Welcome to the Urban Farm Revolution

Denver's Holistic Housing Authority Subscribe Email Print

Denver's Holistic Housing Authority


Denver’s vision for a sustainable public housing community is becoming a reality. In this excellent video on their initiatives, the Denver Housing Authority’s director of development, Chris Parr, explains: “For us as a housing authority we firmly believe we’re past that point of just providing housing. We need to embrace and incorporate much more holistic sustainability…revitalizing neighborhoods and revitalizing communities and cities.” The development has achieved LEED Platinum rating, with a PV system on the roof and use geothermal wells for much of the heating and cooling, including water heating. It’ accessible to public transportation and bike shares.

Residents are actively involved in community gardening and have an acre of land for urban farming. Greenleaf, a local nonprofit, trains high schoolers in the area to become urban farmers. Watch the video to get a glimpse of this vibrant, sustainably-minded community.


The Buzz on Julia's Bees Subscribe Email Print

The Buzz on Julia's Bees

Greetings urban farmers! My name is Julia, and I keep bees in the middle of Des Moines, Iowa. When we first got honeybees, we had four kids ages 8 – 14 years in our average suburban house. We have neighbors on all sides and have an average sized yard. We have had a graduation party and picnics in our backyard, and the bees are very productive while being barely noticeable.

In 2008, my daughter won a youth beekeeping scholarship from our state’s honey producer association. Although she harvested honey that year and the bees lived over the winter (our peers had a 30% winter survival rate), I was really impressed by our fabulous strawberry harvest. Our strawberries, tracing the border of our driveway, barely produced in the two years prior and were now giving us a quart every other day. I was an immediate believer in the pollination factor of honey bees.  When my daughter left for college, I kept the new bee hobby alive. Since I stuck my head into a box of bees, I have found it hard to walk away from them. They are such fascinating creatures that I believe that almost everyone can and should keep bees. Here is our story.

It’s August 2007. With the possibility of getting bees the next year, we talk to our neighbors. Mostly, we talk about placement of the hive and the fact that honey bees are not domesticated. I can’t call them and have them return home like a dog, they sting, they are sensitive to chemical lawn controls, etc.

It’s November 2007. We find a hobby bee club to join. We order a package of honey bees, woodenware, and equipment – today, the total would be about $300, and $200 of it is reusable hardware.

February 2008. My daughter takes a beginning beekeeping class. The woodenware arrives unassembled and provides a good winter activity.

Late April 2008. The bees arrive in late April for Iowans. She installs the bees quickly and they thrive over the next few months.

September 2008. Our mentor shows us how to harvest the honey. This was an extremely satisfying experience that could be remembered every time we used honey until the next harvest.

Today, 2014. I keep 7 bee hives. None of them are at my house, but rather on four private properties. One property belongs to a friend; one belongs to someone who had a ‘want ad’ with a bee club – he wanted bees for his garden. The other two properties had “bee trees” fall down in a storm. The owners called me to relocate them, and I asked if I could hive the bees there.

One nice thing about beekeeping is that start-up costs are low, the equipment lasts for many seasons, and everything has a good resale value. It is also possible to go low-cost and make your own woodenware since the internet has a plethora of patterns. There could be more savings if you catch a swarm or “cut out” honey bees from a structure rather than buy a package of bees.

Our bees give us plenty of things to talk about and share as a family. I still have to call my daughter for beekeeping assistance from time to time, and my husband has moved from moral and verbal support to hands-on support during hive inspections and bottling. Urban bees have been a great hobby for us.

Julia McGuire keeps bees and loves to talk about them. She maintains her bee clubs’ websites and edits their newsletters. She serves the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network as a Media Assistant, has used her DIY rain barrels for her urban farm since 2000, and forages in the parks every now and then for fruit and nuts. Sometimes she talks to herself about bees on her blog, which can be found at http://juliecache.com.

Featured Beekeeper: Julia Subscribe Email Print

Featured Beekeeper: Julia


What initially sparked your interest in keeping bees? 

The desire to continue my daughter’s hobby and curiosity as well as the observation hives that we see at the state fair and nature centers, and of course, Ms. Frizzle and the Magic School Bus sparked the interest.

Did you have any hesitations before getting your first hive?

No, because I felt prepared. My daughter was assigned to a mentor and had taken a beginning beekeeping class and kept the textbook.  I was nervous to work the bees alone, but curiosity overtook my nerves.

