Urban Farming

Posted by Billy on Monday, September 14, 2009 in , ,
Summer, throughout the history of civilization, has meant growth - at least, in the climates in which the word "Summer" can be said to apply at all. I'm not talking growth like the mantra of corporate culture - gross! I'm talking plants, yo.

Are you aware you can grow your own shit to eat? A shocking number of people aren't. It comes from the supermarket, and that's about as far as it goes. For how few nowadays eat meals for which they personally oversaw the cutting and cooking of the constituent fruits and vegetables, fewer still know what kind of a plant a pepper grows on, how to harvest a potato, or how to recognize delicious wild mint (I almost guarantee there's mint growing within a block of your house/apartment).

But how can we fix this, being the city slickers we are? Do we give up? People elsewhere in the world did not. Look at any high-rise in Spain, for instance. It's spotted with green fluff so perfectly, one almost wonders if it was designed that way. No, it's not part of the "green building" movement. Spaniards who had to make do with their limited space and take to vertical living simply refused to let that spoil their historical penchant for growing their own damn food. The lesson? Even if you live in an apartment, you can grow stuff to eat. Hell, even if you don't have a patio, there are still options (I hope you have a window).

The backyard of my beautiful Past-Boulevard home of 2 years is all brick. For this I hate the owner or whomever made that decision. The house down the street even has an all-concrete front yard, for "ease of maintainance" I'm sure. Eyesore yes, but also an egregious waste of land. So how did we get 15 pepper plants, a tomato, and 5 herbs growing outside? Built a planter out of wood. Found a discarded pot. Asked a bakery for its empty food-grade buckets. Saved and cut up our plastic liquor bottles. All you need is some containers. Got them? Good.
Next, get some holes in the bottom of that shit. If it's a pot, it should already have some. Home-build planters should be built with a little gap at the bottom. Otherwise, drill baby drill.

  • Put about an inch of gravel at the bottom. This helps it drain properly without clogging. You don't want a clogged planter.
  • Go to the nursery on Swineburne Street in South Oakland. Yes, we have a NURSERY (just like your parents used to drag you to) within walking distance. Fuck home depot. Get some potting soil, or find a recipe for it online and make your own using regular soil (which is cheaper or free). You'll also want compost, of which they have good stuff there. Bonus: I've started a worm composting bin in my basement recently, so I should have a ton of extra worm poop (the best fertilizer ever) by next season. Ask me!
  • Finally, you'll likely want some plants. I love doing peppers, but that's because I use an absurd amount of them in cooking. Them, tomatos, zucchini, broccoli, cucumbers, whatever. Don't get your hopes up about fruit, as most of it needs trees, but berries (though their bushes can take some time to cultivate) can be great in a small space - even indoors! Salads can be grown indoors, so save your outdoor space for the really outdoor plants like peps and maters.
  • Herbs are very forgiving. Grow them wherever the hell you want in whatever the hell you want.
  • Are you growing stuff indoors, or even out for that matter? Build a self-watering container. They're not hard, they're super healthy for the plant (draw its roots nice and deep), and you only have to put water in them like once a week. Just google it; there are recipes everywhere.

Do you actually have a yard, and are wondering why I'm spending all this time talking about container gardening? You lucky bastard. Mulch that shit and plant, plant, plant. You have no idea how much food you can squeeze out of a little space. Pick your favourite veggies and read up on them. Grow a bean teepee. Stick carrots and radishes in every little between-plants spot you can find. If it's a grassed lawn, tear it up. How often do you use that lawn, honestly? How often would you, instead, eat some food from it? If it's bad soil or filled with "weeds," just stamp them down and cover them with a hearty, overlapping layer of cardboard or cotton sheets or something that will decompose. If you're going to put in rabbit or worm poop, do it under this cardboard. Then, put regular mulchy stuff (shredded pine or whatever) overtop of that. You can plant in this by poking X-shapes with a trowel.

Other fun ways to better understand what you eat and drink:
  • Brewing your own beer (been doing this for years now and never had a bad batch, not even my first)
  • Incubating your own yogurt (a self-sustaining endeavour: milk + yogurt = more yogurt!)
  • Making your own jam and pickles, and other types of preserving
  • Baking your own (basic) bread - you may never buy bread again
  • Cheese!

Why should we want to do any of this stuff? All of this stuff is great practice for the apocalypse, when you'll have to do it for real. Why do you think I got so into it? Besides that, it really puts you in touch with nature, with your own body (through what you eat), and helps you to better understand the world around you.
In most cases, these things also save you money. Even if the potting soil seems really expensive at first, just stick with it (it should never need to be replaced - just put some worm or rabbit poop on it each season). Same goes for any other capital costs. Finally, you get to stick it to the sick, terrible American food industry by not buying their stuff. A great resource for why you should care about that bit is Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma. Highly recommend it.

Speaking of books, a great idea book for folks who want to do this kind of stuff in an urban environment is The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen. It's got some step-by-step guides, but it's strongest trait is its wealth of fantastic ideas - great for the urbanite who wants to grow her own food but doesn't think it's possible without two acres of land.

I hope that after reading this post, you feel you are out of excuses. I hope I have motivated you to at least give this a whack. I earnestly think that everyone, somewhere inside, has some urge to bring about their own food. This feeling is often, I feel, misinterpreted into the "bringing food to the table" idea. Though being able to earn money to feed yourself and your family is certainly not without merit, it's time to really bring some food to the table.



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