Green Grass to Ferndale Fabulous: Award Winner Shares Sustainable Yard Tips
(Natalie Berger, July 22, 2019)
Ferndale, MI – Not that long ago, Ferndale resident Rachel Engel had a career as a general manager in the motorcycle business with a grassy green lawn like most people in suburban communities. Engel knew she needed a change and left her day job to begin a more fulfilling life cultivating her urban farmstead. “It started with a vision board,” Engel said. “I knew I wasn’t happy, so two years ago I created my dream life with the concept of a self-sustaining permaculture farmstead.”
In partnership with her engineer husband, the Engel family has been in pursuit of that dream. Now just two years into the project, Engel’s garden is unlike any other garden you might find in the neighborhood.
The Engels won a Ferndale Beautification Award this year, and Rachel was able to speak about her home to City Council. She also gives tours for curious neighbors.
The ultimate goal for her is to be able to have a zero-waste off-grid lifestyle while helping to combat the effects of climate change. Her home is outfitted with solar panels, several rain barrels complete with swimming fish, a coop filled with chickens and rabbits, compost pile, and meticulously placed gardens that serve a variety of surprising purposes. A cherry tree in front of the front window helps keep the house cool in the summer heat while the hops beginning to grow up the side of the house will one day provide natural insulation in the cold.
Where most people would have a neatly mowed front lawn, Engel has her “spiral herb garden” where she grows things such as fennel, lemon balm, and thyme, using it to create a medicinal cold tea. Mullein can be used to soothe a burn while she uses her lavender to create perfumes. Standing on the sidewalk for just a moment, one can observe bees, dragonflies, and praying mantis that found their own way into the garden. To achieve her front garden, Engel said she covered up her old lawn with a layer of cardboard, a layer of compost provided for public use by the city of Ferndale, and threw down seeds. In lieu of regular lawn maintenance that can be expensive without much benefit, she says she spent about $50 creating this part of her oasis.
With record breaking rainfall this year, flooded streets and basements have become an issue for many Ferndale residents. The solution, Engel said, lies within promoting a strong root system in a curb-side perennial garden bed to prevent erosion. She believes if everyone in the community were to forego a traditional lawn and replace it with such a garden full of hearty plants, flooding would no longer be a problem in Ferndale. “There is 40.5 million acres of lawn [in the US]– imagine what would happen if that was converted [into self-sustaining permaculture] instead.”
In the driveway sits a vintage blue camper currently being used as Airbnb lodging. Guests have the opportunity to be served a freshly cooked breakfast using ingredients all grown right on the property. “You would be amazed to see how much fossil fuel goes into a plate of food after it needs to be harvested with machines and then trucked across the country,” she said. You can significantly reduce your carbon footprint by bypassing the traditional grocery store goods and growing your own food.
A garden as large as Engle’s may appear overwhelming to even an experienced green thumb at first glance, but much of it is self-sustaining. “We had a terrible grub problem for a minute. I was going to try to get rid of them, but then I thought ‘lets see what happens when I let ecology do its thing’. Pretty soon we had fireflies and firefly larvae eat grubs.” Instead of setting up a sprinkler, Engle utilizes homemade “oja pots,” created from stacking unglazed terracotta pots together and filling them with water that slowly distributes it as needed as well as using straw, mulch, and plants that hold moisture. She says she owes a lot of the self-sustaining aspects of her garden to “companion planting,” a strategic process that involves growing things near each other that provide something the other plant needs.
The animals of the farmstead are also a very special part of the cycle. The fish that swim about in the steel trough rain barrels leave feces in the water which is then used as fertilization in the garden. Rabbit feces can go right into the garden as it is and provide great direct nutrition. Chicken feces, after spending some time in a compost pile, is also a great fertilizer in addition to the calcium provided by crushed up eggshells. The animals also consume the food waste leftover after family meals, helping to promote the zero-waste lifestyle. Instead of putting out a bag of trash every week, Engle says her family of three probably produces one bag of trash every month.
Planting “pollinators,” flowering plants that insects such as bees and butterflies can land on to collect nectar and transfer pollen between flowers to aid in plant reproduction, has become an extremely important practice for increasing the dwindling number of these special types of insects. Foregoing chemical pesticides and fertilizers for natural methods as Engle has done will keep the bee and butterfly population happy and healthy. A tip from Engle is to plant your pollinators amongst your food bearing plants to have a bigger harvest of those foods.
Climate change has been a rising concern in the last several years, and Engle says that if we don’t start making changes, we will begin experiencing catastrophic flooding, mass power outages, and extreme rises in food prices. With her green off-grid lifestyle, Engle has prepared her home if such events were to happen. Engle claims to spend about six or seven hours a day in the garden and while that may not be for everyone, she has plenty of tips for someone who may be interested in growing more of their own food. “Start small and do what you can manage. Pick some food you like and start growing close to your house. Choose a small fruit tree, put your shovel in, and get microbes going!” She says that the best climate for farming is the climate we experience in Ferndale. “The south is jealous of us!”
Another tip she has for aspiring urban farmers is to “Plan for long term resiliency. Annuals look nice when you put them in the ground, but they don’t last. Perennials have the ability to grow strong root systems. There’s a saying with perennials: ‘year one is sleep, year two is creep, and year three is leap’ and [this farmstead] is getting ready to leap now.” Everything in Engle’s garden is chosen for its hardiness, including the chickens, bred for the cold weather climate and heavy size as not to be taken away by predators.
If you don’t have the means to put your green thumb to work, there are still many ways to live sustainably and promote a path to reversing the effects of climate change. One way that any Ferndalian can participate in is to buy a membership to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a local organization where several local farmsteads make weekly produce deliveries to your home. The plastic-free products are delivered wrapped in fabric via bicycles so that you can be assured your food has the smallest impact on the environment as possible. To sign up for CSA, you can contact them via facebook on the Ferndale Farmstead page or text (313) 303-1364. Purchasing Michigan grown food at local farmers markets such as Eastern Market is another way to cut the distance it has to travel from other states.
One thing Engel is thankful for is some of the mindful legislation Ferndale has and hopes residents continue to stay active in local politics and elect city officials who are passionate about being environmentally friendly. In 2018, the Ferndale city council approved an ordinance that allows residents to have up to six chickens on their property. Ferndale has also provided compost throughout the spring and summer free for resident use. Additionally, Engle provides tours of her farmstead to school groups and hopes that even more classes take advantage of the learning opportunities. Without even picking up a shovel, it’s easy to participate in measures that move the community towards a more sustainable future.
15 Goals from Ferndale’s New Master Plan (Jan. 20, 2017)
Ferndale Creates Demo Garden for Native Vegetation (Aug. 1, 2015)
Heyday of Grass is Past and Ferndale Approves Natural Landscape Ordinance Changes (April 2, 2015)
Novi Landscaper Promotes the Value of Native Plants (Sept. 4, 2017)
Keys to Success in Rain Garden and Native Landscape Design for Cities (Oct. 23, 2017)
Accidental Sunflower Grows Over 20 feet Tall in Ferndale Front Yard (Aug. 30, 3018)