Urban Gardners Get Ready for the Fall Harvest

September 22, 2020

By Tamanna Mohapatra and Pamela Berns   After a long spring and summer of streaming and one too many Zooms, many city dwellers started craving something three-dimensional, organic and more nurturing to the body and soul. One therapy that emerged was growing our own herbs and vegetables at home—or at least trying to. We’ve used whatever spaces we’ve had—unused corners in small apartments, windowsills, kitchen counters, balconies (for those lucky enough to have one), and whatever little patches of lawn we could possibly cultivate. One Upper West Sider even appropriated a former city street tree planter to sprout corn stalks.   Said Margaret Roach in the the NYTimes, “Most of us don’t know the entire life cycle of our food crops, just their edible moments.” As if in response, the wise Yoda said, “Learn and practice gardening we should.” Right he was—especially after COVID-19 sent us all inside. According to a May article in the the Observer, “with the virus beginning to wreak havoc in the industrial centers that produce most of the food Americans eat, we are turning to food suppliers closer to home…and now is the time to get into homesteading.” The US hasn’t been alone in the urge to garden. In mid-March, the week before the British government announced their lock-down, the horticulture industry experienced a surge in demand, wrote Rebecca Mead in the August issue of the New Yorker. “Sales of plants, seeds, and bulbs were reportedly up thirty-five per cent from 2019…As Britain faced the Covid crisis, reassurance was difficult to come by, and one way it could still be attained was in the reliable germination of a windowsill pot of watercress or a garden-patch row of chard.”   Urban Gardening Promotes Well-being for Both Individuals and Communities   Followers of the Blue Zone Diet have found plenty of research to show that gardening increases well-being and longevity. According to CNBC, across the world, wherever people live longer and healthier, gardening shows up as one surprising commonality: most have gardened well into old age. In a blog post by Urban leaf, whose mission is to “motivate, encourage, and inspire healthier and more sustainable food choices,” “interacting with plants has been shown to improve focus & attention, reduce stress & anxiety and enhance physical health.”   The practice of planting pop-up gardens beyond the kitchen window is  more formally known as urban agriculture. The USDA defines it as “City and suburban agriculture in the form of backyard, roof-top and balcony gardening, community gardening in vacant lots and parks, [and] roadside urban fringe agriculture,” and it can play an important role in economic and food justice. Karen Washington, a New York City-based farmer at Rise & Root Farm, wrote in her Civil Eats op ed piece in July, “I view community gardens and urban agriculture as a way to change the dynamic of the power structure.” Karen has been involved in urban agriculture in NYC since 1985 and considers farming and growing food a political statement. As a community gardener and board member of the New York Botanical Gardens, she has worked in and with Bronx neighborhoods to successfully turn empty lots into community gardens.   A kind of modern-day Johnny Appleseed, Brooklyn-based Christina Clum has created a new type of social entrepreneurship. She grows plants and flowers wherever she finds patches of soil, (i.e. in other people’s backyards). Her backyard “is the size of a postage stamp,” she recently told the NYTimes ,“And it doesn’t get good light.” So in February 2018, she put the word out to other Brooklyn residents about doing plantings in their yards. The exchange is simple, said the Times. The garden surrogates get to enjoy the flowers, and then, with appropriate social distancing, Christina comes by, cuts them and sells them through her company, Spry Flower Farm.   Getting Your Garden Growing   If you haven’t gotten into it yet, there are multiple approaches to giving urban gardening a try at home. You might want to start growing herbs by ordering  from backtotheroots.com. They provide most of the material needed and are reasonably priced. For those who want a little more hand holding, you might first enroll in a class like Fundamentals of  Gardening, now offered online through  NYBG.  If learning from books is your thing, you could try  Urban Gardening for Beginners  or  Urban Gardening 101. For a quick how-to, read Popular Mechanics  How to Start Your Indoor Garden. You might also consider joining Indoor Edible Gardening, a private Facebook group, hosted by Urban Leaf, where members exchange tips and answer each other’s questions.   Want ideas on what to grow? Watch this fun video on 13 gardening hacks. Scallions and tomatoes are great plants to start with as they are easy to grow. These are fool proof plants making the pride you feel in eating something you have grown easy to achieve. For growing the scallion, immerse just the white end with roots sticking out in a jar of water. For growing tomatoes, dry the seeds you find inside a tomato and plant them in a small pot of soil. For small apartments with less outdoor space, herbs are a great way to get into gardening. Basil is good for a sunny windowsill. Mint plants like ample moisture, so they do well in spaces with more shade.   If you’re looking to learn by doing beyond your own windowsill, NYC.gov provides quite a few resources on  Community gardens and local Farms. (NYC Farms and public gardens are following state mandated rules on COVID-19 safety such as wearing masks and continuing to prohibit public gatherings in these places.) For a map of community gardens in the Bronx, check out Bronx Greenup.   So, go ahead, there’s still some time pick up a spade and get your hands dirty. Who knows what you might find yourself harvesting at this fall?