September 8, 2010

Natural Foodie: Backyard garden farm blooms in Cape Elizabeth

By Avery Yale Kamila
Staff Writer

Lisa Fernandes samples an Italian pole bean from the vine outside her home, while on the deck nearby a solar oven is slowing converting fresh tomatoes to tomato paste. The process will take about a day and a half in full sun, without the aid of electricity or natural gas.

click image to enlarge

Lisa Fernandes and her husband, David Whitten, sit on their deck in Cape Elizabeth in the dappled sunshine created by the grape arbor loaded with Bluebell and Beta grapes.

Photos by Avery Yale Kamila/Staff Writer

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The greenhouse, strawberry patch, grape arbor and some of the annual beds sit behind the Fernandes-Whitten house.

Additional Photos Below


WHEN: 6 to 8 p.m., Thursday

WHERE: UMaine Cooperative Extension, York County Office, 21 Bradeen St., Springvale

HOW MUCH: $5, registration required

INFO: 800-287-1535

Steps away at the back of the garage is an unheated greenhouse, where tomatoes, eggplants, melons and cucumbers ripen in the late summer heat. Soon these will be harvested and the beds readied for the 12 varieties of cold hardy salad greens that flourish in the winter in the enclosed space warmed only by the sun.

On a slope outside the greenhouse, strawberry plants cover the hill and raspberry canes grow nearby.

"We never have to buy jam again," Fernandes says.

Tucked into a typical suburban neighborhood in Cape Elizabeth where lawns and flower beds dominate the landscape, Fernandes and her husband, David Whitten, have done away with their lawn and packed their third of an acre lot, just two houses from the South Portland line, with a growing backyard farm.

"It's not what you'd call an orderly, traditional garden," Fernandes admits. "This was all lawn and loads of conifers. We've gradually removed the conifers. We've used all the wood chips on site and milled the lumber."

Fernandes, who heads the Portland Permaculture Meetup, and Whitten, who runs the solar hot water firm Resiliant Homes, bought the property in 2003. Motivated by concerns about the waning days of cheap oil and a desire to live a more sustainable lifestyle, the pair began implementing a permaculture landscape design soon after they moved in.

The first projects they tackled included planting fruit trees, nut trees and berries, since it often takes a number of growing seasons before these perennials bear fruit.

"In permaculture, you're really trying to create a property that takes care of you more than you take care of it," Fernandes explains. "We're trying to mimic the way nature creates fertility."

This mimicry started when they eliminated the lawn by covering it with wood chips. The process continues as they add layers of mulch, much like a forest accumulates layers of debris. They also forgo tilling, allowing the soil structure and its crucial microbes to stay intact.

Unlike giant farms in the heartland that let their once deep Great Plains soil slip away each year due to reliance on heavy tilling, little use of cover crops and constant applications of petro-chemical fertilizers and pesticides, permaculture aims to enrich the soil so it can be cultivated indefinitely with both annuals and perennials.

"At some point, one-half to two-thirds of the food we get off this property will be perennial," Fernandes says.

Where there once was a thick barrier of evergreen trees between the property and a neighboring house, there is now a 64-foot-long apple espalier. This traditional European technique trains the trees through guideposts and pruning to grow thin and tall in the shape of a fence.

The growing fence contains two each of four different varieties of apples. Once the trees bear fruit, some of the apples will be perfect for desserts and others will store well through the winter.

"In a few more years, we'll pull out the posts and the wire," Fernandes says.

Watching all the unusual transformations on the Fernandes-Whitten property, the neighbors have been replacing ornamentals with edibles and adding solar hot water systems. One neighbor who was tired of mowing her back lawn agreed to let the couple use the space to raise Muscovy ducks, in exchange for eggs and meat.

"Muscovy ducks are quackless and really well-known for being good meat birds," Fernandes said. "They're really good for slug and snail control, too."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Muscovy ducks of various ages cluster around the watering canister at the Fernandes-Whitten home in Cape Elizabeth.


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