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Urban Farming


What makes someone tear up his front yard and plant vegetables? Why do people want to grow vegetables a mile from the White House or raise chickens in Brooklyn?

I mean, it’s gotta be ugly during the winter and early spring, and I can tell you from experience that a vegetable garden is an order of magnitude more work than a lawn. The reasons are probably different for everyone, but I think part of it is a desire for connection with the living world and perhaps a desire for control – at least over what we eat. Which is may be why, in 2002, my friend Ed Brusk started a garden in front of his house in Washington, D.C.

Clike to view larger image.He and his wife Lane reacted to the 9/11 bombings by gathering with friends to share meals. Although Ed is a journalist by training, he’s currently a personal chef and cooking seemed a good way to reaffirm life, human connections, and survival. He tells me that the group dinners prompted him to start a few vegetables as summer approached and, living on a corner lot, he didn’t have a back yard. The garden had to be up front. He was so pleased with his initial results that, “the next year I started digging again, tearing up sod, pulling tons of rocks and broken glass and strange pieces of metal out of the soil.” What began with a few tomato plants, cucumbers, and radishes has, in the years since, expanded to a full-blown kitchen garden and taken over the yard.

The Brusks are now growing enough food to can some for the winter months and they’ve joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) to provide what they can’t grow. Ed is even teaching urban kids to cook and garden.

Ed and Lane aren’t the only one’s going agrarian in the middle of the city. The DIY Network did a segment on a woman named Rani Jacobs who is growing food on the roof of her house as well as her yard. Novella Carpenter raises chickens in Brooklyn – for eggs and eating (in fact Carpenter has raised rabbits, turkeys, and pigs). And there’s a Web site, The City Chicken devoted to the topic. Perhaps the strangest urban agricultural venture is David Graves’. He has seven beehives on apartment building roofs all over New York City.

When I lived in the D.C. suburbs I regularly drove past a community garden. It was an irregular patch of land, perhaps two acres in size, occupied by small personal plots farmed by perhaps 50 different individuals. I mentioned this to Ed and he noted that the communal gardens so popular that getting access to a plot is, “as hard as getting Red Sox tickets.”

But an urban garden is not necessarily as simple as digging up your lawn. Ed’s gotten complaints from some neighbors who consider vegetables inappropriate in a front yard. And, according to Ed, “Lane is the real gardener” in the family and she had detailed plans for landscaping their property. But in his search for a mess of greens, Ed and his handy spade were making hash of those plans. S the pair have “reached an accommodation” and her landscaping plans have adapted to include Ed’s veggies.

My own gardening efforts have primarily been limited to herbs and tomatoes in pots. Full-blown gardens are more work than I’m interested in. Nevertheless, habits and sensibilities die hard. When I moved into my condo I was excited about the balcony on the south side because (in February) it got plenty of sun for herbs. Sadly, in June the 50 foot tall oaks and poplars shade the balcony too effectively and I can’t get herbs to do anything beyond survive.

But, still, as I sit here typing I’ve found myself developing a plan to enhance what sun I do get in the summer and create a year-round indoor herb garden. Please excuse me, I need to take a few measurements…

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