How One City Couple Started an Urban Garden

How One City Couple Started an Urban Garden

The scary truth is that we’ve been burgled, and we suspect you’ve been burgled too. The flavor has been stolen from many store-bought veggies and fruits nowadays, thanks to high-volume farming methods and the weeks or months spent traveling across the globe to your plate. Not only that, the prices for those little produce posers have eyes bulging and jaws dropping everywhere; $2.49 for three measly organic onions that flew all the way from Hawaii? It’s criminal!

So, my husband Jeff and I decided to do something about it, despite the fact that, about six months ago, we didn’t know a rutabaga from a rototiller. We decided to grow our own food somewhat for economic reasons, but mostly for all the intangible benefits that come with having a garden. Here are just a handful of those reasons.

  1. Quality. The taste and feel of freshly picked produce is simply unbeatable. Imagine stepping out onto your apartment patio or backyard, salt shaker in hand, plucking yourself a nice, plump heirloom tomato, and experiencing the anticipation of—then surprise at—the flavor of the real thing. Salivating yet?
  2. Money Savings. It can take a little pocket change to get started, but there are plenty of fun and creative ways to cut your start-up costs. The long-term savings of growing your own food is incredible. Consider the onions I mentioned earlier. A whole packet of organic seeds will run you about $2.75 (and you’ll have onions sprouting out your ears if you plant the entire contents). Plus, if you learn to save your seeds, you may never have to buy an onion again!
  3. Go Eco. It doesn’t get any more “local” than this. Plus, if you compost, you’ll cut down on trash by so much, your waste collectors might start having serious neglect issues. Also, using all organic materials ensures that your food is not only safe to consume, but the earth and its wildlife surely will appreciate it too. According to James E. Williams’ book, Just Food, synthetic pesticides, used commonly in industrial, non-organic agriculture, “kill more than their intended host, ridding the environment of a range of beneficial insects and soil microbes.” They also “leach into drinking water, can cause reproductive problems in lab animals, may cause endocrine and respiratory problems in humans, and persist in the food supply as residues on fruits and vegetables.” Eww.
  4. The Peaceful Garden. There is something so calming about being among such miraculous gifts of nature. To sow a seed, and get to nurture and coax it into a wondrously fruitful thing, is truly a beautiful experience. Also, when Jeff and I get to spend time in the garden, we often get a meditative sense of well-being. Throw out your Valium, everybody; there’s a not-so-new natural de-stressor in town!
  5. Cool Factor, of course. If you live in an urban area and manage to grow half of your food on your patio, rooftop, in pots, or in your backyard, everyone will be so impressed; they’ll want to be just like you.

How did two Redondo Beach apartment dwellers who, not so long ago, thought compost hummus was for pita bread dipping, create a successful full-scale gardening project? Well, it’s a pretty cool story. It officially started on a stroll in San Francisco last August when Jeff and I ambled by a community garden and wondered at the possibilities in our own neighborhood. At that point, we already had the impression that our paychecks were becoming slaves to our bellies (much as we ourselves are), and had also found ourselves making comments about the little stickers on our store-bought edibles stating they had traveled from all corners of South America and Asia to get to our plate.

Our apartment has a lovely patio, the size of an oversized shoebox, that gets a solid four to six hours of sun every morning. As much as it’s a wonderful space, our eyes were huge on return from the “City by the Bay,” so it just wasn’t enough space (although we do have some tasty kale, sweet onions, and pear tomatoes currently comprising half of our view).

In our search for space, we sought out our friend, Cheryl, local facilitator of all things possible. You want it? She’ll see to it that you meet the right people to make it happen. Although we were thinking of approaching the city about community gardening, she had a better idea. As so often is the case with Cheryl, her response began with “I know this guy . . .” That guy turned out to be a local homeowner who had a tiered, 200-plus square foot, beautiful, well-sunned backyard sandbox, and a generous soul to go along with it.

That fateful meeting was all the catalyst we needed. We set off to our local library and into the endless depths of the Internet to dig up every morsel of information we could. We created designs and spreadsheets to organize ourselves, speculated on what growing region we were in, and considered what would grow best that winter in our mild climate. We meant business.

Every step of the way, there were miracles teaching us invaluable life lessons, while bringing a sense of inspired energy to our project. One, mentioned earlier, was our good fortune in meeting the homeowner through Cheryl. The second came at our favorite local spot, Planet Earth Eco Café, where we worked out a system of collecting their non-animal based kitchen scraps to support our home compost.

As we sowed and encouraged our seeds into seedlings in trays on our patio, we were also busy reworking the ground and creating raised beds to make it a hospitable transplant home. It was shaping up to be a challenge, considering the original soil was primarily nutrient-poor sand. Thanks to apparently having some really good luck, we received yet another miraculous gift in the form of some suicidal sealife.

Now, you may have read about a freak occurrence in which thousands of sardines simultaneously died and washed up just south of Los Angeles. That very evening, as we sat down to ponder our soil situation, Jeff and I came across a flyer telling us that our city had composted those poor little fishies and they planned to give the gold away for free! The event, sponsored by the local waste management company, was to be held less than a mile from our place in two days’ time. We were told that this compost would be just what our soil needed, and that our garden would surely grow. We were ecstatic.

Freak natural occurrences aside, your city might very well have similar green programs. For information on obtaining compost or mulch, check out your city’s Web site.

Over time, our seedlings grew, moved from patio to ground or pot, and surprised us with their abilities to go from fragile, flimsy things to resilient, sturdy, and sometimes climbing beings. We experienced the pop of sugar snap and shell peas, fresh off the vine (literally); the silk-soft leaves of variously colored baby greens; the excitement of pulling our first golden beet from its cozy nook in the ground; and the way the carrots form a canopy to shade themselves from our California sun.

Considering how little time has passed since this all began, and that this was a first season (for ourselves and the land), we’ve had an astoundingly bountiful harvest. Barely a meal goes by that we’re not munching on something we helped grow from a simple seed! We just can’t get over it.

So much of the last half year has been simply amazing; we sometimes doubt our own recollections of this incredibly rewarding journey. But the proof is in the produce. We visit the garden about one or two times a week to weed, gawk, and pick our week’s worth of kale, mixed greens, broccoli, sugar snap peas, shell peas, golden beets, spinach, sage, and nasturtiums. We’re just waiting on the Siskiyu Sweet Walla Walla Onions to fatten, the Cosmic Purple Carrots to lengthen, and the Honey Butternut Squashes to show, but we’re content to wait, watch, and witness the progress. In the meantime, we’ll be skimming the summer seed lists, deciding what we want to enjoy growing next.

How about you? What will you grow this year?