Grow Your Own by Allison Arieff
“Edible landscape” seems to be going head to head with “staycation” as the most popular catch phrase of Summer 2008. Lawns may not be disappearing before our very eyes, but citizens are definitely swapping out blades of grass for bushels of beans in increasing numbers.
Take me for instance, a bona fide city dweller: As a follow up to my column in March on the reclamation of urban and suburban land for agricultural use, I’ve spent the last several weeks putting theory into practice, literally getting my hands dirty (and whatever other cliché I can unearth) in the interest of urban agriculture.
Two months ago, I learned about My Farm, run by mortgage-broker-turned-farmer Trevor Paque. My Farm is essentially an urban take on community-sponsored agriculture (CSAs). With CSAs, individuals essentially invest in rural farms to help support their operations and are given a weekly box of fresh produce in return. With My Farm (and similar operations found in cities including New York and Portland, Ore.), you can grow food in your own backyard with the assistance of urban farmers like Paque. In one day, he created our 120-square-foot backyard farm — landscaping with found materials from the yard, installing a drip-irrigation system and planting heirloom seeds. Now he comes once a week to harvest a box of organic and ridiculously local produce for us — plus an additional box, which he sells to another family in our neighborhood.
This costs us about $100 a month, and has allowed us to replace our water-dependent grass patch with an edible landscape. After just three months in business, Paque has a waiting list of over 200 people and is scrambling to keep up with demand.
Urban agriculture has been around since at least the 18th century, but it’s an idea whose time has truly come — now — in the United States. The reasons range from the fact that our hands are always found glued to computer keys and not even occasionally in the dirt, to the scary existence of industrially grown tomatoes that may (or may not) cause salmonella, to the fact that a drive to the market can now cost more than the food you purchase there.
Though some may see this as a “lazy locavore” trend — wherein couch potato clients, glass of biodynamic Syrah in hand, observe the hard labor of city farmers while lounging with their laptops — the urban agriculture movement seems to me to be slowly transcending its elitist associations. It is truly growing into something that is wholly about collaboration, community and connection to food, to neighbors, to land.
That’s certainly been my experience both in my yard, as neighbors and friends come by to help harvest (and to eat), and in my city. Earlier this month, my family spent a Saturday at San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza, helping to plant a 10,000-square-foot Victory Garden sponsored by Slow Food Nation, a nonprofit organization that will be celebrating American food through art, music, lectures, tastings, school programs and the like over Labor Day Weekend. More than 250 volunteers and nearly a dozen Bay Area gardening organizations dedicated their time to plant the first edible garden in front of San Francisco’s City Hall since 1943. Designed by John Bela of the arts collective REBAR and curated by the artist/gardener/activist Amy Francheschini of Victory Gardens 2008+, this public installation aims to demonstrate the potential of a truly local agriculture practice while producing high-quality food for those in need.
This day was social networking of the best sort. Participants got some dirt under their fingernails, ran into old friends, ate an organic lunch and left weary but happy. It was as much about community creation as food cultivation. I hope to see this sort of urban (and suburban) intervention replicated across the country. (It will be a shame if the city of San Francisco can’t find a way to either keep the garden here or find a suitable space to relocate it.)
This isn’t just a California thing, nor does it require vast amounts of open space. At PS1 in Long Island City, N.Y., the architecture firm WORK AC eschewed that art institution’s traditionalUrban Beach concept for an Urban Farm.
“This came out a desire to combine urbanism with ecology,” explains Work Architecture Company principal Dan Wood, who with his partner, Amale Andraos, and their architecture students at Princeton have concluded that the urban farm is really the holy grail of making things sustainable. WORK AC’s take is particularly urban, featuring things like a mobile phone charging station, speakers that emit farm-animal sounds and “Gaia” soil made from recycled Styrofoam and pectin gel. Food harvested from the project is used at PS1’s café, thus reducing food miles to a whopping 300 feet.
When I spoke with Wood and Andraos recently, it was evident that this project is the result of an intricate network of people and places. They spoke excitedly of the great advice they’d received, for example, from Michael Grady Robertson of the 50-acre Queens County Farm Museum (which I bet you didn’t know existed) in New York and from their solar panel installer, who’d honed his craft in Alaska. Andraos stressed that they really wanted this typically rural thing to offer to city dwellers all the things that attract them about city living: social interaction, play, excitement, fun.
If all of this has helped plant a seed of inspiration, why not enter Readymade’s Second Annual Garden Challenge. The DIY bible Readymade, which inspires its readership toward the execution (or at least vicarious realization) of creative ideas on small budgets, invites readers to submit ideas for transforming their own outdoor spaces in innovative ways. (E-mail ideas to email@example.com by Aug. 1.) I’ve no doubt they’ll be hearing from hordes of less-than-lazy locavores.http://arieff.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/07/28/grow-your-own/?ex=1217995200&en=534a5e36de794743&ei=5070&emc=eta1