Calling her backyard a rabbit patch is not just hyperbole for a Hutchinson urban farmer. Along with rows and rows of carrots, lettuce and turnip greens, Marilyn Johnson grows beets, tomatoes and lots of chard. There is no grass in her backyard – just vegetables and herbs.
Urban gardeners, like Johnson, are increasing nationwide. They are also on the rise in Kansas.
"We’ve seen a huge spike in the interest in (gardening) education," said Cary Rivard, fruit and vegetable specialist with Kansas State University Research and Extension Office. "There’s a lot of people interested in growing their own garden."
After living in New York City for decades, Johnson, a native of Topeka, decided to come home to Kansas and start an urban garden. Last year, she scoured several counties looking for the perfect backyard. She found it in Hutchinson.
This past spring, Johnson set to work replacing fencing, pulling out grass, enriching her soil and placing water spigots in appropriate locales. She even bought a double sink, a walk-in cooler and lots of yellow and black buckets.
"I could visualize what it was," Johnson said. "When I saw it (her backyard), I knew it was right."
Johnson grew vegetables at a community garden in NYC, but she knew when she came to Kansas she wanted to make farming into a small business. Currently, she sells at the Reno County Farmers Market. Her "extras" get donated to a mission. Because she has not retired, Johnson is hoping to grow her business, which she just started this summer.
"It takes a lot of time," she said. "I come out here and work every day, all day."
Johnson’s property of less than 1/16 of an acre can grow an abundance of vegetables. During the early spring and late fall, she erects a caterpillar tunnel – to extend the season. Always careful not to upset her neighbors, Johnson keeps the wired tunnels low. However, she said, her neighbors seem to enjoy what she does. And every once in a while they get a bag of tomatoes or a bunch of kale.
Urban gardens are becoming more popular throughout the U.S. – especially since March and the start of COVID-19. Consumers are either wanting to grow their own produce or know where it is grown.
Research from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., shows that urban farms help with neighborhood safety, economic development and environmental aspects. Usually, the farmers have excess goods, like the 25 pounds of cucumbers Johnson donated to a nonprofit, and help share their resources. In addition, these farmers often create networks and utilize mentors.
Because space is at a premium with these types of gardens, Rivard said urban farmers must plan well. Maximizing space is crucial.
"People need to grow more on a smaller footprint," he said. "It’s just that much more critical that your plants grow well."
Johnson said because of her limited growing space, she is continually rethinking what to grow and where to grow it. A former box designer, she is able to create diagrams as to what crop goes where.
"Next year, I’m fine tuning," she said. "I’m getting rid of what didn’t sell."
Johnson will change the types of tomatoes she grows, as well as add more okra, kale and cilantro. She encourages others to raise their own vegetables or support those who do.
"I’m sure I’ll still be making mistakes and fine-tuning," she said. "You can make your backyard more productive and go sell, can or produce for yourself."