How My Garden Goes – Part 1

Posted: March 21st, 2011 | Author:

Some recent developments in my garden planning!

    1.  Major real estate acquisition.
    My last post was about the only real outdoor space I have — a small front yard right on Bushwick Avenue. I still may put a few SIPs out there, or at the very least do something to beautify the space, but I’m just afraid that my fruiting plants will be too enticing for passersby. To some extent I like the idea of a stranger plucking a ripe heirloom tomato or snipping some thai basil from my garden and just enjoying it. But to a larger extent, I want the make sure the tomatoes actually ripen, and that my friends and I get to eat a few of them. 

    The front yard is the most easily accessible and has some soil there already, but I thought of two other potential spots: a small square of concrete outside two of my roommates’ bedroom windows, and my next-door neighbors’ backyard. I can actually access their backyard by climbing out my window and heading down a small junk-filled path. It’s a pretty large yard (by NYC standards), though in complete disrepair.

    Overcoming my nerves, I finally knocked on their door on Saturday. They were a bit confused at first (“So, you’re going to sell fruit?”), and didn’t totally understand that I can access their backyard from my bedroom window (“You can’t get there, the door is locked for the winter!”) but they eventually agreed to let me use their backyard! They actually used to grow things back there (flowers, mainly) but it seemed like they hadn’t planted anything in two years.  Thank you neighbors!

    2.  Sub-Irrigating.
    I’m going to be growing in sub-irrigated planters (SIPs). These cool planters are also referred to to as “self-watering” containers, but that name seems to focus on the laziness of the the garden. Sub-irrigated makes it sound like I”m doing something sophisticated. I guess for the purpose of advocacy — getting lots of people to grow their own produce — self-watering is a more helpful term. But for my own ego, I will be implementing an integrated sub-irrigated planter system. I’ll be talking a lot more about SIPs as the season goes on.

    3.  Seedlings
    I’ve had to decide whether I’ll be starting my own seeds indoors or buying seedlings that I can plant after the last frost. I’ll definitely be trying to start some seeds indoors, but because of the limited sunlight coming through my limited windows, I think most of my plants will come from nursery- or store-bought seedlings.

More on all of this soon!


Filed under: Urban Farming | No Comments »

How My Garden Goes – Part 0

Posted: March 8th, 2011 | Author:
My Bushwick "front yard" after a light snow.

My Bushwick "front yard" after a light snow.

Welcome to my inaugural post! In this series of posts on The Greenest, I will share my musings and misadventures as I grow my first garden, in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I have experience neither in blogging nor gardening, but I intend over the next few months to develop both a completely readable blog and an edible garden. Though I’d be plenty happy with just one or the other.

I’ve been growing [note: I will trying to keep the obvious puns to a minimum and not point them out when they happen unintentionally] increasingly interested in urban farming over the past year or two, reading a ton, volunteering a bit, and shmoozing here and there with a bunch of incredible people who are involved in this movement.

I’m convinced that we will all be better off if food production in cities – in personal gardens, community gardens, and small-scale commercial farms – really takes off. And when I moved to a new place in Bushwick earlier this year, from a closet-like subterranean flat on the Lower East Side, I finally had some space to start growing a garden of my own.

Not only did my new Brooklyn residence give me a bedroom where I could actually stand up straight without banging my head on the ceiling, it also had a real-life honest-to-gosh front yard! I felt like a 1950s suburbanite cashing in on some ill-conceived government homeownership program and finally moving out to great big new house in the suburbs – except in this “suburb” I hear the roar of the elevated M train from my bedroom. And of course, I’m renting.

I suppose my “front yard” is like a suburban front yard to the same extent that Bushwick is like a suburb. What we have is a roughly 10-foot-by-10-foot patch of dirt/trash blend, with a cherry tree (pink and lovely in the spring! I know this from Google Street view) and another tree (gnarly and uninvited-looking) in the center. But even this was more promising than what many city dwellers have access to, and I was determined to make it work.

… Eventually. We moved into the place in mid-September [note: the lease started September 1, but our move-in was delayed by unadvertised amenities like hundreds of pounds of construction equipment and molding furniture from the previous occupants, and hundreds of non-paying tenants in the form of a German cockroaches] and the little I did know about growing cycles told me it wasn’t the right time to plant anything. I couldn’t just leave the plot how it was though, ugly, unruly, clearly advertising its lack of stewardship. So I set out to clean the thing, figuring step one was just clearing the eyesore.

