The Changing Face of Gardening

By Greta Belanger deJong

City gardener? Urban farmer? Either way, it’s just a label identifying someone who gets serious pleasure out of playing in the soil. We could say the gardener is more about looks, the farmer takes something home. As with every holistic process, it’s both.

What we call farming is no longer a question of size: Some of your “fields” may be measured in inches or feet rather than acres. Say, an orchard of a few dwarf apple trees trained to a trellis alongside the garage, and a container of eggplant and tomatillos on a roof porch.

Your produce is likely grown in raised beds—and your beds, like mine, might be in the driveway. For a voracious gardener, every open space where sunshine falls is up for grabs, including patios, front yards and, yes, even rooftops.

We plant our rows more closely than our parents or grandparents did. We may plant fewer seeds, so there are fewer plants to thin (which may feel so, so cruel but is necessary). Because of the raised beds, we never walk on the soil, so it doesn’t need to be tilled. No need for a rototiller allows for narrower paths.

We use trellises, training just about everything to grow upright, which allows us to plant more intensively. The closer plantings shade the soil, keeping it cooler in the heat of summer, and slows the growth of weeds.

It’s not exactly new. But it is urban. In France, expert gardener Dan Potts tells me, people grew everything their citizens needed within their cities. Everyone had a potager—a kitchen garden. A little bit of everything in a compact space.

Because of limited space, we tend to mix it up a bit: Instead of a 10-foot row of beets, we may have a few square feet of beets, then some  onions, a broccoli plant, maybe kohlrabi. Nasturtiums and French marigolds may cluster near a few basil plants, with thyme and moss roses around the pathway’s stepping stones.

We’ve learned that mulching conserves moisture. We make our small bits of earth stay lively, by planting even as we harvest. We’ve gotten curious about winter gardening, and are learning that we can grow spinach in hoop houses, harvest carrots all winter, and plant peas as early as we like, all without a greenhouse.

We’re learning to be adventurous—to gamble: Winning an early feast is worth the risk of losing a few seeds.

Soil is something we acknowledge as being alive—and so we feed it. It’s not just a substance that props up the plants. We raise worms. We compost. We’re getting the hang of when and how to water—in the cool of late night or early morning, some plants more (or less) than others. Dan Potts says to challenge your plants a bit every day. Letting them wilt a little in high heat makes them more resilient.

Gardening in small spaces does not mean that one just has a smaller version of the classic sunny rectangle. Garden planning begins with looking at what you’ve got: “The physical nature of the site offers possibilities and constraints. It is usually wiser to adapt the garden plan to the existing site than to try to force the landscape to fit a human-contrived ‘grand design,’” writes Utah biologist and gardening guru Fred Montague.

You can take advantage of plastic row tunnels, floating row covers and breathable pots to extend your season. You can also challenge the temperature averages. Fred says, “Plant early, plant late, and plant often.”

Rule of thumb is to begin planting four to six weeks before the last frost which, in Salt Lake City (zone 5) is April 26. So, weather permitting, you can plant as early at March 15. If you’re in surrounding canyons, your site is a wild card and you’re the best judge. At whatever elevation, the ground must be dry enough: “Squeeze a handful of dirt into a ball and drop it from about three feet; if it falls apart, plant,” says Dan.

I’m still mulling over the use of the word “farm.” We say “urban farm” a lot these days, usually if there are chickens and bees on the premises, but more and more it seems to ring true with people who are growing their own food of any sort.

It may not be a livelihood for many of us (though in this issue of CATALYST you’ll meet a few for whom it’s a passion that pays). And it may not mean a hill of beans to the agribiz behemoth that monocrops the wide open spaces. But it is changing our relationship to the food we eat. It is growing our knowledge. Maybe the pleasure we take in today’s urban farm—okay, call it an urban hobby farm—will someday mean the world to us.

Greta Belanger deJong is the editor and publisher of CATALYST.

This article was originally published on March 29, 2012.