Time to Plan Your Urban Garden

Grow your own in the middle of the city.

By Brendan Skwire
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 7 | Posted Jan. 17, 2010

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I'm going to take a break from politics to talk about one of my favorite annual events. No, it's not the Martin Luther King Day of Service -- although that comes close: I hope that you'll volunteer your time today. It's the annual event my girlfriend and I call "Time to Order the Seeds!"

You've probably read about the resurgence of urban agriculture on a large scale here in Philly Weekly a few times, but I'd like to talk about it from the point of view of a backyard gardener. I'm here to tell you that growing your own food is one of the best things you can do for yourself: aside from contributing to the greening of the city and learning a skill that stays with you forever, you can save yourself a decent chunk of money, and best of all, you engage in active direct resistance to the genetically modified Frankenfoods industry.

When I bought my house in scenic southwest Philly six years ago, I had no particular plans for the backyard (which is pretty spacious by city standards) other than a place to have parties and hang out. But in 2006 -- when my girlfriend moved in -- all that changed. The yard faces south, and because the neighboring houses aren't high enough to block out morning and afternoon sun, she saw the potential for excellent growing conditions.

Summer 2007 was pretty messy since we had no idea what we were doing. We planted our seeds directly into the clay. I didn't know then that the wild chives growing all over what passed for my lawn indicated poor growing soil and we got a pretty crappy crop of spindly tomatoes, some eggplants, and a few peppers. By 2008 we were educated with a lot of help from WHYY's best show, You Bet Your Garden), and built raised beds filled with compost we'd obtained free from the Fairmount Park Recycling Center. To minimize those trips, we started our own compost pile in the far corner of the yard.

That year, we did a lot better: we harvested enough organically grown tomatoes that my girlfriend, who'd inherited a pressure cooker from her grandmother, began can them. Then she bought a food dehydrator to approximate homemade sun-dried tomatoes. That was enough to take us through the winter: we didn't buy a single can until the following March.

2009 was a banner year: again, we got enough tomatoes to take us through spring, as well as turnip greens that we canned and froze. That says nothing about the beans, broccoli, beets, spaghetti squash, and okra. I'm a home brewer: when the hops crisis hit, driving up the cost of beer, I was prepared: I've had a lovely crop of Cascades (the signature hop in Sierra Nevada Pale Ale) and Nugget (Troeg's Nugget Nectar) going since 2007. They really took off this past summer:

So what's the political angle here?

For starters, I may have my issues with Mayor Nutter, but when it comes to making Philadelphia the greenest city in America, you get no argument from me. Backyard gardening goes a long way toward that goal. Thanks to lead in paint, gas, and factory emissions urban backyards can contain an awful lot of this toxic element. But when you replenish that soil regularly with organic compost, you clean up a lot of that poison, sometimes within three years! Plus, composting keeps food scraps and lawn waste out of landfills, where they serve no purpose, and back into the earth where they sequester carbon.

When you plant flowering crops, especially herbs, you attract bees and other beneficial insects. We've all heard about colony collapse disorder: bees need all the help they can get. And then there's the helpful way plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, as well as preventing soil erosion. In short, when you garden, you make Philadelphia a greener, cleaner place to live.

You also reduce your dependence on oil, especially if you don't use chemical fertilizers. A good layer of compost is often the best fertilizer around, and it repels weeds too. And while Philadelphia is luckier than most cities in that it's got a direct link to the surrounding farms, which allows us to choose local produce over corporate farming, the trucks that ship meat and produce in from Lancaster still use a lot of diesel. Not as much as it costs to ship garlic from China, the world's largest producer, but the impact is there.

Speaking of Chinese garlic, after hearing all about that country's lax standards ("Would you like your salad with lead, melamine, or cadmium?"), who knows what that garlic's been fertilized with? My answer: who cares, when it's so easy to grow your own? We planted in October, and expect to harvest a dozen or so bulbs in June.

Then you have the economics of the whole enterprise: bag of mesclun greens at the store? About $5. Who knows where it was grown? Two packets of seeds that will grow 20 times as much? About the same. And although I mentioned how canning our tomatoes got us through the winter, I didn't put a dollar value on it: currently, a 28-ounce can sells for a $1.79 at my local grocer. So the savings can be substantial.

And finally, if you're concerned about genetically modified foods with questionable reputations making more and more inroads into the grocery, without any labeling so we can make an informed choice, and with organic produce frequently priced out of reach of many Philadelphia families, it makes political, as well as financial, sense to grow your own, provided you choose certified organic seeds.

Frankly, if I had my way, every single vacant lot in the city would be transformed into a community garden, providing food for families, adding some color and beauty to blighted blocks, and giving people all over Philly a sense of pride and ownership in their neighborhoods. We live in a highly dependent culture: urban gardening, especially for food, teaches kids and families a skill that can help when times are tight (or when the apocalypse finally hits). It's easy, inexpensive, and even people with very little space can do it.

To get a jump on the season, order your seeds now so you can plant by early spring. Our household prefers Seed Savers for their organic and heirloom varieties, but if you want to support a Pennsylvania company, make like my friend Lutton and hit Burpee, which also handles a number of organics.

Strike a blow for the common people! Grow a beet!

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Comments 1 - 7 of 7
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1. Krunch said... on Jan 18, 2010 at 12:11PM

“I feel you brother I really do, and I love tomatoes. The garden you describe though, sounds like a lot of work and world likely cut into my drinking time. I can't have that.”

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2. brendancalling said... on Jan 19, 2010 at 08:35AM

“@krunch: " sounds like a lot of work and world likely cut into my drinking time"

nah, do like I do: bring a cooler of beer out in the garden.”

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3. Amy said... on Jan 19, 2010 at 12:58PM

“I agree - our first urban garden planted in 2009 is one of the best things we have done. Combined with our water barrel (courtesy of the Water Dept.), I feel like I am doing my part to make my neighborhood better. If you have kids, it's really educational, fun and can be a good way to encourage them to vary their diets. There are just so many benefits!”

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4. brendancalling said... on Jan 19, 2010 at 01:10PM

“Lutton, who i cited in the last paragraph, had some questions about manure that i addressed at the main blog:
(although i forgot to mention the herbs part, but Lutton's right on target anyway).”

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5. Anonymous said... on Jan 19, 2010 at 04:58PM

“What a great topic and timing for a break from politics. Now I'm ready to break out the seed catalogs too. :)”

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6. Katrina said... on Jan 19, 2010 at 09:53PM

“Brendan and others, check out Preston Paradise's new initiative: backyard farming... You provide the space and Preston's Paradise provides the work. You get half of what your yard plot produces!
Spread the word!”

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7. Anonymous said... on Jan 20, 2010 at 07:01PM

“of all the crap things you can NOTdo with your sloth-like offspring these days (hello video games and social networking). AND the fact that kids don't want to eat their veggies....this solves so many problems. get out in the yard, bond, and reap/eat the rewards!”


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