Saturday, February 16, 2008

Urban Ag: A Variety of Techniques

It is garden planning season, and my plan is to double the 200 s.f. first year garden from last year, and build up some raised beds as well. I wonder, how large does a backyard garden have to get to qualify as a farm? Perhaps I should be more careful to plant what I can safely consume and/or give away, rather than the overwhelming abundance of last year. All these issues and more, you will find, in this journey on Urban Agriculture below.

To guide on this quest, a couple of books that are perennial favs in the gardening sphere, particular to the Pacific Northwest. The first is my bible for local garden knowledge, 'Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades' by Steve Solomon, in a new edition. This book is worth it just for the chapters on compost and soil amendments - plus it's the book that showed me the value of sharpening tools. Second is from Oregon's own Toby Hemenway, author of 'Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture'. This book is a nice companion, rounding out some basic gardening techniques with more sustainable options.

:: images via Powells

The goal is to grow lots, but also to grow smarter as well, and have fun doing it. For starters, Pruned recently recapped an exhaustive list of Agro Posts, encompassing everything from laser etched bologna to high-rise farming. Read them all. Learn lots.

A recent post focussed on 'The Subterranean Farms of Tokyo', which profiled PasonaO2, an underground agricultural system that looked a lot like a well-funded indoor pot grow operation.

:: images via Pruned

But alas, our tiny basement is already brimming with stuff, and I'd hate to max the electric bill, so we must head outdoors. A comment to a L+U high-rise agriculture post pointed me to a great site entitled SPIN Farming, which elaborates a technique for urban agriculture and is short for Small Plot INtensive Farming. Using small spaces, urban farmers grow niche crops that demand a higher value on the market.

The lack of tangible information, and the sheer common sense of it as shown on the site lends me to think it's perhaps some sort of scheme, but in theory, the idea sounds solid, if maybe a little too good to be true. From the Tyee: " means renting the back forty from residential homeowners, ploughing their lawns under and then turning tens of thousands of dollars in profits selling the high-end produce cultivated by hand." I guess anyone with a garden and a buyer can do this? And to think I've been giving away my surplus produce all these years.

:: images via Spin Farming

A second resource, from Michael Cannell's Blog on Dwell, is similar to SPIN, involving losing the lawn and gaining the garden. Architect Fritz Haeg, who authored a book entitled 'Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn', encourages engaging not just the land, but people's perceptions with this endeavor: Haeg, from the book: “Edible Estate gardens are meant to serve as provocations on the street... What happens when we share the a street with one of these gardens? The front-yard gardeners become street performers for us.”

:: image via Dwell

This is similar to recapturing of quasi-public spaces during wartime in the form of Victory Gardens. Many people in Portland I know have planted trees and other things in their front median strip, only to find rich and fertile soils which we suspect grew some tasty WWII vegetables sixty plus years ago in our quest to rid the world of despotism. More than the idea of gardens - the visibility of these strips in the eyes and consciousness of people was the point.

:: image via Wikipedia Commons

A related topic and much, much more, is found in 'Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime' by University of Oregon's Kenneth Helphand. (FYI, I have not read this book, so can't give the full endorsement yet). This image, taken from a recent story by Ketzel Levine on Morning Edition shows a WWI-era garden in Belgium, the heart of European Theater.

:: image via NPR

Finally, the ultimate in urban agriculture, Guerilla Gardening. A recent post on Inhabitat features some insight into the subversive strategy for greening the neighborhood. The goal, quoted from Inhabitat, is to find: "...innovative ways to come together for the optimization of neglected land and paved surface area. It’s a turf war for some, or a poetic gesture for others, but either way, citizens are rolling up there sleeves to create gardens in the most unlikely spaces and places." Either through planting or 'seed bombs', urban greening as an act of rebellion.

:: image via Inhabitat

Better yet, take it to the source of your frustration, as this group from Friends of the Earth did, via Treehugger. Learn how-to at the website for Stop Stealing Our Forests:

:: image via Treehugger
Another subtle variation on the theme: temporary PARK(ing) by Rebar, which is a fun and subversive way to make a statement about lack of green space and too much paving. You don't even have to do it on September 21st. Hell, do it every day, make it permanent, maybe plant some vegetables. Those tomatos would love the reflected sun and heat, and you'd be amazed at the impact these little spaces can have.

:: image via Rebar
In closing, I seem to have taken a tangent on my original gardening post... and I still am no closer to figuring out what to plant. But that's half the fun. It is not a regimen. It is not a static and inflexible activity. It's growing, for necessity, fun, political activism, or to save the world. It also happens in backyards, on rooftops, underground, inside buildings, - wherever you may happen to be.
It doesn't matter - just plant something, nurture it, enjoy it.


  1. This is a really helpful posting, thank you.

    This might interest you: a project in the U.K. that experimented with urban ag across an entire town:

    The most provocative part I think is the final 'edible map' designed by Andre Viljoen and Katrin Bohn, advocates of Continuous Productive Landscapes (or CPULs). See:

    What if urban ag could be threaded through an entire town or city?

    Would it take a food embargo for our cities to assume such a vision?

    Or is food inflation, the move towards localized food production and sustainable cities leading us towards realizing this vision in any case?

  2. interesting post. I should have read it before I posted this

    Do you now anything about Urban Ag in Los Angeles? I'm thinking of doing a project there in that realm.

    I'm following your blog for a few weeks now, I'll do so in future. Great stuff



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