Life, Faith and Urban Farming

The life and happenings of an unconventional pastor and urban farmer living in the city with a family of five.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Urban Homesteading Part 4: (Raised Bed Gardening)


Having a garden in the city or suburbs is all the rage right now! Seems like everybody is starting a garden, especially folks in their twenties and thirties who have never done it before. In the city, the idea of gardening on vacant land has really taken off. It's what we do through Garfield Community Farm and it's what many others are doing. Its interesting to see neophytes take up gardening and quickly realize it actually IS work, or realize that putting plants in the ground in May and then coming back in September to harvest didn't pan out what they had hoped for. Gardening does take some work, it's a bit of a way of life. No, gardening won't take over your life, it won't demand hours a day (unless you start a garden way to big your first or second year at it). But, gardening is one new thing you might add to your homesteading way of life.

Let me take a few minutes and think through this idea of homesteading being a way of life. Homesteading is a way of living as self and communally reliant as possible, its a way of living into local resilience. Think about where your basic needs come from. Who takes care of household problems when they come up, where do you get your food, clothes, heat, and shelter? Also think about your work, what kind of profession have you chosen, is it communally focused or is it globally focused - not that one is bad, or that you should change, but it is telling to think through where your hard work and energy create pay offs. Is your daily labor bettering your community and home or someone elses? Urban Homesteading looks to create homes and communities that rely on very little outside input to survive and thrive. At this point in our history it is very easy to live depending on foreign oil, coal from West Virginia, food from Chile and California, contractors and insurance companies every time there's a leak in the gutter, horribly inefficient water, sewage and electricity grids, etc., etc. But, we also live at a time when some of the smartest people on earth are realizing that changes must be made, that local economies are the most important economies, and that globalization is in some ways hurting the earth. It's our choice to reap the bountiful harvest of the little bit of land that God has given each one of us, at our homes and in our neighborhoods, or to continue to take resources from far off places. Many are saying that we will have little choice in the matter in the near future. Those of us who get a head start will be in a much better place when there's little oil to be had, when China and the US can't trade any longer, or when it's found that Roundup is killing us through the vegetables we eat. If this discussion interests you, check out "The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience" or "Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden And Your Neighborhood into a Community".

As a Christian and pastor, it is my hope that the church will soon be the leading entity toward environmental justice, local resilience and communal reliance. I know, you think I'm dreaming, I am... I believe it is the way of the Kingdom to live reliant on our neighbors and friends for our needs, not on big business that promotes injustice and greed. I believe it's the way of the Kingdom to see vacant abused places brought back to life through the restorative work of urban farming. Where are the abandoned places of empire in your life and in your local context? How might they be transformed in a way that provides for you and your neighborhood?

Back to gardening with raised beds. This is the practical part and it'll be short and simple. Growing food for ourselves is of course a great way eat more healthy food. Eating spinach from your own garden is much healthier for you than eating spinach that has been sitting in trucks and grocery stores for the past week. A surprise percent of nutrient matter is lost every day after harvest, especially from greens like spinach. Gardening is also a great way to cut your carbon foot print, so transportation for your veggies mean no foreign (or local for that matter) oil being used. And growing your own veggies saves you money. Organic vegetables are expensive! And they should be. Organic farmers deserve their pay, but those of us who live on lighter salaries struggle to always by fresh and organic... so, grow your own!

Why raised beds???? Most of the soil in urban and often in suburban areas around Pittsburgh, is not very good soil. The best way to fix that is by composting. One method of raised bed gardening that we use at the farm in Garfield includes sheet composting, where you layer different compostables, then adding some quality top soil, then manure and more compost. This can be done right on top of your lawn. We start with cardboard on top of the grass and weeds, then leaves and wood chips, then whatever compostables you have, then soil and compost that has fully decomposed. The compost in the lower layer does not have to be fully decomposed. With this method there is no digging, that's right, no digging, just piling. The only think you have to buy is some top soil, though we've also gone without that depending on the crops to be grown. Some things like squash can be grown in pure compost. Carrots and other root vegetables can not. For those of you who have good soil in your yard, I recommend tilling the soil, then adding the compost, but still mounding it into a raised bed. At home I always like to create walls for my raised beds, but at the farm we sometimes just make big mounds with no walls, its a lot cheaper! The walls I use vary in materials. Last year I was able to get my hands on Black Locust lumber, some of the most rot resistant wood on earth. I actually milled the lumber with my friends Steve and Kendall. But other times I just use plain 2x6 or 2x8 pine. I've made raised beds as deep as 2x12, but rarely much more. I've used concrete blocks and plastic kiddie pools too. Logs from the woods can work great, especially for terraced beds on a hill. I like wood more than anything, especially when it's locally harvest. It seems most plants like about 8 inches of soil and any more is overkill. I could be wrong, on that, but the results I've had have been very good. The picture with the wood and black plastic is an old picture of raised beds made of treated lumber. I don't use that stuff anymore. The plastic is probably just as bad as the chemicals in the treated lumber. I recommend staying away from plastic as much as possible, whether its in gardening or in the house. That another post, and I'm very new at even thinking about it.

By using raised beds you elevate the soil level which does a few things...
1. reduces weeds, the seeds have to climb over a wall to get in
2. allows for more plants in a smaller area, more soil depth so less space between plants.
3. reduces how far down you have to bend to plant, weed and harvest, for us old folks that's a good thing!
4. keeps hands and veggies out of soil that has been contaminated by lead from the old lead paint on your house (this is a major reason to use raised beds for us at the farm and at home)
5. It looks nice

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