Call! Me Maybe

18 02 2014

Well, it looks like it’s that time again – it’s been almost a year since my last post, and the prodigal son returns, asking his readers to forgive him for his lengthy hiatus. But what a Summer and Fall it’s been. It was another successful year in the garden, and my family is still enjoying the frozen, dried, and canned produce from a time, long ago, when the birds sang and the ground wasn’t perpetually covered by a foot and a half of snow. What was that called? – oh yeah, Summer. I’m now a senior at Boston University, working toward the completion of my alternative-energy-themed Senior Design Project and, on a grander scale, toward my college graduation in May. I can’t believe I’m almost finished with my Undergraduate education. But it’s been a great four years, I’ve met some really great people, and learned enough to get me started on that grandiose goal of changing the world – well, right after Grad School that is.

I have some other interesting news. For those of you who don’t know, I have been writing for two local newspapers – The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times – for the past few months. Back in the Fall, these newspapers, which are printed by the same publisher, each added a new section, called “Shades of Green”, to the paper on the first Friday of each month. This page focuses issues of an environmental nature – be it recycling, local businesses, climate change, or agriculture. That last one is where I come in. I spoke with the Executive Editor of The Call, and she offered for me to contribute a column entitled “The Urban Farmer” to this section. I was thrilled, and have spent the past few months researching and writing about a list of topics that I think my fellow urban farmers will find intriguing or useful. Recently, I have gotten permission to post my monthly articles here in my blog. So with that said, I think I’ll be making up for my absence with 6 or 7 new posts tonight. Enjoy.

(October 4, 2013)

The Urban Farmer

Backyard Bounty

It seems fitting that I should write this first column about what is, for most urban farmers, the pièce de résistance of their whole operation – the vegetable garden. But before I do that, I should probably answer the question: what exactly is an urban farmer? Well, as I see it, an urban farm is a little piece of land in the city that is being used for production – of food, or energy, or pretty much anything involving the soil, water, air, and sun. Therefore, in our area, an urban farmer is the one who is willing to brave the fickle friend that is New England weather, the bands of marauding birds and woodchucks, and the occasional less-than-accommodating city regulation, all for the satisfaction of knowing that it was his own hands, and land, and human ingenuity that put that tomato into his salad, that egg into his omelet, and that honey into his tea.

The first question to ask is: can I grow a garden? The answer to this is twofold. First, many want to know if the laws in their city or state allow them to rip up their lawn and plant tomatoes and beets. In that case, I have good news for my fellow Rhode Islanders. Rhode Island General Law 45-24-37(g) states that “plant agriculture is a permitted use within all zoning districts of a municipality…”, basically ensuring that zoning laws in any city do not stop the urban farmer from exercising her green thumb. What’s more, for those agriculturalists that live in Woonsocket, the city’s liberal green-space law and arbitrary definition of “ground cover” mean that a homeowner can plant a vegetable garden in his backyard…or side yard, or front yard, or, presumably, rooftop – one of the few land use decisions left up to the property owner.

If, instead, the question is whether one is capable of growing a garden, I hold that with a little research, a little initial investment, and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears (but mostly sweat), anyone can enjoy homegrown tomato salad or zucchini casserole. To start you off on that endeavor, here are a few tips, some based in my own experiences, for how best to grow a garden in the city in Southern New England.

First off, feed your soil, and it will feed you. This is probably one of the most difficult concepts for gardeners, new and experienced alike, because the temptation is to ignore that dull brown stuff in favor of boosting the short-term growth of your plants. Instead of using chemical fertilizers for increasing yields, it is cheaper and more productive in the long-term to build up your soil with compost made from food and yard wastes, natural mulches like grass clippings, and nitrogen-fixing plants like peas and beans. Also, if your soil does not retain water well, or is too high in clay, raised beds might be a good bet. The nuances of topsoil are complex and still not well-understood, but all you have to do is compare the life in the desert to that in the forest to see the stark difference that a few inches of good dirt can really make.

Next, it is important to grow what you eat, and eat what you grow. This starts with understanding the seed catalog. Like any other catalogue, it is designed so that you are persuaded to buy the products listed. But, with the exception of Popeye, no one needs 18 varieties of spinach, and few urban farmers have space in their gardens for 100 different crops. When deciding what you should grow, figure out what you and your family like to eat. Though my grandfather insists that tomatoes and cucumbers are the only things worthy of his bright green thumb and limited garden space, my family would be lost without our 6 varieties of peppers, our heirloom green beans, and our bumper crop of potatoes. And once you’ve grown what you use, you have to make sure to use it. We’ve all been in the unfortunate situation of having to throw away (or compost) spoiled food – the feeling is significantly worse when it’s something you grew yourself, and the garden’s high production at the end of the summer makes it likely that you will have just too many tomatoes for one family to eat. It is probably useful to learn the many methods of preserving, from drying and canning, to freezing and root cellaring.

Finally, remember that nature detests a monoculture. There is no forest of just spruce trees, no sea of just cod, and no lawn of just Kentucky Bluegrass (no matter how hard some homeowners try). Plants, like all living creatures, are more resilient, and more able to withstand pressures from pests and diseases, when planted together with different species. This method is called polyculture, and one of the best ways to start practicing it is through companion planting. The basic idea is that, when certain plants are placed in close proximity, one or both will benefit from the other. The smell of marigolds, for example, wards off all sorts of insect pests (the same is true of onions), and they can therefore be planted next to tomatoes or beans to take advantage of this property. There are extensive lists of plants that do well when planted next to each other – and, conversely, species that should probably be kept apart – and it is worth any vegetable gardener’s time to gain this useful insight.

Now, these tips are not in any way complete, and libraries could be filled with our knowledge of topsoil alone. I encourage my fellow urban farmers, new and old, to read as much as they can about coaxing food from the Earth. There are tomes of information available online, from garden forums and blogs to detailed how-to pages. I would also suggest any book written by John Seymour or published by Storey Publishing for general agriculture knowledge, and the book Carrots Love Tomatoes, written by Louise Riotte, for a detailed primer on companion planting.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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