It’s pretty incredible what you can do.

You’re a renter but you still have a plot where you live. How does that work?

Well, the best thing, of course, is to be great friends with your landlord. You can build a 4-by-8 frame bed: So if you move, you can just unscrew it, leave the soil and take the rest with you. You can do a bed with a bottom on it for your patio and fill that with soil. Even if you’ve got a small space you can grow an enormous amount of food. Just become friends with your landlord. Growing fruit trees and things like that are a little more difficult, but vegetables are simple and something you can always do wherever you are. There’s really no excuses not to grow, actually.

Do you take aesthetic things like composition and color into account in your landscaping?

Most definitely. In fact, "edible" is a word that doesn’t convey quite the right meaning. There are a lot of medicinal flowers, herbs and shrubs. There’s bamboo, whose shoots you can eat, but it’s really an aesthetic plant that you can also use for building materials or as a screen. It’s really for multiuse plants.

Are your growing methods organic?

All of the farming I do is beyond organic. It is in another realm. Organic is such a trendy word, and it is a good word, but it has different meanings to different people.
Time magazine just did an article on local versus organic, and which is better for you. The best, of course, would be local-organic. But I tell people, you can buy organic that’s been shipped from California, or you can buy from the farmers’ market where you can actually ask the farmer yourself. The farmer may not be certified organic, but he or she may be growing organic. You can develop a trusting relationship with that farmer and actually go out to the farm and see what they’re doing.

How are people supposed to garden without pesticides?

In small agriculture in this country and small farms—let’s say, an example of 10 acres or less—there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t be growing organic. There’s none. If you’re growing the way good farmers grow—not with a monoculture, but a permaculture, a landscape that incorporates wildlife habitat, insect habitat, good soil practices and everything that goes with good farming, you don’t
need sprays or chemicals. It’s all there! They [farmers] never used to need any chemicals, because they had the wildlife and all this other help. The soil was much better so the plant got all the nutrients it needed to develop a resistance to the insects that came in. Now, if we’re not talking about major grasshoper infestations—it doesn’t matter what you’re doing then, you’re S.O.L. [laughs]

How may people in this region are doing edible landscaping, that you know of?

Not enough. There is room in Albuquerque for hundreds more landscapers, hundreds more farmers. The community will support a lot more landscaping. I have nothing against a xeriscape, but there are some examples that I call "zero-scapes." They have nothing that would attract me to them at all. Two or three plants, wheat fabric, drip irrigation that comes out right to the stem of the plant, which isn’t going to do the plant any good next year–where are the roots going to go to find water? There are some very good landscapers in Albuquerque, but there are some very bad ones, too.

Yeah, if I see another clump of rocks in a zia formation …

It’s dead! It’s reverting back to what Albuquerque used to be, except the foothills used to have a lot of plants but no rock. Now we’re putting more pavement and rock down, and we’re actually increasing the ambient temperature of the summer. Phoenix is a classic example of that—every year, the temperature goes up. How high can it get?

So how can we avoid becoming another Phoenix?

People ask, “Is my water bill going to go up?" and I say, "Do you have a roof catchment system on the house? If you’re really concerned about this, what’s your gray water system like?" Start thinking about next year. Start thinking drought, because we’re still in it. We talk about it all the time, but are we walking the walk? When I drive out on the freeway to go west toward Grants, those new developments have no gutters on any of those new houses, and they don’t have tar roofs, which makes them much better for catching water. They could water their whole yard right off the roof–actually, they could
decrease their water bill. You’re not going to increase your water bill with any of these systems. There’s a lot of positives out there that can be done. But it’s not like a 10-year plan. This is like a today plan. This is not something we need to be thinking about in terms of "OK, this is where we’ll be in 10 years." Where are we going to be tomorrow? That’s more important.

Talk about your involvement with the Downtown Growers’ Market.

This’ll be the 10
th year of the actual market and my eighth summer as the director. It’s a great little market. The Downtown market, being in a park, gives it a really nice atmosphere. It brings people Downtown. It’s a festive event; there’s always live music and something for the kids. And it’s a way to get to know your local farmer and grower and support local agriculture, which means you’re supporting the local ecosystem and local economy. The average farmer in America gets 20 cents on the dollar for what they grow. These people here, they don’t lose anything, and you’re putting that dollar right back into your own community. You may want to solve the problems in Africa and give to world organizations, which is fine, but you can really make a difference if you do it locally. That, to me, is how we’re going to solve problems—not from the planetary perspective, but from the local perspective. And that’s what the markets provide.

What are some of the challenges you face as a local growers’ market?

We are constantly in need of more growers, which includes backyard growers. If you have a normal-sized backyard, and you’d like a little extra income or to have your kids sell at a market, you can grow enough produce in your backyard to sell every Saturday at a growers’ market here in town. And we could have more markets, but we really need more growers to sell produce. That’s a problem we face. We also have a customer base of more than 700,000 people here. And on average, at the five area markets in town, we have about 5,000 shoppers on a Saturday. [That means] 695,000 people are not getting their food at the local growers market. To me this is a travesty. So not only do we need more growers, we need more people to be aware of these markets.

Any chance for a dedicated year-round market in Albuquerque?

I think we’ll have one eventually. There are enough growers now that realize growing in the winter here is a great idea. There are no insects to deal with, the weed pressure is off, the heat is off, you don’t water as much–so it’s actually more advantageous to grow from August to June then it is to grow from May to October. We’d like to provide produce year-round. And the local shoppers get depressed in October. They say, "What am I going to do in the winter?" And I always say, "Well, put a bed in your backyard. Start planting." That’s what you can do–you can take control of your food.
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