Heidi Kass: A future food forest

Heidi Kass’ backyard isn’t quite a food forest. But with native plants creeping out of the tree line behind her home, beans climbing up wooden supports, fruit trees and berry bushes (the gooseberries reminder her of a SweeTart), and boxes of greens sprouting up, it’s well on its way.

Many of Kass’ plants—particularly fruits, like her blackberries, strawberries, gooseberries, elderberries, and apple and mulberry trees—are immature and won’t produce tons of fruit for a few more years. However, she’s proud of the one peach her slender tree has produced, and hopes for more.

It’s Kass’ fourth growing season since her journey toward sustainability began. In 2016, the self-proclaimed nature nut set up shiitake mushroom logs in her expansive northeast Rochester backyard. The next year, she added two raised gardening beds and chickens. Every year since, she’s added more beds and new plants.

Kass has always loved gardening and nature, she says—“I see urban homesteading as a combination of those two things.”

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On the Urban Homesteading Garden Tour in late July, she was between phases—the first, in the spring, was the planting phase. But as her garden moves into fall, she’ll be “putting up” the harvest. Already, Kass had canned and dehydrated a “huge flush” from those shiitake mushroom logs for the winter.

Heidi Kass in her gardens on Wednesday, August 5, 2020 outside her home in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Heidi Kass in her gardens on Wednesday, August 5, 2020 outside her home in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Let nature work for you

“Monocultures [the practice of growing a single plant or crop] are really not found in nature—nature is all about diversity,” Kass says.

Kass’ goal is to create a similar amount of diversity in her backyard, eventually building up to a “food forest,” or a garden that incorporates trees, herbs, vines, shrubs, and perennial vegetables that are all edible and useful to humans.

The flowers in Kass’ crop beds are part of this practice. They attract and feed bees and other pollinators who, in turn, help ensure a bountiful harvest.

“It’s almost re-wilding your property and having nature work for you,” she says.

And sometimes, the insects that flock to a diverse garden make for excellent pest control. Kass noticed a wasp on her cabbage and called the other gardeners over to see the insect’s meal—the caterpillar of the cabbage moth, which would otherwise decimate the plant.

But there are other methods of keeping animals away. Kass wraps her squash plant in foil to dissuade a squash borer, and plants most of her produce in wooden boxes (made by boyfriend Chris Kern) to separate them from some pests, as well as level out the hilly lawn.

Fences try to keep the neighborhood wildlife away from her rhubarb, new peas, and kale (the kale is, apparently, immortal and flourishing despite being eaten innumerable times by the neighborhood woodchuck—a regular antagonist in Kass’ stories about the fate of different greens in her garden).

A Celosia Cock’s Comb Flower outside the home of Heidi Kass in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
A Celosia Cock’s Comb Flower outside the home of Heidi Kass in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Don’t worry about the look

Kass is loathe to use chemicals, instead mulching with pine needles and handling weeds manually. That makes for a different look in her garden than your average Master Gardener might approve of.

In her yard, she avoids sprays and fertilizer—a lot of weeds can come in, but again, that makes for prime insect habitat. And a few dandelions never hurt anyone, Kass says.

A grass monoculture, however, does. Kass doesn’t believe that it’s easy for most people to maintain a traditional lawn without using chemicals (which make their way into the water supply) or burning gas in a lawnmower.

But if a homeowner can accept a wilder-looking front lawn, chemicals are downright unnecessary. Check out Minnesota’s “Lawns to Legumes” project, which offers homeowners a stipend to turn their lawns into pollinator-friendly habitats, for a start.

Share with your friends

Kass revitalized the Backyard Bounty Urban Homesteading group on Meetup (an online service that helps connect people with similar interests) in 2017, and it now has 174 members.

The group has become a place to share produce, plants, and ideas. Kass emails the Meetup group every Monday, March through October, with headlines like “Motivation Monday—the preserving begins” and “Seed saving tomatoes.”

“It’s all about community,” she says.

Kass also helped found the Rochester Public Library’s Seed Library, which distributes packets of seeds to growers for free. The hope, of course, is that some of those growers will save their own seeds to be repackaged and shared in coming years.

