It wasn't too long ago that the phrase "urban farming" would have elicited raised eyebrows and a collective Huh? Farming—with its visions of red roof barns nestled among rolling fields of wheat somewhere far, far away—could hardly be applicable to urban dwellers living in tiny studios with nary a tiny garden plot (let alone a few dozen acres) to call their own. But a new wave of gardeners, locavores, community activists, and just plain ol' food lovers are growing their own food indoors, in cramped spaces, or in the empty plot next to their apartment building. Peek in the lives of these new urban farmers and you'll find backyard chicken flocks and rooftop apiaries, fire escape container gardens, under -the-sink worm composters, and an overall sense of optimism and community spirit.
But urban farming isn't just for health-conscious foodies or dirt-loving hipsters. If enough people did it, growing one's own food could significantly reduce the strain on the worldwide food supply, potentially driving down prices, and the influx of fresh fruit and vegetables would help combat obesity. And when a large portion of your food comes from your own backyard or from the slew of containers in your sunny living room, your carbon footprint is pretty much null. The 100-mile diet seemed pretty great, but the 100-feet diet? Even better.
So how do you get started? If it seems like a huge challenge to undertake, thankfully there are many who've gone before willing to share their tips, tricks and offer encouragement. Books like Farm City: The Education of an Urban FarmerUrban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the City, as well as the upcoming My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into a Farm share the authors' experiences with growing their own food and living sustainably in a modern, urban environment.
Here are the three things every new urban gardener should know:
1. Yes, You Can! No matter how small your indoor space or garden plot is, there are a number of different foods you can grow, such as herbs, salad greens, peas, chard, beets, kale, potatoes, even tomatoes. Start small, devote everything you have to making those crops succeed (such as providing good soil and water), and you will see some success! You might have to experiment with the amount of water, or the temperature, or how many plants you can put in a 3'x1' window box container without overcrowding them, so don't be afraid to fail. As we once read: "The only difference between a 'black thumb' gardener and a 'green thumb' gardener is that green thumbs learn from their mistakes, try again, and keep trying until they get it right. Then they replicate, and build upon, their successes." So stick with it!
2. Build Up. Raised beds and containers, people. Many don't realize that you can build a bed directly over concrete or rocky soil. (And, due to the amount of lead in most urban soil, you'll probably want to do that anyway.) Most things grow just fine in containers, but even a patio, driveway, or walkway can be converted to a productive garden bed by building the soil up (as opposed to digging down) to twelve inches, which is deep enough to grow almost anything. So don't let pavement get in your way.
3. Compost and Fertilize. If you're not already, start composting your produce scraps, coffee grounds, newspaper, cardboard and egg shells. Your garden soil is going to need fresh organic matter added to it on a regular basis, and compost is full of nutrients and will give your soil just the boost it needs. Start your own compost pile or buy a tumbler, bin, or worm composter. You can also share your scraps with your community garden if you don't have a compost system set up yourself. (You can freeze your scraps until you're ready to drop them off.) Check with your city to see if they offer discounts or provide compost bins. You'll also need to some organic plant fertilizer, which you can get from your local nursery. Most plant fertilizers have a base of manure or seed meal for nitrogen, plus natural sources of phosphorus and potassium, which are all key plant nutrients. Kelp extract is also a great supplemental source for both trace minerals and natural growth boosters.
From rural areas to urban communities, from apartment patios to rooftop gardens, urban farms are popping up all over the country with one simple mission: to grow food that is deliciously fresh, affordable, and healthier for themselves and the planet. So come on! Your tomato crop is waiting.