Urban Agriculture in the Pikes Peak Climate
The backyard farming movement continues to grow in Colorado Springs, but exactly what kind of farming makes sense in our challenging climate is a complicated business. The harsh, high altitude sun, thin topsoil, short growing season, and especially, the limited water supply present obstacles for even the most dedicated urban homesteaders.
On a Saturday afternoon, Buckley’s Homestead Supply Store is as busy as a barnyard at feeding time. The store is packed with people taking classes on fruit tree care & chicken disease prevention. A steady stream of customers arrives to stock up on homesteading essentials.
Rachel Gutierrez was one of them. Gutierrez joined the urban homesteading movement five years ago. Her first step was to rip out her lawn and plant all varieties of vegetables. But she says her water bill grew a lot faster than her plants.
“It doesn’t make sense to try and grow tomatoes outside. After trying it, it don’t make any sense," said Gutierrez. "So out in the front yard, we put hardy things like turnips and things that don't really need a lot of water. And then in greenhouse, the tomatoes and the eggplants."
Scott Winter, Colorado Springs Utilities' Lead Water Conservation Specialist, acknowledges conditions here aren’t ideal for growing food.
“It could be argued that it's maybe less sustainable in some ways to grow it here because of our water situation," said Winter. "But you could make that argument about many areas. And there certainly are conflicts.”
That means conservation-minded urban homesteaders can sometimes find their values and practices at odds.
According to local health and gardening counselor Michele Mukatis of Cultivate Health, a city farmer's backyard garden could be considered a step in the next direction of making an environmentally sound choice.
"So you have your lawn, and you get rid of your lawn, and you start using that water to water something that at least you can live off of," said Mukatis. "But the most environmentally sensitive thing [one] can do is probably move somewhere that has more water. If we’re going to stay here, we have to figure out how to do it right."
Every available inch of Adam Atencio’s yard in downtown Colorado Springs is given over to growing food for himself and his wife.
"I probably take about three to four months of all my meals out of here," said Atencio. "Once this lettuce grows, every day is a different salad.”
He says if he’s careful, his monthly utility bill, including electric and water, doesn’t ever break $120. He’s frugal, though, watering his garden selectively, and only using his clothes dryer on cold nights so he can vent necessary hot air into his greenhouse.
For Atencio, the main cost of growing so much food in Colorado’s extreme conditions is vigilance.
“Always be outside," Atencio said. "Always watching, ready for every turn of the weather. Always seeing the atmosphere that the plant’s in. That’s where you really find out those things you're missing. You see that one dry plant that you forgot about."
He already has 2000 seedlings started in the greenhouse this season, but has learned to be hard-nosed about what exactly he grows.
That’s advice Cultivate Health's Mukatis gives all local gardeners.
"You should look into the type of vegetables you’re growing and find the things that grow well in this region; incorporating mulch on top of whatever you’re growing. And then I’d say, plan what you’re planting together, planting things that have similar water requirements.”
Some local backyard farmers take sustainable gardening a step further. Christine Faith’s backyard farm features chickens, ducks, bees, fruit trees, raised garden beds—and in a greenhouse, something called an “aquaponic” system.
In Faith’s aquaponic system, water from a fish tank is pumped up to a grow bed filled with clay pebbles, which keeps plant roots moist. When the bed is flooded to a certain level, it drains cleansed water back down to the fish. So an aquaponic system cultivates edible or decorative fish and grows vegetables quickly. And the water savings is high--Faith says she saves at least 70% over putting her plants in the dirt.
But it’s not necessarily cheap or simple. Faith says she invested $4000 in her greenhouse and system, implemented it with help of her engineer husband, and sustains it with a pump, heater, and a steady diet of mineral supplements.
“I went into it believing a lot of the hype, that it was the silver bullet," said Faith. "Then I got into it and discovered it has its own dependencies and drawbacks. It’s like a high-end sports car—when it’s on, it’s on. But it breaks down and then you’ve got to work to get it back online.”
Faith also uses the less technical water-saving strategy of building “swales” into her backyard farm. Swales are water-harvesting ditches built on the contour of a landscape.
“We send the water, we cut it high and we send it," said Faith. "We’ve meandered it along the way, and we do actually send some of this water to fruit trees and other places.”
Even with the swales, Faith is careful to cultivate resilient varieties—and she’s mindful of how a plant fits into the entire ecosystem of her backyard farm.
“That’s I guess my biggest caution. That we honor the carrying capacity of the place where we live. In a semi-arid region, that carrying capacity is greatly reduced."
For all our environmental challenges, Colorado Springs Utilities’ Scott Winter recommends urban farming—with a healthy dose of realism.
“It has many, many benefits for citizens of Colorado Springs or other areas," said Winter. "But it is difficult as well, and people don’t necessarily realize that until they try it.”
When novice urban farmers understand what they’re up against, they’re less likely to burn out. It also helps to remember that trial and error simply go with the territory in farming, no matter where food is grown—and as Michele Mukatis points out, sometimes failure brings happy accidents.
“You might kill something at the right time and it’ll flop over and the seeds will drop and the next year you’ll have more than you know what to do with of that particular thing, which is what I have with tomatillos in my yard.”