Question of the Week: Urban Agriculture

Lindsay -- April 19th, 2010

With increased popularity of the national Slow Food movement and Virginia’s Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign, many Harrisonburg and area residents are actively finding ways to decrease their own food miles and be more connected to the food they eat.  Signs that this movement is taking hold locally include the success of various new restaurants offering locally grown fare, and the always bustling Harrisonburg Farmer’s Market which this month kicked off the 2010 market season, with customers eagerly stocking up on local produce and other goods.  The market is even adding Thursday afternoon/evening hours starting in June.

However, it seems that in addition to buying local food, there may also be a growing trend in our city (pun intended), along with communities nationwide, toward growing local food – also known as urban agriculture.

Vegetable plants have appeared everywhere the last few growing seasons, from the City’s community garden, to Liberty Park – even sidewalks have been host to veggie plants.  Maybe your own kitchen garden is already started in a windowsill or the backyard.  Side note:  Abandoned refrigerator produce sprouting “legs” typically doesn’t count.

So with our last frost date on the horizon – likely around the end of this month – we want to know from our hburgnews readers, how does your garden grow? Are you growing any of your own food, and if so, how?  Where?  In the City?  In a former flower bed turned lasagna garden?  Containers on the patio?  Do you have a plot in the community garden?  Do you start your own seeds, or buy seedlings?  Do you make and use compost, or could you not imagine gardening without your trusty Miracle-Gro?  Whatever advice you want to share, or interesting gardening projects you want to tell us about, feel free.  If you just want to profess yourself a failure at gardening and tell us about your latest houseplant casualty, we want to hear from you.

Photos used with permission from Lindsay and Renee.

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27 Responses to “Question of the Week: Urban Agriculture”

  1. Emmy says:

    This year will be my first real attempt at gardening. I have recently stopped eating meat and so my need for produce has increased quite a bit. I got very lucky and got a plot in the community garden this year and plan to do a mix of things I bought already sprouted and things I planted from seeds and sprouted here at home. I honestly have no clue what I’m doing, so I hope it goes well. I figure I’ll put it in the ground and hope for the best.

    I’m also growing a few things on the patio in a planter designed to grow tomatoes upside down with other plants on the top. I guess I’ll learn from this experience if nothing else.

    I’m doing my best to buy local when it comes to food, but with the volume I go through in some specific items I’m hoping to be able to grow my own to save some money.

  2. We had really good luck with the herbs, broccoli and tomatoes last year. This year, we’re adding peas, onions, and potatoes to the mix.

    The potatoes I’m growing Scandinavian style: I have a bale of straw, but I’m not sure when to hill the potatoes. They just started sprouting late last week. Any advice?

    • Renee says:

      I read that when the plant grows 8″, you hill halfway up the stem. Do this twice more, and from then on, just add an inch every couple weeks or so to prevent any sunlight from hitting the potatoes. I’ve never tried it myself, though, so this is someone else’s advice!

  3. Thanh says:

    I live in the City. This year will be my second year gardening. In Fall 2009, my husband and I constructed two 4×8 ft raised garden beds out of landscaping timbers, and filled it with a soil and compost mixture we got from a guy who sells it off Boyers Rd. We got a few pickup truck loads.

    I use water from my rain barrel mostly to water the garden, but to water houseplants too. And when the rain barrel runs dry, I will use water from the faucet. We have two more rain barrels that will be hooked up this year. The water runs through a hose to the garden, and once at the garden runs through a soaker hose which runs in loops through the two garden beds. The soaker hose works great – no need to hand water with a water can, just turn on the hose and let run for 30-40 minutes.

    I highly recommend a notebook to help keep track of when and where seeds were planted, what worked this year and notes for next year. I’ve had plenty of lessons learned. I also recommend talking to friends and neighbors about how they manage their plants. I had no idea until last year how to properly prune a tomato plant, and thanks to my co-worker, I had great plants with lots of tomatoes last year.

    Last year we started all of our plants from seed. We rigged up a lighting set up indoors and grew everything in peat pots until it got warmer outside to plant into the garden. Although everything grew great and we had a bountiful harvest last year, we had way more seedlings than we could plant in our small beds and for us it was a lot of work for the limited number of plants we could fit into the garden.

    Last year, a few things we planted didn’t work out too well – onions and carrots. I don’t know if perhaps our soil wasn’t loose enough for them to grow well, but they were tiny. Spinach didn’t grow well either. Everything else grew great – swiss chard, tomatoes and jalapenos (which made great salsa), lettuce, pole beans, cantaloupe, and watermelon.

    Another failure was that we didn’t pick our cantaloupe soon enough. We lost at last 5 because they over ripened on the vine and split making them inedible. The trick is not to wait for the tendril to turn brown and wither like you would do with a watermelon because the tendril wont turn color. The trick is to just give a little pressure to the tendril where it connects to the cantaloupe and it’ll pop off easily if its ripe.

