We love to eat local in Seattle — and whether you raise chickens, bees, or dinosaur kale, you can’t grow more local than your own backyard. Many of us tend some fresh herbs or summer greens, but for extreme urban farming, visit Jeanene Miller. She runs two community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm shares and a seasonal nursery from her Ballard driveway.
A CSA or farm share is a subscription to a farmer’s season of fresh produce. Benefits include: getting nutritious, organically grown food at a price lower than the supermarket with a smaller carbon footprint, while supporting local farmers; cons include: risking crop failure or paying for food you don’t use.
Miller’s Craftsman house, wreathed in roses at the door, sits on Northwest 57th Street, just north of the Ballard Locks. In winter, you’d notice that instead of cars or a basketball hoop, three greenhouses cap the elbow of the long L-shaped driveway. The house is artfully painted in tones of basil, merlot and Parmesan — setting a perfect backdrop for the tomatoes to come.
From April through October, Miller’s driveway is brimming 24/7 with plant starts of over 100 rare varieties of tomatoes — likely the best selection in Seattle — as well as other veggies and herbs — and all sales are paid through the honor system with a lock box.
Miller was inspired by honor systems she saw growing up on Samish Island, and preferred that option to fencing off the driveway.
“You know how much theft there is in the neighborhoods. We’ve had tools and random things stolen, but I haven’t noticed plants walking away. Someone crowbarred the honor system box once, so now it’s moved inside the driveway,” she says with a shrug. “OK, maybe I’m optimistic.”
Miller’s Abundant Greens Urban Farms started with an obsession — in this case, tomatoes. A former textile artist, she started growing seeds at home, enticed by the colors and flavors promised by catalog descriptions of ‘Tigerella,’ ‘Purple Russian,’ and ‘Black Icicle’. As her passion grew, so did her need to expand beyond her 4,850-square-foot lot.
First she borrowed space from her next-door neighbor, and then another, and finally a friend with acreage on Samish Island. As thanks, they receive an unlimited supply of fresh, organically grown edibles and flowers.
Although she has gardened since she was a child, Miller still had to research the business side of gardening: choosing popular varieties, setting prices, and growing on a scale for selling your produce at markets, to restaurants, or to neighbors from your driveway.
“I learned how to do most of it through trial and error,” Miller says. “I told people I would never start a business with the tomatoes, but suddenly that’s what I was doing. Then the sales got bigger. In 2013 we had about 56 varieties and now we have nearly 150.”
It’s physically tough work. In late February, with her partner, Eric Clark, Miller sows the tomato seedlings inside, and then moves them to two driveway greenhouses, and finally in April, next door to a hoop-tunnel bed fitted with heat coils. But first: they hand-mix and haul five yards of a custom planting mix of soil, coconut fiber, fish compost, and perlite trucked in by the Dirt Exchange.
“The thing is,” Miller says, her warm eyes smiling, “I still really enjoy it. I love being outside, and I get up saying ‘I want to go to work today.’ ”
She’s been “cautiously expanding” every year, with two employees and some volunteers, and expects to hire more next year.
In good weather, she’s almost always outside in her lilac sun hat tending to her seedlings and enjoys answering questions about the plants.
“I have people coming by just to talk and visit — part of the benefit is getting to know your neighbors. It’s a great way to be connected to the community,” Miller says.
The CSA knits connections too, in some unexpected ways.
Miller’s model is to focus on easier-to-use smaller-scale produce boxes, sized for 1- to 3-person households. Boxes are picked up weekly at her home. She also offers a floral bouquet CSA.
“I love it, “ says Peggy Sturdivant, a Ballard neighbor who has been a vegetable CSA member since it began five years ago. “I talked three or four people into joining and quite often I meet them there. I love the routine the day of pickup. It’s like a treasure hunt every week. It’s one of the things that makes Ballard amazing.“
“I would have to say I consider it to be the most economically practical thing I do,” Sturdivant says. “The value is exceptional — I’m blown away for the value I’m getting. The vegetables could not be fresher or better. No store can touch it.”
However, since the CSA is prepaid, you get what you get, because sometimes Mother Nature has other plans. Miller says she keeps customer’s preferences in mind while packing their weekly box, but sometimes she has to send the Daikon radishes anyway.
Sturdivant and her friends work with the system by trading off less-favored veggies, sharing recipes, and picking up each other’s boxes on vacation. Eating sun-ripened tomatoes has spoiled winter supermarket tomatoes for her (“Those things aren’t tomatoes”), but the CSA has also taught her about new foods and made her a better cook. “I’ve been forced to learn how to can peppers and make my own pickles.”
So from one woman teaching herself how to garden, many more people have learned how to grow, share, and eat their veggies.
2843 N.W. 57th St., Seattle
Vegetable/fruit CSA sessions: June 13-Aug. 15, Aug. 22-Oct. 24
Floral bouquet CSA: June 27-Oct. 3
Tomato sales: Through June 23