And of course, Kass gives away gives away the produce she doesn’t use or preserve—a staple of the community-minded gardener.

Get the basics down

Kass’ tips for beginning gardeners are basic: “If you’ve got good sun, good soil, and you start with good plants and seeds, you’re going to do fine.”

That soil can be 100-percent county compost, Kass says—she supplements her own compost pile with that resource, and interplants crops.

The next step is to find the place in the lawn with the best sunlight, and start small there. Kass suggests planting directly in the ground, or with a few raised beds. And make sure to choose seeds for plants that sound good to eat fresh, or preserve well for the winter.

“Start with what you enjoy eating—that way you’ll really appreciate what you can do,” she says.

Ivan & Mary Idso: Resilience through homesteading

Ivan and Mary Idso began their homesteading journey—you guessed it—in their home. The couple began by building the shell of their 1890s house back up with solar panels and double-wall construction. In urban homesteading and permaculture, building an energy-efficient home is the first step, Ivan says.

Bringing their backyard into the picture was step two, and began last spring, when the couple built their patio and put plant beds in place.

This year, they got busy planting. By midsummer, they’d already harvested beets, greens, and three batches of green beans—plus cabbage for sauerkraut. Tomatoes coming in will be used for canning. And by August, they were already making plans to foist their potatoes on friends. One plant sheltered 10-12 potatoes, they say.

Mary and Ivan Idso in their home garden Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
Mary and Ivan Idso in their home garden Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

Homesteading is an important part of becoming relatively self-sufficient during the current global crisis, says Ivan: “It’s about trying to create sustainable and resilient communities.”

Do your research

Ivan thinks beginning homesteaders and gardeners should start by researching urban homesteading and permaculture. “You need a plan, and permaculture is a design that will help guide you to take what you’ve got and turn it into a productive, low-waste garden,” he says.

The Idsos hired a Twin Cities-based permaculture designer, Paula Westmoreland, to lay out their backyard. That design extends to how they’ve arranged their space—in “zones” of use.

Zone 1 is right outside their back door and consists of plants they’ll use often, like culinary herbs. Zone 2 is the garden, and Zone 3 is their chicken coop and construction/compost area. Zone 4 is outside of the home—it’s the other places the Idsos get food, like the Farmers Market, Hy-Vee, and People’s Food Co-op.

The plants in Zone 2 are arranged in a keyhole design with loops at each end, so all of the plants can be reached from at least two sides for maintenance and harvesting. Trellises cover the top house beans, cucumbers, and melons.

The Idsos also house a rainwater capture in their backyard, which holds up to 1,000 gallons of liquid for the garden. It takes 2-1/4 inches of rain to fill the tanks, Ivan says, and one inch alone will make for about 625 gallons of water for the plants.

Tomatoes grow in Mary and Ivan Idso's home garden Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
Tomatoes grow in Mary and Ivan Idso's home garden Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

Have a plan

There’s never been a better time to encourage “neighborhood resilience,” Idso says, pointing out that a barter economy with neighbors is more stable than the market economy, currently suffering from COVID-19 delays and shortages. Climate change, rising oil prices, and the global financial crisis in general make it a long-term goal for the Idsos.

“We’ve learned this spring how vulnerable our supply chains are, some of our food chains are,” he says. “It’s a good time to try to become more independent.”

The Idsos got their chicken coop approved in mid-July. Ivan says nine others were approved at the same time—a good sign for Rochester’s resilience.

Think ahead

The Idsos’ garden is full of perennials, including blueberries, chokeberries, honeyberries, arctic kiwis growing up a lattice, fruit trees, and more. Perennials make for less work during future planting seasons.

Using raised beds called “garden circles” makes for less back strain while picking produce and checking the plants for bugs, which they pick off in the mornings and evenings.

Because the Idsos plan to retire in their home, they’ve also thought about their home access. Everything important is on their main floor, and rather than build a big house they only fill a few times a year, they use the garage and short-term rental to “expand their space as needed.”

“This is just the beginning,” Ivan says. “Everything will be included in our long-term resilience plan.”