New Opportunities for Urban Gardeners


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Interest in urban agriculture is growing locally as well as nationally — a trend that is truly a cause for celebration. In fact, I've been encouraging everyone to plant a Victory Garden as a step toward fixing our broken food system. During the previous Victory Garden period Americans produced over 40% of the vegetables in the United States in their yards.

Growing your own garden or participating in a community garden is a great way to improve your health, help build a sustainable food system, and support our planet as it struggles to make room for increasing numbers of us. Food grown in your own garden is fresher, more nutritious, and tastes better than store-bought food — and you can’t beat the price!

Urban gardens are key to saving energy, protecting water quality and topsoil, and promoting biodiversity and beautifying densely populated communities. Plants are our richest source of natural medicine.

For all of those reasons and many more, urban agriculture is growing so quickly that changes in local ordinances are often not able to keep up. Zoning laws are outdated and out of step with today’s world, causing a flurry of legal conflicts, as well as a good deal of confusion about what people can and cannot do on their own land.

Every city has different laws and ordinances, and there are no standards spanning jurisdictional lines. Get involved in growing your own food, but remember the important preliminary step of first finding out what your zoning laws allow. There are often restrictions governing the raising of goats, chickens, bees, and even where you can plant a simple vegetable garden. Failing to follow these ordinances can result in some very unpleasant legal snafus.

A few U.S. cities are showing innovative examples of how laws can be updated to meet 21st century needs. Making the shift from an unsustainable, health and Earth-destroying monoculture to locally produced real food requires thinking outside the box — and a few brilliant thinkers are giving the rest of us a lot to think about! Some notable urban farmers are changing the world one backyard at a time by challenging city halls across the country to rewrite old laws so that they can bring fresh, homegrown eggs and organic veggies to their fellow urbanites.

LA’s “Gangster Gardener”

Gangster Gardener” Ron Finley is turning Los Angeles on its nose with his no-nonsense approach to healthy eating. The city of LA issued a warrant for his arrest for the unthinkable crime of growing tomatoes and kale on a small plot of unused land, about 10 feet wide by 150 feet long — basically, a strip of dead grass.

With the help of his local councilman, Finley beat the city of LA and is using his experience as an opportunity to educate his community about how to turn “food deserts” into “food forests.” Finley says, “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.” Just about everyone can relate to that! (Watch the TED video “Ron Finley: A guerilla gardener in South Central LA.)1

But what if your home doesn’t have space for a garden? If you don’t have a plot of land available, what about a rooftop?

Feed Your Entire Family with Fish on Your Roof

In order to think outside the box, urban gardener Roman Gaus has had to think inside the box — an aquaponics box, that is. Gaus combines aquaculture with hydroponics to create a closed soil-free system to grow vegetables in a way that is extremely efficient. Aquaponics requires 90 percent less water than traditional soil-based agriculture. The vegetables grow in circulated water and are nourished by the waste products of the fish that live in that water, in a closed system that allows both to flourish.

Yes, the plants feed on fish poop! This system is completely contained in a box. The UF Box system is designed for small-scale production and can be placed on a roof, in a backyard, in a parking lot, at a neighborhood co-op or a school, and is mobile and transportable. Gaus claims his UF Box can completely feed a family of three, both in terms of veggies and fish. He also offers much larger rooftop systems that can sit atop any flat-roofed building and feed hundreds of people in a community. Think of the potential for a large, flat-roofed big box store!

Your food has the greatest impact on your ecological footprint — more than housing, energy or transportation, and this is one way to drastically reduce your carbon footprint. But even if you aren’t ready for an aquaponics system, lack of space is not a deal breaker when it comes to growing your own food.

How to Grow Great Food in Small Spaces

Regardless of space, you can produce your own food. Take sprouts, for example. Sprouts are a nutritional powerhouse, containing up to 30 times the nutrients of organic vegetables from your own garden. Sprouts also allow your body to extract more of the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and essential fats from the other foods you eat. Growing your own sprouts is quite practical and takes less space and time than a full sized garden.  

Rather than growing them in Ball jars, try growing them in potting soil. It only takes about a week before you can harvest, and in a 10x10 tray you can harvest between one and two pounds of sunflower sprouts. That will last you about three days and you can store them in the fridge for about a week. I have been doing this for the past year and have used the sprouts to replace my salad greens. The sunflower spouts give you the most volume for your work and, in my palate, have the best taste.

Nevertheless, there are many different ways to grow your own food, even if you live in an apartment. If you have a yard, you are truly blessed! But if not, Alex Mitchell’s book The Edible Balcony is an excellent resource for how to grow produce in small spaces. You can use virtually every square foot of your space, including vertical space, for growing food. Hanging baskets are ideal for a wide variety of foods, such as strawberries, leafy greens, runner beans, pea shoots, tomatoes, and a variety of herbs. And instead of flowers, window boxes can hold herbs, greens, radishes, scallions, bush beans, strawberries, chard, and chilies, to name just a few.

While you will obviously need to use pots if you don’t have a garden plot, avoid using lots of small pots because they dry out too quickly. Instead, opt for large, yet lightweight, containers or even the newer cloth pots. You may also want to consider self-watering containers, which can save you time. You could even make your own; Mitchell shows you how in her book. And don’t forget to compost; even apartment dwellers can compost successfully.

