Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Urban Farming and Democracy

From Top Left: Kale, Spinach,Strawberries,Bush Peas
This is my third year at gardening in our backyard.  What started out as an experiment  to see how much food I could grow in a small urban space at minimum cost and effort has now grown to encompass a $450/year budget and lots of work and 'new' skillsets.  The four 10' x 18' foot triangles have become quadrangles.  The soil has has been thoroughly enriched and every year I find myself creating more elaborate "greenhouse like" structures to protect my new seedlings from wind, rain, squirrels, cats, and deer.

So is the experiment successful? Is it possible to save money on increasingly expensive food bills by engaging in urban gardening?  It sure looked like it for the first two years.  The year before last produced so many tomatoes from a dozen or so plants, we had them daily from June through November - this despite my really limited use of fertilizer. We live in the "Squalicum River Basin" so the soil is sandy and rocky but contains some loam. The second year, I used a little more fertilizer and quite a bit of peat. The results were just fine, although it was a "blight" year for tomatoes.

So this year, I really plowed in the manure and compost, added lime, some peat and worked my patches with the spade,hoe, and rake from February through March 15. Early results are somewhat promising, although this is a very wet spring!  This year, we also added six 'bare root' fruit trees from the "Bellingham Country Store" on Meridian. I've learned quite a bit by gardening like this. Here are some of my conclusion:
  • Small lots can be planted densely if cared for with detail. 
  • You can plant many different types of vegetables together.
  • They needed to be tended to daily, since animals, location, wind, and rain can be damaging.
  • Automated watering is best.
  • Some fertilizer is good. Too little or too much is not helpful.
  • Small mammals (squirrels and cats chiefly) can do a lot of damage to seed planted crops early on 
  • You need to cook and use your vegetables to get a good return on investment. 
  • The 49th parallel has a short and intense growing season. Lack of sun early on is an issue.
  • Fortunately, water is not so much a problem here as in drier climes. 
  • There are "start-up" costs for large scale "urban farming" (e.g. tools, hoses, plastic, stakes, etc.). These costs need to be amortizes over time for urban gardening to have a competitive ROI.
  • Gardening success is an art, but it is also an art of developing workable systems and work habits. Without attention being paid to systems analysis, urban farming is probably just an enjoyable hobby.
  • The quality of fresh picked food that you integrate into your families diet has a strong spiritual and personal reward.
  • Nothing keeps you feeling fit like a day turning over soil with a pick and shovel. 
I predict there will be a strong renaissance in urban farming and gardening.  Quick Books has shown us that our grocery/restaurant bill is our highest 'non-revolving' expense now, which was a stunner. We have invested in energy saving vehicles, heat-pumps, and conservation architecture, otherwise our combined vehicle payments, gas, maintenance would be in first place. Or perhaps our "combined household energy bill" (Electricity, Petroleum, Natural Gas). I suspect that for many of you with homes and families, this "combined household energy bill" is your largest 'non-revolving' expense and especially with petroleum currently at $4/gallon in the States.(Yea, I know. Europeans are rolling their eyes right now as they read this...) But, in truth,  most American families are being hit hard by high energy costs. We are used to very cheap energy. What most American families may not be thinking about is how much the increases in the price of diesel has increased our food bills in the last 10 years. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that such a trend will regress in favor of the consumer.

What is more likely is that most families will become expert "urban farmers", probably forming informal collectives on their block, trading conserves, fruit, jam, jellies, produce, and local gardening equipment and information. There is nothing new about this. Most of our grandparents and great-grand parents survived the depression with such efforts.  Urban farming could have quite a democratic effect.  Nothing really brings people together like shared food.  Except for maybe the experience of raising small children.  And urban farming is a fantastic activity to get the family involved in.

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