I went to the local hardware store and, after an hour of wandering up and down the aisles, craning my neck to see to the top of the packed shelves and asking each item, “Will you be helpful?” I left with a 5-gallon bucket, a cultivator (“garden fork,” I thought), and pruning shears.

I got to work, pruning that secondary tree of anything that wasn’t the central trunk or a straight branch off that central trunk. This pruning method was based on what I did for 3 months on a kibbutz in Israel in 2004, where I was caring for 2 fields of Paulownia, a fast-growing Chinese tree used for hardwood timber. I have no idea if this method had any positive effect on my Bushwick tree, but it made things look a bit more orderly.

Next, I scratched up all the dirt, removing anything that was either man-made (glass, cigarette butts, bottle caps, candy wrappers) or green (tons of little weeds that just screamed, “this is our home, not yours!”).

An upstairs neighbor found me sitting outside the building in a pile of trash and muck and branches and leaves. He paused. He may have rolled his eyes.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Just cleaning this up a bit.”

“Oh, cool. I’ll come help in a little while.” He never did come help, and I was okay with that. After all, I had a strong sense of having no idea what I was doing, and I didn’t want to be revealed as a muddy little fraud.

That was October 24th, and that was pretty much the last time that I played/worked in my little plot of land. But I’m gearing up for spring. I’m seeking advice, sketching out plans and timelines, and perusing seed catalogs. I have to say, I’m a bit nervous about growing things – what if I fail!? – but it’s time to walk the walk. Stay tuned.

Filed under: Urban Agriculture | 4 Comments »

An Urban Goat Love Story

Posted: March 7th, 2011 | Author:

Jennie Grant, founder of The Goat Justice League, gives Snowflake a kiss.

My new heroes of making the impossible seem like common sense — truth appear stranger than fiction — with more amusing titles — are the founders of The Goat Justice League.  I am not even going to bother paraphrasing their mission statement:

The Goat Justice League was founded to legalize the keeping of goats within the city of Seattle. Perhaps this sounds outrageous, but outside Seattle’s urban core, most neighborhoods are made up of single family homes on lots of about 4,000 square feet. It is not difficult to set aside a 25×25 foot area within such a yard and devote it to goats. Taking care of goats takes work and lots of research, but it can be extremely rewarding for people who love animals and want to produce food in their own back yard.

And they even have a baby goat named “Joel Salatin.”  Sorry, Joel. Or, maybe “Congratulations?”

The really funny part is that The Goat Justice League means business.  According to a recent, excellent story by Jennifer Bleyer in the Dining Section of the NY Times (“Fresh Goat Milk, dead Wood and Dubious Neighbors,” Feb.22, 2011): Jennie Grant, 46, a gardener from Seattle, established the Goat Justice League (motto: “I’m Pro-Goat and I Vote”) to lobby for the legalization of goats there.

She succeeded in persuading the City Council to change the rules. And since then, 37 goats have been licensed in Seattle. They include Ms. Grant’s own Oberhasli runt and miniature LaMancha, which scamper around a 400-square-foot pen in her yard facing Lake Washington, where they look across the water at Bill Gates’s estate (“I wonder if Bill Gates ever looks at my goats”) and fill her Mason jars with two gallons of high butterfat milk a day during their production peak, much of which she makes into chèvre.

Inspired by Seattle’s victory, a chapter of the Goat Justice League sprung up in Charlottesville, Va., and prevailed in its goat legalization effort in September. Goat fanciers in Minneapolis; Eugene, Ore.; Northampton, Mass.; and Long Beach, Calif., are pursuing similar campaigns, and residents of Detroit, Washington, D.C., and more than a dozen other places have sought Ms. Grant’s counsel on overturning local goat prohibitions.

Novella Carpenter with her goats in her backyard farm in Oakland

But many would-be goatherds never maneuver such mazes because they abandon the idea of keeping goats as soon as they learn what it entails. In Portland, around 200 people have enrolled in a class called Goats in the City through Tierra Soul, an urban self-sufficiency institute. In Berkeley, a one-day workshop called Urban Goats 101 has filled up since BioFuel Oasis, a farm supply store and biodiesel station, began offering it last year. Novella Carpenter, who teaches the class, said it “is about managing expectations and really kind of scaring people.”

