The Call, Column 91 – Low-Impact Urban Farming

25 02 2018

(February 25, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Low-Impact Urban Farming

I love urban farming, let’s get that out of the way first. I love the smell of the soil; I love the process of growing things; I love the calmness and serenity of nature; I love the act of creating sustainable food with the labor of my own hands. I love chickens, plants, and insects, soil microbes, and human beings. And I love the rebellious act of using land in the city not for passive consumption, but for active production.

As ideas, I love all of these things. And in practice, when I am able to do them successfully, and when I am able to dedicate enough of my time to them to bring them to fruition, and when I am in the right mindset to weather little difficulties like a woodchuck eating my cabbages and lettuce for the sixth time in one year, then I love all of these things.

But rarely is anything as perfect as I just described. Ignoring the mostly unavoidable Acts of Nature, I would guess that many of you suffer from the same types of frustrations as I do in your garden every year – intending, early in the season, to put in as much effort as is required to make it really awesome…and starting an elaborate garden that would require this effort…but then spreading your time so thin with other things that you end up not devoting the time and energy you need, and being frustrated with minor failures and setbacks.

This is a special shout-out to my fellow P-types (for those of you who are familiar with the Myers-Briggs test, I am an ENFP in the best and worst definitions); you, like me, probably have a dozen or so very important projects at any one time, that all require enormous amounts of your attention, and which are all very important to you…which unavoidably leads to frustration and disappointment when things don’t get done. Add in the fact that urban farming is supposed to be fun, calming, and productive, and so much of it is so lovable (see the above)…and it’s totally reasonable that this can leave some of us feeling disheartened at a certain point each year.

What’s the solution to this? Well, at first glance, it would seem that we should design our urban farming systems with the singular goal of maximizing production while minimizing labor inputs. But you know what you get when you approach something as sacred and inherently holistic as food production with that singular mindset? Factory farming. You get factory farming…and I know you don’t want that.

So today, I want to talk about my idea of low-impact urban farming. This combines two basic motivations: maximizing productive output while minimizing human input (time, labor, and money), but also reducing strain on the environment by considering it as another form of input that needs to be minimized. Now, it’s generally not good practice to maximize/minimize on more than one variable – what produces the most tomatoes or eggs per unit of human time/labor/money (which can be considered the same thing for these purposes) doesn’t necessarily produce the most tomatoes or eggs per unit of stress on the environment. And this logic, combined with the cold profit motive of industrial agriculture, is what dictates that chickens be kept in battery cages and cows should be fed chicken feces and expired Skittles.

But on the scale of urban farming, it is actually often true that those practices which minimize stress on the humans doing them, also minimize stress on the environment in which they’re being done. And there’s the remainder of this column: what types of practices have I learned, either by doing or intending to do, that accomplish this? Let’s find out.

Starting your plants: Each of the past 7 years or so, I have started all of my longer-season plants (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, brassicas, etc) inside, under grow lights, in late February. I enjoy doing this, watching as life springs forth from a seemingly lifeless seed, and nurturing it to the point where it can be planted outside. But, I realized last year, the amount of effort and time that I devote to this aspect of my garden is enormous, and it generally yields plants that are less healthy than if I had bought them (organic, sustainable ones) from a professional greenhouse. And by exerting so much effort, so early in the season, I have often burned myself out by the time the garden really picks up in June.

I’m not saying not to do this. But I think the benefits and drawbacks of raising everything from seed, as opposed to buying starts sometime in early May, should be considered in the context of maximizing output while minimizing human and environmental strain.

In my experience, it takes a lot of time to seed, tend to, plant up, and harden off plant starts when they’re done at home; it actually costs quite a pretty penny, with all of the equipment required and the energy needed for the grow lights; and there is a lot of mental effort (especially for a flighty P-type like myself) that goes into keeping track of all of this and remembering to do it all, correctly, on time, on a regular basis. And beyond all of that, the grow lights use a huge amount of energy and this setup uses a lot of plastic, neither of which are great for the environment.

All things considered, the inputs required to start your own seeds are much, much higher than if you were to buy equivalent plants (i.e. organic, sustainably-raised, from non-GMO seed) from a professional greenhouse. This is absolutely true of the mental effort, human labor/time, and environmental impact; and though I haven’t crunched the numbers, I spend so much money on this part of the garden every year that I suspect it would be cheaper just to buy them.

In my view, and in my personal context, all of this is a good argument for buying high-quality plant starts in May, rather than spending more time and money and electricity, and burning myself out by the real planting season, in order to do it myself. If at some point I am planting a much larger area, or began to place more of a value on the effective self-sufficiency of my endeavor, my view would absolutely change. And on the flip side, shorter-season and smaller-sized crops, like leafy greens and root vegetables, are much easier (and cheaper, and lower impact) to direct-seed in the spring than buy as starts…at least in my context.

Irrigation. If you have a big garden, watering can easily become a huge time commitment. And the penalty for doing it too infrequently is a huge reduction in your garden’s productivity. Mine requires like 45 minutes to water fully, and should be watered every second or third day; in my experience, it’s very easy to not have time to do this.

The solution: drip irrigation! I have intended to install a drip irrigation system for the past two years, but because I was already kind of burned out by when it came time to do that in late April (because of 2 months of seed-starting), I delayed and eventually didn’t do it. Not this year! By installing a system like this, you could conceivably not have to water your garden at all, instead just monitoring it to make sure soil moisture is good. This would reduce the time and labor impact on you, the busy gardener, and also reduce the amount of water used. Now, this system costs more than just the hose required to water manually, so that’s an assessment that you have to make individually. But in my context, saving a few hours per week in labor, and the mental effort of keeping track of a watering schedule, and reducing my water usage is all worth the cost and initial time investment of setting up the system. And my garden will be watered more, and more regularly, which will maximize production.

Mulching. This is one I’ve talked about a lot, so I won’t give it too much space here. There should always be a layer of mulch on your soil, short of when you’ve direct-seeded smaller crops like spinach, that need a few weeks to sprout and become established. But in general, you can find organic mulching materials (like leaves, grass clippings, straw) for free or very low price-per-area-of-coverage, and it takes very little time to apply mulch, and doing so minimizes the growth of weeds that would otherwise dominate uncovered soil. I’m slowly getting better at this, but if this year goes as planned, I won’t have to weed at all and my garden’s productivity will be all the better for it.

Regular maintenance. If you’re like me, you simultaneously hate tightly-scheduled activities, but also don’t have the organizational wherewithal to make sure those activities would get done if you tried to do them freely. God, I’m such a P-type. What are we to do?

I think the best solution is to schedule a very small amount of time – say 10 minutes a day, right after waking up/coffee/breakfast in the morning – in which to do basic garden maintenance tasks, combined with the other suggestions above. Without having to regularly weed and water, it is totally conceivable that 10 minutes per day is enough to take good care of your garden. Check that the irrigation is working; pull any weed-lings that have broken through the mulch (since they’re easier and quicker to pull at that size) and just throw them on top off the mulch; tie up staked plants like tomatoes; and harvest anything that needs to be. None of this takes very long, and when you do it as little bits of time every day, rather than larger amounts (say) once per week, it is less overwhelming, more likely to get done, and more effective at keeping your garden healthy and productive.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). 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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