Urban Gardening

I’m from the country.  My family, like most, rarely buys a lot of produce from the grocery stores.  Most of use grow our own produce.  When we are short on something – or if we simply don’t grow it – we trade with surrounding farms.  For example, my land grows a lot of blackberries, but this old man down the lane has his own cherry tree.  We swap fruits to make pies quite often.  Right next to that man is a sweet corn farm with the best corn I have ever had – much better than our own grown-in-poor-top-soil, small corn.  That we pay for with cash and there is always a crowd.  And the farmer’s market?  Biggest event I’ve ever seen.  It’s more of a trading post than a market.  But at home, even meats and eggs are obtained differently.  A lot of people have their own chickens and their own eggs; my family can’t keep chickens with our coyote problem, so we sometimes swap hot peppers or pattypan squash – our best crops – in exchange for a dozen.  In the fall, our swap becomes homemade applesauce or pear dumplings from our orchard.  Meats?  Well, most everything we have is venison, pheasant, or salmon – things we hunted and cleaned ourselves.

That’s what I grew up to know.  Now that I live in Cleveland, my world is has been flipped completely upside-down.  The people beside me grow tomatoes in pots.  They bought the tomatoes at a store.  I just don’t get it!!!  At home, we start everything from seed in our greenhouse then transplant things.  And it’s not uncommon for us to haul buckets of water when the well goes dry or when our only hose is tangled over a few acres in the other direction.  No, in Cleveland, I got in trouble for planting corn.  I planted some flowers and the groundskeeper ripped them out.  I was made fun of for growing plants.  I was beside myself.  Other people had flowers, but apparently my grow-yourself-dinner concept was some taboo “hippie” notion to the man next door.  Unbelievable.

Looking at Cleveland – or any city at all – makes me a little sick inside.  I think of all that asphalt, all the buildings which have destroyed greenspace and plastered it with an impenetrable cover.  In fact, it is this exact disgust that got me into Civil/Environmental Engineering.  It started in 9th grade when my friend made a speech about her grandmother being an architect.  Apparently she designs a lot of green roofs.  Green roofs!  The perfect solution to replacing what a building has destroyed, assuming that your building doesn’t taper and that your roof is the same surface area as your foundation.  Green roofs are simply roofs made into gardens.  They can be somewhat complex, however, because you have to plan for soil depths and how to deal with drainage and root penetration on your roof materials.  Here are some pictures of green roofs in existence today:

Chicago

Portland

Dearborn

When I was on a design team last year, my group got to redesign a building on campus in Cleveland.  I submitted a design for the roof that included greenspace, walkways, and even a greenhouse!  The building is very close to our campus wind turbine, so I included anemometers and other weather testing equipment that would be useful for scientific study.  I also proposed that the greenhouse be used for biological and pharmaceudical research, and that tests be done on growing different kinds of plants under different roof conditions.  Here is a shot of my roof:

But back to the guy next door who reported my corn-growing to my landlord: I decided he had no business calling me out, but that maybe I wouldn’t plant in the front yard anymore.  Instead, I took a look at the back of the building.  There is no grass at the back – it is completely asphalt.  We park on it, but there is a section behind the garage that is completely useless.  No car can go in and out of it, yet it’s paved over.  Gross.

I found the solution, though.  Why not make raised beds?  It’s the same idea as a green roof, but on the ground.  So I went and bought several planks of wood, nails, and tools.  I decided to do it the hard way and used handtools only.  I used a hand saw to cut through several boards, then nailed the boards to form two rectangular frames.  My brother suggested that I line them to trap the soil, so I bought landscaping mesh, hand-stitched pieces to form a wide enough swath, then used pushpins to tack in the lining.  I filled the boxes with a mix of peat moss, top soil, and manure, then added some moisture beads (because being over asphalt would make the beds a lot hotter and drier).

I started a lot of seeds inside during March, April, and May.  It was a tough year to start this experiment because we had snow and frost clear into May.  Nonetheless, I got a lot of things to come up from seed.  When it was time to transplant or directly sow the seeds, I took them outside.  Here is what managed to survive the weather on my first attempts…

This is my backyard garden, cleverly utilizing the useless asphalt space:

This is the left garden up-close:

This is the right garden up-close (with some basil plants on a salvaged milk crate):

Here are some storage blocks I salvaged from the trash, anchored with zipties, and used to hold some of my basil plants:

I planted broccoli and brussel sprouts together, but the rain off the roof blasted the seeds out of the ground.  I think only the broccoli took seed – and it’s kind of scattered.  But the cabbage moth likes it!:

I love portulacas, so I planted them and some poppies (which bloomed out already):

Marigolds have natural pesticidal properties.  We used to use them on the organic farm I worked for last year (Squire Valleevue, CWRU).  I planted seeds throughout my garden:

The sunflowers in the back will give nice blooms and then seeds in a short time:

They also provide stalks for my green beans, planted in a pot balanced on the frame, to grow up on:

My peas are taking over the ground of the right bed:

I planted cucumbers in two hanging baskets, then hung them on the fence behind the garden to vine:

My tomatoes didn’t do very well and only one plant survived, but here it is in a pot:

My peppers most certainly did the best.  I started bell and a hot variety pack from seed, and I’m just now learning which ones I have.  Look like anaheim, cayenne, and… we will see!:

Yesterday, I harvested three anaheim peppers and some fresh basil.  I bought a few more ingredients from the local market and made vegan (and gluten-free) stuffed peppers.  ( For more on my recipe, read my post at http://heartsmartandpennywise.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/vegan-stuffed-peppers )

I had tried to grow a lot of herbs and was going to barter with them.  Sadly, they didn’t do very well.  It’s difficult to keep everything watered.  Obviously, the plants in my asphalt garden need to like full sun… but I still planted things that prefer shade.  Those I put on my porch.  Check it out:

My hanging baskets are just for looks.  I planted some begonias and salvia.  The salvia are doing especially well:

Unfortunately, I went on vacation for about a week and my plants didn’t get watered.  When I left, they were thriving.  I came back to find most of them dead (like my parsley and lavender) or almost dead (like my vegetables).  My beets are doing okay:

But my radishes are clinging on to life:

And my carrots are… well they grew so well and now they’re all dried up and dead:

My lettuce has been very frustrating… I planted seeds about three times now.  I see the problem, though.  There are bugs eating them!  The devils were crawling over the soil when I took the picture:

I love bleeding hearts, but my plant only had one flower this year.  It’s not doing the best.  Hard to keep them watered enough:

These are the cute little pots I tried growing my lavender seeds in:

I put up a string of lights for atmosphere to go along with my windchimes, unvisited hummingbird feeder, and solar-powered butterfly light (which you can see in the picture of my porch above):

Not a complete success… but certainly not a failure!  This project gives me something to do and makes me feel good about living in a city.  More people should get involved in urban gardening!!!  Soon I hope to dedicate a page or whole blog to Cleveland: restaurant reviews, farmers markets, and green projects.  Speaking of which…

There are more ways to be chic in the city than just urban gardening.  For example, check out http://www.freshwatercleveland.com/features/furniture111110.aspx to read more about this chopping block I have:

This block is made from recycled wood!  I was given this by a Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) studen who lived with me last summer.  I’ll have to write about recycling efforts in Cleveland with another entry.  Cool stuff!

Hope you enjoyed this.

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