All of Southern California's verdant valleys were under plow not long ago. Sprawling cities changed that - but the region's climate and soil conditions still call to aspiring farmers year-round.
Terry Moore is in the chicken coop – a palace, really – behind her Altadena home. "It's a bit of idealized nonexistent farm life out of a children's story book. See, here's a nice warm egg." She says raising free-range chickens offers sanctuary from her high-stress film industry job.
Her backyard farm also creates community; several families labor in Moore's yard to take care of eight big raised beds of produce with an herb garden, tomato plants, peppers and melons. "Like on Saturday mornings, all the families gather together and garden. And then we usually get some eggs out of the henhouse, pull out the camping stove, whip out an omelette," Moore says. "Or we will make a pizza using our tomatoes and our basil, and the lights are strung and it is heaven. It is just heaven."
That heaven has taken more than a village to create. Moore says she realized early on that gardening with a committee of kids and busy adults had its limits. "We were completely overwhelmed. They didn't know how to garden," Moore says. "And one day I went, 'I need a farmhand. I need Lurvy, the character from 'Charlotte's Web' who helped out on the farm' – so I Googled 'farmer Los Angeles' and Farmscape came up."
Enter Lowell Frank – he's the Pasadena area service manager for a company called Farmscape. Each week, he offers home gardeners an agricultural version of the residential mow-and-blow guy.
In Terry Moore's garden, he fights those free-range chickens; he builds wire structures to keep their hungry beaks away from growing plants. As he builds up the wire walls, he snips off the pointy ends.
The laconic Frank – a former landscape gardener – is also a committed nemesis to cats, slugs, sagging leaves, garden pests and failure. "You have to kill plants to know how to keep 'em going," he says.
Frank says Moore is exceptionally invested, and her yard is exceptionally large. He meets more people with brown thumbs than green ones – they're a good number of his Farmscape clients. "I find it's really hard sometimes to convert those people, and say, you will enjoy it," he muses. "People that don't have a lot of experience will be more intimidated than anything and so they won't know a plant or they're afraid that even if they touch it wrong it's going to drop over dead."
Claremont-based Farmscape offers to install raised garden beds and drip irrigation systems and provide the kind of farm maintenance services that are Lowell Frank's specialty. Dan Allen, the company's chief financial officer, describes one recent addition to Farmscape's hundred-plus sites. "We're doing a 4 by 16 raised bed where we'll plant all the annual vegetables, the good stuff. We're gonna put a Meyer lemon tree. Then on the south side we'll do some strawberries for ground cover with green and red edible grapes."
Allen's in the backyard of a KPCC colleague, Sharon McNary, whose husband plans to keep the garden going. The Farmscape crew is scraping up water-loving grass to make room for the new plants. "We estimate you can cut your water use 30 to 50 percent relative to a lawn with a vegetable garden," Allen says.
Allen is from Iowa City. He's proud of the fact that Farmscape has harvested 16,000 pounds of urban backyard produce – dozens of varieties of fruits and vegetables and herbs. "You drive by a lot of monocrop in Iowa. A lot of corn and a lot of soybeans," Allen says. "And while I love sweet corn during the summer, I don't love foods filled with high fructose corn syrup."
Allen says Farmscape helps people farm urban sprawl without pesticides or the carbon footprint that comes with trucking produce to market. "We got a year-round growing season with this Mediterranean climate, where you get tomatoes and cucumbers and melons and squash in the summer. Then the winter you get your broccoli, peas and carrots," he says. "A lot of homeowners because of the way L.A.'s spaced actually have room on their property where they can grow that."
He acknowledges that Farmscape's services aren't dirt cheap; setup costs range from $600 to a few thousand dollars. Weekly maintenance visits cost around 50 bucks – similar to what mow-and-blow guys charge.
But Allen points out that unlike most home gardening services, his crews leave a basket of produce on your back steps. He adds that the real cost savings take root over time. "We really believe this could be the beginnings of what a more localized system looks like and the first and most difficult step is building that density of participation," Allen says. "And as we build that I think the price of the services we provide can go down."
Allen says his client gardeners are helping him collect data on water use and crop yields. They hope to show other homeowners how they'll save money if they convert their landscaping into farmscaping.