Elkins Park resident pushes farming to front yard

Michaelann Velicky’s "front-yard farm" started out modestly enough. In 2009, she planted a traditional American Indian Three Sisters garden out there — more than a dozen mounds of corn, beans, and squash — covering a 16-square-foot patch of lawn down by the road. The idea behind the ancient design is simple: The crops act like three devoted sisters, literally supporting and complementing one another.

No sooner had the stuff germinated than cars began slowing — and stopping outright — in front of the house, which sits on one-third of an acre on Spring Avenue in Elkins Park, a quiet suburban neighborhood with conventional landscapes. And before long, other stuff was sprouting.

Strangers were yelling out of cars, "Is that corn?" Neighbors shared their memories of homegrown corn, and people walking by introduced themselves. It was like gabbing over the back fence, and it was awfully nice, all those people offering encouragement, wanting to know what Velicky was growing and how it was doing.

Back then, Velicky still had a lot of lawn. "I’m lousy at growing lawns. I’m going with vegetables," she told anyone who asked.

True enough, but Velicky also was ready to move away from a longtime career as an occupational therapist, working with special-needs children and military veterans, and toward a way of living inspired by the permaculture movement, which is about mimicking in our own lives the connections among all elements in the environment. Velicky explains in shorthand: "Care for the Earth. Care for people. Share the surplus in appropriate ways."

"I love what Michaelann is doing," says Melissa Miles, a permaculture teacher and farmer at Two Miles Micro-Farm in Upper Gwynedd Township, Montgomery County, which her father owns. It’s also the home of the Permanent Future Institute, which she directs.

Using permaculture principles, Miles observes, Velicky has designed a growing system that mimics nature. Like a forest, her "farm" is "productive, efficient, abundant, diverse, and resilient. The natural forest has a lot of stratifications. There’s stuff below and above ground, a shrub layer, an understory of trees, a canopy, and climbing things that use vertical space more efficiently.

“Michaelann has all that," Miles says, "and I think she’s helping people rethink the paradigm: Why do we have lawns?"

Velicky certainly doesn’t see the need, at least for a great big one. Three years after those "three sisters" debuted, she’s converted much of her front lawn and most of the side and back yards to beds for growing food, flowers, and herbs, all of which — like that sisterly trio, and in keeping with permaculture’s tenets — interact with and serve one another in some way.

There’s lots of old-fashioned comfrey, for example. (Gardeners know there’s no such thing as a little comfrey; it’s quite rambunctious.) It has large, hairy leaves, pretty clusters of bright-blue flowers, and a long and controversial history in herbal medicine. But it’s welcome here because it attracts beneficial insects and pollinating bees, and it’s an excellent organic fertilizer. Velicky chops it down and just lays the stalks around the garden as "green mulch." She also makes a nutrient-rich "compost tea" out of it, which she sprays on the beds to enhance the soil and boost production.

Red and white clover are abundant, as well. Once considered essential players in a healthy lawn, now targeted by weed-killing products, these lollipop-blossoms make nectar for honey bees and are known as "nitrogen-fixers," which means that bacteria on their roots extract nitrogen from the air and fertilize fellow plants with it.

Velicky also dries the red blossoms and, with homegrown mint and honey, makes a refreshing iced tea.

Speaking of honey, she and her fiance, Jerome Liss, who runs a software and communications business from the house, have tens of thousands of honey bees in three hives out back and were expecting to harvest 50 pounds of honey. Alas, the haul was only six, which is a darned shame because ...

Velicky describes the color as "golden," which is a little like calling Paul Newman’s eyes "blue." It’s like bright sunlight. And the taste? "Very happy honey," Velicky calls it. Let’s just say: Lick it off a spoon, straight from the jar, with eyes closed.

That’s happy.

Velicky readily shares not just the honey cache, but the joy of a place where everything, it seems, has at least one purpose, and often two or three. More than most, this is a garden of good citizens.

The purpose of the beautiful vegetables and fruits is tantalizingly obvious — tomatoes, peppers, peas and beans, eggplant, lettuce, collards and kale, rhubarb, strawberries, apples and pears, grapes, raspberries, blackberries, black currants, gooseberries, and even pawpaws, those little-known native fruits with the tropical taste and their own song. (Safe to say, "Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch" has yet to hit it big in the Philadelphia suburbs.)

Velicky and Liss, who has been eating way more fresh fruits and vegetables since his partner turned to farming, also have four chickens. What a contribution they make to this community!

They produce eggs to eat and manure to fertilize the soil. They peck and scratch at the ground, eating insects and aerating as they go. "They’re wonderful," Velicky says.

They’re even mobile, thanks to Velicky’s friend Meei-Ling Ng of Center City, a fellow farmer who made a portable "chicken tractor" out of recycled chicken wire from Velicky’s garage and old irrigation drip-tape discarded by Weavers Way Co-op Farm in Germantown.

Velicky puts two chickens safely inside the "tractor," and they go to town on a small section of the yard or garden. The "tractor" can be moved around, creating a simple and efficient system that Ng says "came out of talking about how we could encourage people to have chickens. We wanted to push this notion out in a very beautiful and positive way."

Velicky’s bigger notion, that being in sync with nature is a beautiful and positive thing, has been nurtured along the way by experiences and people.

One experience: Living as a resident-curator for five years in an 18th-century farmhouse in Ridley Creek State Park in Delaware County. "I was enthralled. I really connected with something there and started getting into gardening," Velicky recalls.

Two people: Jim and Sally Hammerman, owners of In My Back Yard at Misty Hollow, a two-acre farm in West Chester, where Velicky worked as an apprentice. The Hammermans, too, had careers before farming, and all three share a desire to help people "understand the reciprocal relationship of human and Earth health."

"Michaelann is a natural at farming," Jim says.

She modestly considers herself "a student" of all this. And though naturally introverted, she now has a blog — http://elkinsparkfarm.wordpress.com/ — that serves as a visual diary for herself, friends, and family, including her parents in Scranton and brothers in New Hampshire and Bolivia.

New ventures include a rain garden, a green roof on the chicken coop, and cold frames for winter crops. But the harvest has already started.

It took a whole day recently to pick peas, strawberries, greens, and beets. Then she had to boil the beets, clean the greens, slice the strawberries and rhubarb for custard bars (delish), and figure out how much could be shared with neighbors.

As for sharing, Velicky does quite a lot of that and not just with humans. The birds usually pick off the currants — "I have no problem with that," she says — and if the slugs and cabbage caterpillars demo the kale, so be it. But when Indie the rescue dog digs up the second carrot of the day and starts crunching away, Velicky scolds.

Then something else kicks in.

"It’s OK," she says. "I plant extra carrots now."


Contact Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.