Urban Farming

We like to make things from scratch. If there is one trend that describes our kitchen, it’s that more and more of what we eat has come from our own hands. This year, we decided that the time has come for our garden to get more of the made-from-scratch treatment.

Inspired by the Heirloom Expo and Baker Creek Seed Bank, we’re sprouting a little garden ”from scratch”: from heirloom seeds. We are lucky enough to live in one of the few Mediterranean climates of the world, where stuff just grows. We have a porch that gets the right environment to have successfully grown cherry tomatoes, peas, green beans, basil, oregano, mint, and even a dwarf Meyer lemon tree, all more or less in spite of our novice gardening skills. It has even resurrected a few watercress orphans, which I planted on a whim after I used their leaves for salads. I would love to grow all of my own fruits and veggies, but we know where that would lead to. Exercising restraint (or some, anyway) we’ve cobbled together an indoor greenhouse to sprout a few varieties of small tomatoes, a red pepper, cinnamon basil, and nasturtiums.

OK, you got me: while not a vegetable, the nasturtiums made it in there because I wanted some climbing flowers and didn’t want to sacrifice edible garden space. Nasturtiums create edible blossoms – with nasturtiums, you can have your flowers and eat them too.

To sprout seeds, you have to start them in an ideal environment: warm, moist, and having lots of light. Most edible seeds start in the spring, when these conditions happen naturally, but we can help them along a bit by cobbling together what Matt calls a “rig”.

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What happens when you mix an engineer and plants.

We started with some scrap wood that we had from various projects and added a few things to bring everything together. Some all-thread rods (metal rods that are threaded their entire length, like long bolts), some washers, and some nuts create the overall structure, and by turning the nuts we can raise and lower the board to whatever height we need. A cheap bathroom light fixture holds the lightbulbs, and a cannibalized extension cord runs through a wall switch to let us flip it on and off whenever we need. Finally, it’s plugged into a timer to give the plants a long day’s worth of light.

We put a mixture of incandescent and fluorescent bulbs in the fixture to give a broad spectrum of light and heat to the plants. Fluorescent bulbs give off a better color, and are more energy efficient, but don’t put off much radiant heat. Incandescents are just the opposite – plenty of heat and light, but not the ideal spectrum and require more energy to run.

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The plans of an evil genius or two.

Why go to all this trouble? Well, for one thing, it’s fun. It brings me joy to see green things growing just outside my window, and observe nature’s eccentricities at work. For another, growing even a tiny amount of your own food is one of the best things you can do for your health independence and the environment. We set up the sprouting rig and checked on the seeds every so often, knowing full well that nothing would happen immediately, but were surprised to find that the basil had started to get its germination on within the day.

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Don't you just want to snuggle with the basil?

Here’s what we’ve got now, 4 weeks later.

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Our plans for world domination are proceeding nicely.

We’ve had some casualties along the way, but we have plenty survivors as well. The nasturtiums are enjoying the move to the outside world and most of the basil is ready to follow. Not all of the tomato seeds we tried to save ourselves made it – this is our first time trying to extract them from  heirloom tomatoes we bought – but some of them did sprout and are taller every day. We’ve also learned how many seeds per seed starter is enough, how many is overcrowding, what’s the right planting depth, – and that sometimes you get a batch of starter pucks that simply won’t grow anything but mold. Now we just have to see if anything survives long enough to produce any vegetables. Fingers crossed.

Greg Westin

Scenes from a Davis urban farm.

Here’s the thing, though. There isn’t always yard space for a garden, a porch with southern sun or a plant-resurrecting climate available. That doesn’t have to stop you from having your own fresh food. It’s not always easy, but almost anyone can have their own garden.

You probably have windows, and several of them with a good dose of sun, so while a watermelon farm is probably not going to happen, herbs and cherry tomatoes have a real shot of doing well for you. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can get in on some of this window farm action from Britta Riley’s TEDx Talk.

No sunny windows? Maybe it’s time to look at different options, like participating in a community garden. www.communitygarden.org is a great place to find some shared garden space. None near you? Why not start your own, or borrow someone else’s yard? Our fellow urban farming friend of Lemon Overload fame has adopted some of our bumper crop of fledgling plants for her garden, which is good news for us if how her lemon tree is doing is anything to go on.

No yard, no porch, no windows, no friends? Are you writing a blues song? Ok, perhaps it is time to consider guerrilla gardening. I really wish this was my idea, but it’s not. It’s a very interesting proposition… the city gets free beautification (which is often done by volunteers anyway… we’ll overlook that no one asked you to volunteer…), and you and any fellow anarchists get cheap, delicious, vandalizing food. Win-win, I say.

There is one more option for the good-natured and free-spirited but lazy rebels among us… SEED BOMBING. All of the fun of planting, and none of the weeding and watering! Even better, you can do double duty with seeds and style: I’ve seen seeds worn as jewelry that can be distributed into the earth as you see fit as you wander about your neighborhood… or someone else’s! You could be the next Johnny Cucumberseed and make a fashion statement at the same time.

It’s worth it to try to do anything from scratch, including gardening. Give it a shot. Just keep in mind that whenever someone says, “Oh, I just whipped this up from scratch…” they are also saying “…but I threw away a half dozen that I ruined”. About a quarter of our planted seeds didn’t do anything at all, and we’re not exactly sure why. They got the same light, the same watering, had some of the same seeds from the same packages, but we had no luck with them. However, the good thing is that most ingredients for things made from scratch are dirt cheap – like, in this case, dirt – so we didn’t really suffer by making the attempt. What have you got to lose?

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Square footage on your porch. This hobby is addictive.

Want to learn more? Check out these additional sources:

Why Bother? by Michael Pollan

My Subversive (Garden) Plot – Roger Doiron’s TEDx Talk

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