Urban Farms, Everything but the Moo

garden-balcony2The concept of supermarkets, where one could go almost any time of day and purchase almost every kind of fruit or vegetable on the planet, regardless of its growing season, is a result of mass production and global marketing.

Prior to this mass produce offering, buying an orange at Christmas, for example, was difficult. If one could find an orange, it would be priced almost beyond reach of the average working man or woman.

All that has changed in a mere 64 years or so. Unfortunately, so has food safety. When I was very young, few people had even heard of E. coli; fewer still had experienced it. Nowadays, not a month goes by in the summer when one doesn’t read or hear about another produce or packaged (or canned) food recall.

Much of that danger can be avoided by growing one’s own vegetables. It’s a given, of course, that most city dwellers won’t have much more space than a balcony or a sunny patio door for growing salad fixings like tomatoes, green onions, radishes, and lettuce varieties like Romaine or other leaf lettuces.

Still, it’s amazing what one can grow in small spaces, particularly apartment-complex city gardeners who rely on container gardening and a wonderfully sunny southern exposure. In addition, nurseries have begun to offer all kinds of unique growing solutions for these mini-space gardeners, ranging from upside down tomato plant pots to tower gardens which can easily accommodate 50 plants or more in a space only four feet square. The only thing you probably can’t do is bring in a cow, even if it’s a miniature!

A decade ago, a tower garden was a rising pyramid of 1 x 6’s which could be planted on all sides all the way up to a top layer about a foot square. Many tower gardens were used to grow strawberries. Today, that tower has morphed from a wood frame to a vertical aeroponic structure in which plants grow faster than if they were grown in soil.

Some city gardeners even grow potatoes in containers, but this seems to me rather unnecessary, not to mention redundant. To my knowledge there has never been a contaminated potato recall, and the cost from a supermarket – as compared to the cost to a city gardener to grow same – is eminently reasonable. Not to mention that potatoes require a lot of space to mature (though if one intends to harvest new potatoes only, the space requirement isn’t that bad).

garden-balcony2Once you determine where your mini-garden should grow, check with your landlord to see if you are within your lease rights to install one. For example, if you live on the third floor and your watering rains down on the decks below you, you may be told you can’t.

Also consider how much weight the soil (or water, in the case of aquaponics) will put on your balcony’s structure. You don’t want to be dripping on your downstairs neighbor’s deck, and you certainly don’t want to be falling on it. Ouch!

Once you’ve worked out the logistics, get a gardening guide and determine how to plant your garden. Evaluating the length of each veggie’s growing season, and adding in its height when mature will provide a rough map that puts taller plants at the top (so they don’t block sunlight to shorter plants), and long-season vegetables like tomatoes in their own containers with an eye to bringing them inside in the fall.

Once you get the hang of small-space gardening, and have a full season in which to savor the freshness and taste of your home-grown produce, consider starting seeds indoors, in peat pots. This will give you a jump on spring – though with global warming and spring coming to my area a full two weeks earlier than it once did, it may no longer be necessary to get a jump on anything! But do take some plants indoors in the fall, because it’s still going to be a long, cold winter.

Not only is starting seeds indoors a way to get a head start on summer, but it enables you to try growing some heirloom vegetables from seed. The upside of that is not merely old-time veggies and all their inherent goodness, but the fact that you can buy upwards of 20 seeds for the same cost as a single plant!

Starting plants indoors, in the less-than-optimum conditions of a normal apartment (too much dry heat, less light and even volatile organic compounds, or VOCs from paints, carpeting, new upholstered furniture, the overuse of air fresheners, and even cooking), makes for hardier plants.

When you have the classic vegetables down pat, branch out; dare to be different. Grow your own eggplant and make vegetarian eggplant parmigan – you may never go back to regular lasagna again. Or grow beets, pick them small, and pickle them. The flavors and textures will astonish you!

Best of all, you can be sure your produce is organic, doesn’t contain unwanted bacteria, and contains all the vitamins and minerals that Nature intended. This is because your soil isn’t worn-out like that of mega-farm operators, who grow tons of produce without rotating crops and whose indiscriminate use of pesticides, weed killers and synthetic fertilizers delivers a toxic cocktail no human should be expected to ingest.

Lastly, if your landlord won’t give in to letting you put in a four-square-foot garden, spend some of your weekend shopping at farmer’s markets, which offer some of the freshest organic produce you can imagine. And if the tomatoes are less than perfect in shape or size, remember; uniformity is a byproduct of this mechanistic era of farming, and has nothing to do with a vegetable’s nutrition.

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