Welcome guest poster, Thomas Fox, author of Urban Farming: Sustainable City Living in Your Backyard, in Your Community, and in the World
When people hear that I’ve written a book on urban farming, they almost invariably ask “Oh, you mean like rooftop gardens?” And yes, I do mean them. New York City alone boasts an estimated 14,000 acres of unshaded rooftop. But urban farming does not only mean rooftop gardens—far from it—and you shouldn’t let a lack of rooftop stop you from giving it go. In fact, until vertical farms become the norm, you’re much more likely to find some productive land at street level, just like most other urban farmers. New York City, for example, has over 500 community gardens has some 11,000 acres of brownfields and other vacant land. Detroit has a whopping 25,000 acres of vacant lots. Cultivated, one-fifth of that amount could provide over 70% of residents’ vegetables and 40% of their fruit.
But would-be urban and suburban farmers don’t need to start on such a grand scale. Do you have a yard, a sunny window, or even just some strong fluorescent lights?
The fact is, there are plenty of ways to farm in and around cities, and plenty of reasons for doing so. The key is to start small. If you’ve got window boxes or pots at your disposal, herbs make for a good option. Parsley, basil, cilantro, and tarragon enjoy similar sunny, moist conditions, so you can plant any combination of them. Rosemary, thyme, and oregano tolerate drier conditions. The most convenient choice for many urban farmers is probably a “self watering” container (SWC), which has a built-in reservoir to accommodate less-frequent watering.
The EarthBox and Garden Patch SWCs cost about $30 each and make great containers for terraces, roofs, fire escapes…you name it. (You can also make them yourself; Mother Earth News provides instructions here, and Urban Farm Magazine here). In fact, some urban farmers with access to lots still use SWCs—rows and rows of them—because in addition to their other benefits, they’re portable. If your farming location moves, so can your farm. The number of vegetables you can grow in each box depends upon the variety; figure on about 2 tomatoes per box, or 4 cucumbers or zucchinis, 8 lettuces or other salad greens (‘Empress of India’ edible nasturtium is nice choice), or about a dozen radish or corn plants. You can also mix different plants in each box. Three good sources for a wide variety of vegetable seeds are Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Fedco Seeds, and Seeds of Change.
If you have no outside space, and few windows to boot, fear not. There are still two good options for aspiring urban farmers. The first is a plot at a community garden. The American Community Gardening Association maintains a database of community gardens throughout the United States and Canada searchable by zip code. You can also try calling your local parks department or searching your city’s name and “community gardens” on the web. Community gardens are great places to meet neighbors, and often more experienced farmers. Plots can often be rented out seasonally for nominal fees or a commitment to volunteer.
The other option is the undemanding world of sprouts, shoots, and microgreens. We’ve all had sprouts—such as those of alfalfa or mung bean—which are essentially seeds allowed to germinate and grow a little bit without soil. For the most part, they don’t even need light. Shoots are sprouts with edible stems left to grow a little bit longer in soil or a soil substitute. Popular options include corn and peas (whose shoots are sometimes called “tendrils”). Microgreens are essentially the same thing, but with leafy plants, like arugula, lettuce, or chard. Nothing beats the trio for speed. They can also be cultivated year-round, and an added bonus for shoots and microgreens is that they can be grown under artificial light. The Growing Edge magazine has a nice overview on them here.
It’s spring. Get growing!
Thomas Fox is a full-time writer, part-time gardener, and sometime urban farmer. Fox is the author of Urban Farming: Sustainable City Living in Your Backyard, in Your Community, and in the World. He resides offline in New Jersey, and online at www.farmeresq.com.
Editors’s note: Thanks, Thomas for your great guest post. You can buy Thomas’ Urban Farming book, here. Let’s get dirty! So that you know, Green Talk makes a small percentage from the sales. So help the Planet and Green Talk to keep delivering great gardening content!