Among dairy goats’ needs are access to a livestock veterinarian, a consistent supply of high-nutrient hay and a stud service for breeding — none too easy to come by in a city, said Ms. Carpenter, who has raised goats at her Oakland, Calif., home for three years. (She wrote about her experiences in the book “Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer.”) The animals’ hooves and horns must be trimmed, and Ms. Carpenter recommends a secure pen with walls about five feet high to prevent them from bounding away and “destroying the things you love.”

Most pressing is that they typically need to be milked twice a day, every day.

“I’m not just saying ‘Goats are great, go get some,’ ” Ms. Carpenter said “It’s so much work to have goats. At the end of my class, people say, ‘Oh, my God, I had no idea it was so complicated.’ ”

But some city farmers remain undaunted. Jules Dervaes, an urban homesteader in Pasadena, Calif., lives on a fifth of an acre with his three adult children, eight ducks, eight chickens, three beehives, two cats, composting worms and a tank of tilapia. In 2006, he added two goats to the menagerie, and he quickly came to appreciate their cat-like intelligence, dog-like personalities and general adorableness, despite the management they require.

“I’ve lost a citrus tree, a mango tree, wood off the house, five or six brooms,” said Mr. Dervaes, 63. “We’ve had to protect our investment more than we ever did with chickens or ducks. In a city, where there’s not much forage and your place is compact, man, they can go through the trees and bushes like nothing.”

Making the best of it, he tacked chicken wire around his tree trunks and against the wooden garage where the goats live, to deter their chewing. In the absence of nearby medical services, his daughter Jordanne, 27, stocked up on veterinary books and learned how to do basic care like deworming, which involves examining feces and administering parasite-killing medicine and herbs. For alfalfa hay, Mr. Dervaes drives 25 miles round trip to equestrian stables in Los Angeles.

He also recently created Barnyards and Backyards, a social networking site for urbanites raising livestock to connect with their more knowledgeable rural counterparts for advice. Still, he sometimes wonders if his metropolitan goats might be better suited elsewhere.

“In the end,” Mr. Dervaes said with a note of resignation, “maybe we’ll have to move to the country.”

Goats graze Angels Knoll Monday, Sept. 8, 2008, in downtown Los Angeles. The city Community Redevelopment Agency made use of the non-human work-force to eat weeds, brush and overgrown plants during a two-week stay on the steepest portion

Another Reason to Love Urban Goats: Weed Control

In looking for this recent article, I found another NY Times article from 1999 “Goats in Trial as Urban Weed Killers.” (Kevin Moloney, May 16, 1999):

“A herd of about 100 Cashmere goats that has been munching at the park and other weed-choked areas around the city since April is working for the City of Denver as part of a program to fight invasive weeds that have taken over native plants and wildlife habitats.”

Judy Montero, a spokeswoman for the Denver Parks and Recreation Department. ”We hope the goats will reduce our use of herbicides and pesticides in the long run.”

”It’s the oldest weed-control technique known to mankind,” said Lani Lamming, an owner of Land Whisperer, the Alpine, Wyo., company that is leasing the goats to the city. ”It’s so logical and simple. In my opinion, we’re using life to nurture other forms of life. No natural resources are being wasted.”

Mrs. Lamming, who owns the company with her husband, Fred, said goats preferred the broadleaf weeds to grass, unlike cows and horses, which graze grass first. The herds are managed alternately by the Lammings, their three teen-age sons and professional herders.

The goats, which work in two four-hour shifts daily in a temporarily fenced-in area, can mow down about one acre per day. They can reach areas that machines cannot, and they serve other purposes as they graze: tilling the soil, re-seeding and fertilizing.

Part of the plan for the park is to re-establish native grasses. As the goats are nibbling on the broadleaf weed varieties, a park official said, their hoofs are trampling in seeds of desirable native species distributed by city employees.

The cost of a job varies depending on conditions, but Land Whisperer estimates the average cost is $100 per acre, using 50 to 100 goats.

In the past, the city has relied on mechanical mowing, spraying herbicides and pesticides and pulling weeds by hand. But those methods have hazards: air pollution from mowing and contamination of groundwater from chemical sprays.

What started as an experimental practice in 1999 has now gained widespread acceptance being used in many metropolitan areas around the Country.  If you paired this weed-killing with harvesting goat milk, meat and pelts, then you’d have a pretty amazing system of agriculture arising from “waste”  avoiding the use petroleum-based mowers and noxious pesticides.  Now, that’s a win-win.




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