How My Garden Goes – Part 3

Posted: May 18th, 2011 | Author:
Dwarf Sugar Peas

Dwarf Sugar Peas

When I last posted, I’d just finished making my sub-irrigated planters and filling them with potting mix. By now, these planters are home to thriving little plants, some of them ready to be harvested pretty soon! How did all the pieces come together?

I started back in March with the Making Brooklyn Bloom event at Brooklyn Botanical Garden, which gave me a much-needed kick in the butt to get my garden going. The event was full of people who took gardening seriously — professionally or recreationally,privately or in community gardens — and had been doing so for some time.  The average age was well above 40, which was striking to me, coming from my urban farming circles which are often dominated by hip 20-somethings.

At the Botanical Garden, most attendees had a lifelong connection to gardening and to their Brooklyn neighborhoods.  All seemed passionate about the goal of the conference: to beautify Brooklyn through plants. It got me thinking about the continuities and discontinuities between the current urban farming movement with older and/or parallel movements and how many of these movements aren’t movements at all, but just interests or hobbies. It reminded me that, while there can be some radical aspects of urban farming, it’s in many ways a reinventing or a popularizing of the wheel (except for the ancient agrarian cultures that lacked the wheel, like the Aztecs).

The event gave me the spiritual nudge to make my garden happen. I was sitting in a few of the talks scribbling notes and drawing diagrams for my garden, inspired by speakers talking about what they’d accomplished. I also got a goody bag with some seeds and some fish emulsion.

In the gift shop, I found what would become my main guide for creating my garden: Edward C. Smith’s Incredible Vegetables from Self-Watering Containers (Google Books has a 20+ page preview!). I totally judged this book by its cover, determining that gardener Ed of the straw bucket hat and Joel Salatin’s glasses was someone I could trust with my veggies. Only an expert can speak to the accuracy and efficacy of the facts and advice in Smith’s book.  Yet, I found it very useful as a reference, offering a single voice among the cacophony of gardening websites and forums.

One weakness of the book, however, is its instructions for actually making the self-watering planter. One of the ingredients in Smith’s — a “ready-made insert” — seemed to defeat the whole purpose of making the planter yourself. So instead, I turned to the electronic cacophony, and based my design mainly on one on the site of the cutely named but apparently defunct Plant Parenthood. For each of my 7 planters, I used 2 (unfortunately Home Depot-branded — who knew the chain had a mascot named Homer?) 5-gallon buckets, about 1.5 feet of tubing, and one quart-sized plastic container. Making the planter buckets involved a whole lot of drilling, as well as inappropriately using the drill as a jigsaw.

For my potting mix, I used some store-bought sphagnum peat and perlite, mixed with a nice amount of compost from the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which I’d actually won in a raffle at a Bushwick Food Co-op movie screening.

Finally, it was time for seeds. I decided to go heirloom, to support the preservation of these traditional varieties that help maintain the genetic diversity, and therefore disease resistance of our food supply. Many gardeners/farmers I’ve met has talked glowingly of seed catalogs, which have a wealth of information and advice for planting, as well as pretty pictures. I had no time to wait for a paper catalog to come in the mail, so I shopped digitally, at Seed Savers Exchange, a member-based non-profit which sells seeds and also runs a heritage farm in Iowa.

As I mentioned in my last post, I had some pretty specific limitations on what I could grow. I wound up settling on Philadelphia White Box radishes, Tom Thumb peas, Dwarf Gray sugar peas, Bloomsdale spinach, Crisp Mint lettuce, forellenschluss (“speckled trout”) Lettuce, and tat soi. These were all things I could plant in early April, before the last frost, and which I should be able to harvest before I leave in early June. I plan to post once more before I head to California, hopefully with some pics of actual veggies!

Filed under: Urban Agriculture | No Comments »

How My Garden Goes – Part 2

Posted: April 5th, 2011 | Author:
My first sub-irrigated planters

My first sub-irrigated planters

I have a confession. I’ve been planning my garden in Bushwick and writing about it as if it were the only thing on my mind for this summer. But all the while I’ve had my true hopes set elsewhere, far away from here, in the magical quality-of-life land, Northern California.

Throughout February, I suffered through the irrational anxiety that came along with a 3-page fellowship application and 3 requests for references from old mentors, and in mid-March, I found out I’d been accepted to the Urban Adamah program in Berkeley. (“Adamah” is Hebrew for “earth” — like Adam, created from the Earth.) It’s a three-month live/work/learn fellowship in urban agriculture and food justice, based on traditional Jewish values like the sanctity of food and responsibility for the  community and the natural environment. I’ll be working on a newly established farm on a small lot in West Berkeley, interning at a local non-profit to bring healthy food to underserved neighborhoods, and learning about the theory and practice of sustainability in relation to Jewish teachings.

Ever since I discovered the urban farming movement about a year and a half ago, I’ve been reading the blogs, attending the lectures, and meeting the people who make it all happen. But it was always as an outsider, an interested layman, rather than someone actively involved in growing food. And I felt unfulfilled. I felt a yearning to actually get my hands dirty, not just for a few carefree hours on a Saturday, but as a real participant in this movement. I felt there was lingo being slung around my head that I couldn’t truly grasp, and ideas that I’d read about but which wouldn’t quite stick because — what’s really involved in turning compost, anyway?

That’s where my decision to start a garden came from. Not just as a hobby, and not just as a challenge, but as an experiential education. How could I be advocating for food production in cities, and agricultural education in city schools, if I’d never done it myself? (I may be overselling my novicehood a bit. I did actually spend 4 months on a farm a few years, ago, Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in Israel — a short amount of time, but way more than nothing.)

I wanted to keep doing the lectures and the volunteering, but to also see if I could grow some food in my own limited space and then encourage others, through my actions, to do the same.

At the same time, however, I was working hard on my Urban Adamah application. Because here was a chance to immerse myself not only in the act of urban farming, but in all the auxiliary activities that make it something worth doing. At its core, urban farming is about reconnecting people to the sources of their food by bringing one of those sources right into their own neighborhood: so while the produce from an urban farm is important, it’s the experience of the farm that has the most impact. Urban Adamah places a huge emphasis on education: not only will the fellows be learning learn how to grow food, they will be working with community partners like City Slicker Farms and Cooking Matters to spread the good food gospel (and some good food!) to others.

With my mind, and soon my body, on the West Coast, I’ve had to scale back my ambitions a little, but I’ll be growing some stuff here in Brooklyn in the weeks I have left. I’m going to do everything as simply and as quickly as possible, which led me to three constraints:

  1. Early plantings – I needed to choose crops that would start growing before the last frost, so I could get start planting as soon as possible.
  2. Fast growing – From the time I accepted the fellowship on March 23, I had about 70 days to choose and buy seeds, build my sub-irrigated planters, sow the seeds, care for the plants, and finally, harvest. So I aimed for things I could harvest in 60 days or less.
  3. Direct-sowable –  In my truncated garden project, I had neither the time nor the energy to line all possible window sills with little seedlings. I needed things I could sow directly into the ground container.

More on my crop selections and my planting progress in the next post — teaser pic below!

 

 

Filed under: Urban Agriculture | 5 Comments »

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 »
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