    This year, we decided to plant some things from seed, sowing them directly into the garden (spinach, kale, lettuce, broccoli, swiss chard, pole beans, and I’m trying out squash and zucchini in the garden for the first time). Into pots, I planted coriander (cilantro) seeds I collected from my plants last year (we’ll see how that goes), and I planted some thai pepper seeds that my dad gave me from his plants. We also went to the Farmers Market this past weekend and picked up the following plants: 2 cherry tomatoes, 3 better boy tomatoes, and 2 other tomato plants, 6 cabbage plants, 2 basil plants, 1 thai basil plant, 1 dill plant, and 1 parsley plant. My experience last year was that if you prune the basil and thai basil plants properly, they will give you a lot to harvest. My husband also picked up 6 jalapeno plants from the Oriental Market this past weekend. The cabbage I planted in the garden already, all of the herbs I planted into pots. The pots and the other plants will stay inside for another few weeks before being planted and placed outside.

    Last year, was my first time canning also. I bought a canning kit from Rocking R/ Ace Hardware and canned lots of salsa (supplemented with veggies from the Farmers Market), tomatoes in its own juice, grape jam (from grapes harvested from a kind neighbors vines), and with the abundance of green tomatoes at the end of the season, which were at risk of frost, I harvested them and made a ton of green tomato relish.

    As for the 5 basil plants I had last year, I made lots of pesto, using walnuts rather than pine nuts. Then I froze the blended mixture into ice cube trays to save for use over the winter and I still have some now. Great addition into breads for homemade pesto bread (baked in our trusty bread maker) or as a spread on some sandwiches or french bread (like garlic bread).

    This year my husband also bought and planted some hops to supplement home brewing, which he just started this year.

    I want to try to grow corn in one of our landscaped beds that have nothing in it right now, but I’m afraid the area is not prepared well for it this year. Its a little weedy, but I might experiment anyway.

    Some notes for myself next year (and possible advice for others) is to prepare the planting bed/area in the Fall. Definitely add compost in the Fall, which we failed to do last year. We covered our garden beds with cardboard last year.

    Some questions that I have:

    – Where do folks get compost and composted manure from locally?
    – How do you cover or prepare your garden beds in the fall for the winter?

    I’m no expert at gardening, but am willing to experiment and I rely a lot on google searches in addition to advice from friends.

    • Libby says:

      If you go out the Ottebine Road, there is a dairy farm on right, just before the Ottobine Store, where you can buy composted manure for $20 a scoop. A scoop will fill the bed of a pick up truck.

      Good luck with your gardening!

    • Lowell Fulk says:

      Thanh,

      I can provide you with compost, composted manure etc…
      I donated the compost used in Liberty Park a couple years ago. Been doing it on a large scale for a long time.

      Crimson Clover makes a good winter cover. It will actually fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil, and it provides a good cover/shelter which promotes earthworm activity. In the spring, you just work it back into the soil.

    • Renee says:

      Wow, lots of good advice! Thanks, Thanh!

      I got my truckload of compost for $18 (on sale) at the mulch place at the Shenandoah Heritage Market… I think it’s called Outdoor Impressions. They said it was mainly composted grass clippings and horse manure.

  4. bazrik says:

    More proof that this is just a kick-butt blog. Thanks to everyone for writing in their detailed responses…I’m learning a lot!

  5. Lowell Fulk says:

    I agree bazrik, this is a great blog!

  6. Annie Layne says:

    Last Summer I took a four-session canning and preserving class through Blue Ridge- it was great for home farmers as well as people who don’t grow their own food, complete with tips on how to get bulk fruit and veg for canning. I haven’t checked if they are offering it again but it was worth the $80 class fee to get the hands-on experience.

    • Lindsay says:

      Neat! I’d be interested in taking the class if they offer it again.

      • Thanh says:

        I’ve never been, but I’ve heard that the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction is a great place to purchase large quantities of produce – especially good for those who don’t have a large garden but want to can a large quantity or something. The Auction happens, I think, one day a week.

        It might be listed in our local Buy Fresh, Buy Local brochure: http://www.buylocalshenvalley.org/ And if its not, there are other sources/farms listed there too.

        • megan says:

          You can really get great deals when the glut hits. Sometimes cheaper than you could grow it yourself. Especially on tomatoes. But you do have to be willing to deal with very large quantities. It would be a good idea to get together a few friends and split the produce as well as the cost.

          They also have a great concession stand with the best hamburgers around. People go there just for the food. :)

          You can also get garden plant cheap. But again, quantities are often huge.

          • Annie Layne says:

            Where is this? When is this? This sounds like the next best thing to Christmas!

          • Renee says:

            @Annie (guess we hit the max threading replies here) – Here’s an article I found before
            http://www.lancasterfarming.com/node/1411

            All I know is that it’s west of Dayton, the article says it’s on Lumber Mill Rd. I hope to head out there and check out the goods and get their fabled burgers sometime!

