By Christopher Nyerges

Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer

Approaching the Hyke residence in Duarte, there is no indication that it houses a small farm.

“Welcome to Hyke Farms,” Daniel Hyke shouted with a smile. “Hyke Farms may be the tiniest farm in America.

“What we have going on here is serious business. I had this micro farm going for over 20 years, mostly growing just tomatoes.”

On a fluke, Hyke decided to plant a winter garden, something that can be done in Southern California because of the mild winters.

“I planted four varieties of lettuce, spinach, cilantro, radishes, broccoli, turnips, carrots, peas, and kept a couple of bushes of cherry tomatoes going,” he explained, pointing to the raised beds. “It was a real experiment.”

He started the winter garden in mid-November 2019. Three months later, the pandemic hit. A year prior, he and his wife, Thuy (pronounced too-we), stockpiled a 50-pound bag of rice and two 30-pound bags of pinto beans.

“That first winter garden had been a huge success and was already producing ingredients for a large salad every night for the two of us,” he said. “I couldn’t believe my luck in planting it just 14 weeks before COVID hit.”

The Hykes’ backyard farm is 23 square meters under cultivation, not including four fruit trees and two herb pots. That’s 250 square feet, or a square 16 feet on a side. According to Hyke, that’s the tiniest farm in America.

“I use high-intensity farming, which means I plant my crops much closer together than most professionals recommend,” Hyke said. “I get away with it because of my soil. Soil is everything when it comes to growing food. I probably have the most productive, per square foot, farmland in the country.”

Soil formula

Hyke described his formula for soil as follows: 40% ordinary soil;  40% organic compost; and 20% worm castings, rabbit droppings, fire ash, and a few handfuls of store-bought organic fertilizer.

Hyke begins working each section by screening the ordinary soil to remove all the gravel and small rocks.

“Only microscopic mineral particles hold plant nutrients such as potassium, magnesium and nitrates,” Hyke said. “Gravel and rocks are useless and only get in the way of root development.” 

He saves the sifted gravel for drainage purposes around the yard, and the larger rocks are used for landscaping.

Hyke estimates he and his wife could survive at their home for at least a year without going to the market.

“As long as we have water, we’re good,” he explained. Between the rice, beans, the micro farm, four fruit trees, a pot of spearmint, a pot of basil, and a neighbor’s avocado tree, they are on solid culinary ground.

“We are living like kings,” Hyke said with a smile. “We are eating better than ever. I’m not kidding. We’re talking about huge, beautiful salads that you can’t buy in a restaurant.”

Hyke began his gardening career when he was in the fourth grade in Dallas. “My father let me plow up half of the backyard. I was only 10 years old, and I was growing corn, cantaloupe, beans, everything. I loved it. Buying the seeds and looking at the little maps on the back. Plowing the soil and getting dirty. Watering. Watching the baby seedlings pop up. Harvesting the food that I had grown and watching my family eat it,” recalled Hyke, who doesn’t use pesticides.

His family moved to Eagle Rock in 1964, and to Altadena in 1965. He and Thuy moved from Pasadena to their nearby Duarte home in 1995.

The process

Every garden plot starts as a 3- to 4-foot-deep pit. Soil is removed, screened and used elsewhere. Then the pit begins as a compost pit, where all nonedible green waste, including kitchen waste, is added to the pits. Hyke conceded that his below-ground level pits take a bit longer for the green waste to decompose because of the lack of oxygen and, possibly, reduced moisture level.

“When the pits are nearly full, I cover them with 6 to 8 inches of my soil mixture, and they become another productive farm plot,” Hyke said. “Above-ground compost bins are a big hassle and a huge amount of work. I don’t have the time or patience for it.”

The pits, once operational, provide a long-term source of nutrient-rich compost that can be used for years into the future.

His biggest problem is weeds, as he does not use herbicides in his backyard farm.

“Weeds drive me crazy,” he said. “They grow twice as fast as vegetables. Their roots are tenacious — I just hate ’em. But it’s a lot easier to get them out of raised beds, as compared to regular dirt, because the soil mixture is so soft. I pull them out while they are young and turn them into instant mulch for my veggies.”

Think globally, act locally

Hyke is a retired schoolteacher who likes to think globally, as he described the environmental benefits of his operation.

“When I want to make a salad, the food moves a few feet to my kitchen, not hundreds or thousands of miles across states or continents. Just think about the reduction of CO2 emissions. It’s huge,” he said.

“I am not relying on manufactured inorganic fertilizers or pesticides and all the mining, energy and fossil fuels it takes to produce them. And don’t even get me started on water. Because each small, high-density plot can be flooded, I’m not watering soil without roots in it. Every drop goes to use. And since these plants are close together, they shade each other and prevent evaporative loss. During the winter I capture rainwater off my roof in large barrels.”

Hyke showed several of the large barrels that he places under his patio roof, or under the gutters.

Hours spent

On the Hyke Farm, the green waste from the mini farm is recycled on site. He spends about 50 minutes per week watering his plants. One hour a week is spent weeding, and two hours digging new compost pits and preparing newly cleared plots for planting.

The neighborhood benefits from the Hyke Farm, as Thuy loves to give away food.

“We never made a penny from the farm, but we did a ton of bartering,” he said. “You can get a one-hour swim in a private pool for two zukes and five tomatoes. A bag of tangerines gets your faucet fixed. And if you’re out backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail for 10 days, you can get your garden watered in exchange for unlimited access to the farm’s produce. What a deal.”

Hyke estimates that his little farm produces about 25% to 30% of all the food that he and his wife eat depending on the season. Hyke’s father served in World War II at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked and in the Battle of Midway. 

“I am very proud of my little farm. It’s the American way you know — self-reliance. I hope my dad is watching,” he said.