Lawns Are Ecologically Hostile to the Planet

Many people are digging up their lawns and turning that valuable ground into a garden. Lawns are not good for the environment, for numerous reasons:

  • Lawns are basically grass monocultures, which is why they are so expensive and labor-intensive to maintain.
  • Lawns require massive amounts of water, heavy fertilizers, herbicides, and other chemicals that give off nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas), as well as producing chemical runoff that pollutes our waterways — and lawns give nothing back for all of this labor and cost.
  • Most people maintain their lawns with fossil-fuel-guzzling lawnmowers, edgers, and weed whackers.
  • Grass emits more carbon dioxide than it sequesters. One study2 found that lawn-related maintenance releases four times as much carbon dioxide as the grass itself, concluding that grass lawns are polluting the environment. Another study concluded that lawns are even worse for the planet than cornfields, in terms of carbon dioxide production.3
  • Lawns are like concrete to most wildlife species and offer little benefit to animals. If you don’t want your entire lawn to be a garden, use some of it to create a wildlife habitat.

The War on Urban Gardeners

Across the US and Canada, a war has been raged against urban homeowners who want to plant gardens on their own property. Legal codes that outlaw planting vegetables on a large percentage of your yard, or restrict them to only certain areas like the backyard, out of view of the public, truly defy common sense — especially considering the negative impact lawns have on the environment.

With resources being increasingly stretched, we need a clear, comprehensive policy on urban agriculture that crosses jurisdictional and geographic boundaries. It’s time for agricultural entrepreneurs, activists, policy makers, and ordinary homeowners to band together and propose some well-defined, fully articulated policies and codes, with incentives that make it attractive for people to grow their own food. Even some of the cities that espouse the virtues of healthy living, buying local, and spending time outdoors fail to update their zoning codes, which prohibit urban agriculture and encourage the proliferation of fast food drive-thrus.

The more involved you can be with your local urban planning and development agencies, the faster our outdated zoning laws will be changed. If you want to see a beautiful example of this, take a look at a report called “Cultivate L.A.,”4 prepared as a Masters thesis project by a few UCLA students. The report takes an intensive look at how to best support the growth of urban agriculture in Los Angeles, including a comprehensive needs assessment of the city. Imagine if students were to do one of these for every American city!

Kudos to Those Turning Concrete Jungles into Havens of Green

Some cities are already building sustainable landscapes and should be praised for their innovation in turning vacant lots into vegetable plots. The following are just a few examples that may inspire you to suggest a similar urban gardening project to your own city planners:

  • A new law in California, signed by Governor Jerry Brown, promotes community gardens and small farms by allowing municipalities to lower property taxes for homeowners who commit to dedicating their land to growing food for a minimum of five years. There are five innovative urban gardening programs in LA alone, and others in San Francisco.
  • Seattle has loosened its rules for backyard goats, domestic fowl, farm animals, and even bees. Seattle also basically wrote the book on community gardening, now boasting 82 neighborhood pea patches, 24 of which are new or expanded. Seattle’s community gardens give about 10 tons of food to local food banks and hot meal programs every year.
  • Detroit has revised its rules governing compost and greenhouses and has new urban agriculture ordinances. Detroit and Cleveland are offering abandoned lots at almost zero cost to those who commit to growing food on them. In 2010, New York City lifted the ban against urban beekeeping.
  • Santa Fe, New Mexico, is drafting amendments to city code for urban agriculture that will permit zoning for urban food production, farm stands, and even large-scale community gardens.
  • Chicago O’Hare Airport is using goats and llamas to clear airfield brush instead of lawnmowers. And in Seattle, 120 goats from Rent-A-Ruminant are hard at work clearing a hillside below the Alaska Way Viaduct, as well as providing an entertaining diversion for local businessmen.

Resources for the Urban Gardener

Growing numbers of people are becoming excited about local food, healthier eating, and greener cities, sparking renewed interest in the development of urban agriculture around the country. But many don’t know anything about their local ordinances or where to go for help before enthusiastically plunging their shovels into the ground — only to be surprised later with a citation for breaking the law.

These ordinances are constantly changing, so you really need to do your due diligence in planning your urban garden. Below are a few organizations and resources that may assist you on your quest. Whether it’s organic veggies, a berry patch, or a chicken tractor you want to build, make sure you are proceeding within the legal guidelines before you start in order to avoid major headaches down the road.

American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) — Devoted to community gardening and greening up communities across the nation. The organization has local chapters across the country. www.communitygarden.org

Sustainable Cities Institute — Research and innovation about how to make cities more sustainable, including planning and zoning for urban agriculture. www.sustainablecitiesinstitute.org

Foods Not Lawns — A sustainability movement focused on getting rid of lawns in favor of more ecofriendly alternatives; also has chapters in nearly every state across the country. www.foodsnotlawns.com

Lots 2 Green — Provides technical assistance to communities in order to facilitate their using vacant lots and other urban properties for community gardens and farms. http://codegreen-usa.org/Lots2Green.htm

Dr. Joseph Mercola is an osteopathic physician, board certified in family medicine, and a multiple New York Times bestselling author. A sought-after natural healthcare expert for all major news networks, health shows and national magazines, www.Mercola.com is the #1 natural health website in the world.

References
1 Ron Finley TED Talk: A guerilla gardener in South Central LA
2 “Is Your Lawn Bad for the Environment?” EarthyReport.com, January 26, 2010.
3 “Are Lawns Worse Than Cornfields?” E-magazine, April 30, 2013
4 “Cultivate LA: An Assessment of Urban Agriculture in Los Angeles County,” June, 2013.

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