Pandemic inspires new front yard farm in North Austin

As you walk or drive through the Quail Creek neighborhood of North Austin, keep your eyes peeled for a front yard farm that popped up this fall.

Jonathan Park’s gardening on Mearns Meadows Boulevard north of Rundberg Lane and west of North Lamar Boulevard began sensibly. For the past few years he has been keeping a small piece of vegetables in the back yard of the house where he lived with his wife Emily for 7 years.

But when the pandemic hit in March and his conference logistics company stalled, he needed something else to do with his time.

He expanded the little garden in the back yard and built a shed that looks like a little red barn, and then slowly began to cultivate more and more of the yard. In August he was swimming in watermelons and 15 varieties of tomatoes, and although pests ruined his cucumbers, he knew he wanted to grow more food.

Then he turned his gaze to the small front yard, which had a couple of hedges and a dying fruitless mulberry tree near the house, as well as a sidewalk and two car driveway.

“I was very opposed to planting in the front yard,” says Emily, who now works at home as a lawyer. “But one of the defining characteristics of Jonathan’s personality is growing up or going home.”

During the hottest months of the year, Emily watched for weeks through the window of her home office as Jonathan struggled, pulling out the hedges and tree, and working every inch of grass with an old tool called a wide fork. He added compost and then began planting both seeds and grafts, which he grew himself in a growing station he set up in their home.

He went to the farmers’ markets to see what it would take to start selling there. He was given permission to sell cut flowers, built some boxes to display the products on, and decided on a name: Bird Dog Farm, named after their dog Ladybird.

By October, he had grown enough food to sell at the Farmers Market of the Sustainable Food Center in Republic Square Park. He’s been selling every Saturday since then, and those market days have brought an unexpected benefit: socialization.

“We didn’t expect this, but it’s one of the best things to interact with other people,” he says.

Jonathan Park now estimates he grows groceries on 6,000 square feet in front and behind his house, and a few weeks ago he signed a lease with a neighbor to grow groceries on an additional half an acre in the neighbor’s large back yard.

Although he grew up on four acres east of Beaumont, where his family sometimes planted a small garden, he couldn’t think of farming as a full-time job, but the little farmyard has given him a taste of what it takes in terms of that Working the soil and crunching the numbers to find a way to make it profitable. “I feel better at the end of the day when I’m not at a desk,” he says.

In addition to products and flowers, he and Emily also preserve jam and other food from the hut. “I’m a number, people. I knew I had to have a variety of products in the market to attract customers, ”he says.

Park says he won’t be able to start planting the second yard until January, which will add another 20,000 square feet to his operations. “That’s about as much as I can manage myself,” he says. “The goal now is to get it to a place where I’m not the only one working in the fields.”

His business has multiple contracts through 2025, but no one is sure what the future of the convention industry will be after the pandemic ends.

In the meantime, you can find him out in the yard most days planting, harvesting, or otherwise tending his new business, or chatting with passers-by who might want to ask what he’s doing with this grocery-full farm.

“I sit at my desk and watch cars slow down all the time,” says Emily Park.

“We met so many neighbors,” says Jonathan Park. “I can’t really do a lot of work around 3:00 am” because so many people drop by.

“When it’s all over, we want to have a block party.”

Hedges and grass used to fill Jonathan Park's front yard on Mearns Meadow Boulevard in North Austin, but now he's turned the yard into a small urban farm.

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