          • Renee says:

            Oh, and I believe the auctions are on Tuesday mornings (because I remember it seemed to be at the same time as the H’burg Farmer’s Market)

        • megan says:

          Also on Fridays. Auction starts at 9:30.

    • Renee says:

      There is also a cannery out in Keezletown that offers public access. I’d like to try it sometime.

      http://www.keezletowncommunitycannery.com/

  7. Lindsay says:

    We had a plot in the community garden for 2008 which was a great learning experience. I enjoyed meeting the other gardeners and sharing tips. If you’ve got the time to drive over there to weed and water in the mornings and you could use a plot that large (they’re generous!) I highly recommend it. It’s also organically operated.

    Last year I tried my hand at container vegetable gardening on the patio and am doing so again this year. We live in a development that has restrictions on gardening, so containers have been a good alternative. Between Google and some good books at our library, I’ve had success with potatoes, radishes, greens, garlic, snap peas, strawberries, herbs, and peppers.

    I had more of a struggle with tomatoes, eggplant, squash, and cucumbers. They started out really strong and happy, but once high summer hit, it was harder to maintain the right amount of water while they were producing, but still have good drainage, and give the roots enough room to grow to compensate. I am guessing I should have moved them to really big pots by the end of June, and I just waited too long. I also fight having a North-facing patio which I’ve read is least preferable for sunlight.

    I’m excited about going into this season with a fancy new rain barrel (from the City workshop) and a garbage can modified for composting. It hasn’t been continuously warm enough yet for it to be fully composted, so I’m very thankful for the compost tips so far! That’s something I wondered about when we had the garden plot, especially. Besides feeding the plants, I’ve learned the hard way that it makes them so much stronger and more resistant throughout the season, too.

    Urban agriculture has been fun hobby, and between what I’m able to grow and then supplement at the Farmer’s Market, we have local meals on a regular basis – or at the very least some tasty toppings for homemade pizza!

  8. Nancy says:

    My husband and I have always grow a few cucumber, pepper, green beans and tomatoe plants. Last year we built two 4×8 raised beds according to the square foot gardening book. We got our compost from the city (last years leaves). We have added several types of squash, peas, eggplant and beets to our garden. This year we are adding hops and horseradish. I have also planted blueberry and rasberry bushes.

    This year we added three more raised beds and are considering building a small greenhouse. We also built a composter. I have always loved working in the garden but mostly I grew ornamental plants. Now I enjoy it even more since we are enjoying the harvest at our dinner table.

    Thanks everyone for sharing your experiences.

  9. Renee says:

    I just started an 8×8 bed this year, and I’ve been basically photoblogging my experience so far:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/59064186@N00/sets/72157623622062144/

    My first lesson learned is what Thanh mentioned: I grew a ton of plants from seed indoors (early because I was impatient). Some didn’t work out well (tomato stems got weak because of the high moisture retention & compactness of the starter pot soil) and I had way too many of the ones that did work out well to plant in my little garden. I think next year I will grow a few plants from seed inside (in plastic cups – the compressed peat soil in the instant-pots didn’t work out well for me) and wait until I can get some plants at the farmer’s market or plant seed outside for the rest.

    Also, I bought seed potatoes this year and planted them in the only available space in my little plot, next to the cucumbers, only to find out in an online search that potatoes and cucumbers should not be planted next to one anothe (not sure why – maybe they use up water from one another) so I’ll need to move them elsewhere. I really don’t have room for them anyway, and that was an impulse buy!

    I’ll also have a better idea of how big the plants get so I can plan out the space more effectively. Then again, I love the ‘jungle garden’ feel of this photo!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/laurabell/3704528079/in/faves-59064186@N00/

    So far, the radishes and squash are growing well. The beans I started in my 2nd batch are filling out now, too. The tomatoes look horrible and I’m starting a 2nd batch indoors.

    Having fun reading everyone’s experiences & advice here!

  10. Renee says:

    I harvested my first radish! Just thought I’d share :) hehe

    We’ll have to do a follow-up later in the summer about what does well in your garden and how much you’re able to harvest this year!

    • Lindsay says:

      Hooray! What a lovely radish. Looks tasty. Thanks for sharing and for setting up the flickr group. Great idea! I look forward to following and participating.

  11. Renee says:

    Just started a Flickr group here for us to share our pics!
    http://www.flickr.com/groups/1420419@N23/

  12. Parent says:

    We are city residents, and beta-tested a big section of our back yard for a garden last year. We are building the sides in with scrap wood and filling it up with more topsoil and a year’s worth of compost (use old pallets on their sides- it works great!) this year, and getting more serious about what we plant. We are also using other areas of our yard for herb gardens, tall sunflowers as secondary fence, and a blackberry bramble along a rarely used outer side of the fence. Mints are great weeds to use along fence rows too. Canning and pickling were tried out last year too, and this year we are discussing “canning parties” with friends to exchange our grandmother’s recipes and learn how to do it best via shared trial and error. I would also like to see people volunteer time to start school gardens- the low area near Kiester would be great- for communal and school use.

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