Were your neighbors instantly onboard with the idea, or did you have to convince them?

We did not give our neighbors a choice, because the hive is on our property. Additionally, with a six foot fence behind the hive, the bees’ flight pattern is up and over our heads. The one neighbor had nostalgic boyhood honey bee memories, which made him a big supporter. Another neighbor had concerns when he blew out the pipes of his swimming pool or had puddles of pool water on his deck, but overall supports bees. A new neighbor is new to home owning, gardening, and yard work, and of course, the benefits that honey bees bring to a yard. For the hives that I keep on other people’s land, everyone has been welcoming. In fact, their neighbors come over to watch during my visits.

What kind of work do you have to do to upkeep your beehive?

A beehive is made of boxes full of frames. The frames are where the bees make their comb and where they live. I inspect frames to ensure healthy, productive queens; monitor overall health; give space for growth, brood rearing, and food storage; and to prevent swarming.

How does the honey harvesting process work? How much honey do you usually get and what do you do with it?

Honey is typically harvested by removing frames that are full of capped  honeycomb. If the honey has a low moisture content, the combs are uncapped and honey is removed by spinning the combs in an extractor, or special centrifuge. Some people produce comb honey, in which honeycomb is removed from the frame without extracting. Since we haven’t had regular weather patterns, there is no ‘usually getting’ any amount – in fact, I feel like Mother Nature owes us another month of warm summer weather this year! Honey bee health also contributes to harvest. In Iowa, I reserve honey for the bees to consume during winter. Some hives have no surplus to harvest because of this; other hives produce many pounds of surplus.

Do you grow food or other plants as well? If so, do the bees affect your output at all?

I keep a home garden of food and landscaping plants. I have hives on someone else’s property, and his raspberry yield was great this year (after 7 years of small harvests); bees definitely boosted our home’s strawberry harvest (see my story). 

What has been your greatest challenge in your beekeeping endeavors? 

The greatest challenge to beekeeping is ignorance. There are people who think that every stinging bug is a honey bee, who want me to save bees from their house when they really have wasps, who hate having bees on their flowers for fear of their neighbor’s kid or dog being stung during a friendly visit, etc.

What do you enjoy the most about beekeeping?

I love meeting new people. I also get a rush in saving and relocating bees from fallen, storm damaged trees. 

Why do you think keeping bees is important? 

Gardens and bees benefit from each other’s presence. If we want successful gardens, we need pollinators. Native pollinators and their habitats are declining, which makes keeping urban bees more important. 

Do you think this is a growing movement? Should other people think about getting beehives? 

Urban beekeeping has certainly grown in my area. Demand for beginning beekeeping classes remains high. We’ve moved from a small email group to a Facebook group of over 150 people; roughly half of the membership is made of prospective beekeepers. Yes, everyone should think about getting bee hives. 

Do you have any advice for first-time beekeepers? 

Find a local support group and an experienced mentor who has had success in overwintering bees under his or her belt.

Featured Farmer: David from Davey Jones Homestead Subscribe Email Print

Featured Farmer: David from Davey Jones Homestead


Tell me a little about your urban farm. What is its size? What are you growing? What kind of climate are you growing in?

My farm consists of a few designated areas I have in the backyard on my city lot. I have two fenced-in areas and a corn patch. The biggest fenced-in area is 11ft-by-16ft and I am currently growing broccoli, bush beans, cabbage, carrots, chamomile(for the nutrients it puts into the soul), dill, eggplant, lettuces(butter head, iceberg, & loose leaf), marigolds & nasturtiums (for pest control), Melons(Jenny Lind & Moon And Stars Watermelon), onions, peas (snap & shelling), peppers(bell, corno do torro & jalapeño), tomatoes, spinach, & summer squash. The other fenced-in garden is 8ft-by-10ft and I am growing raspberries, strawberries, and tomatoes in that garden. My corn patch is 8ft-by-14ft and in that I grow Country Gentleman corn, cucumbers between the rows (to keeps weeds down), sunflowers along the border (to attract bugs away from the corn) and pole beans up the sunflowers. I'm in hardiness zone 5 and the climate is very drastic with very cold winters with several feet of snow and very hot summers with high humidity.

What initially got you interested in urban farming?
 I started my first garden last summer and it was mostly just basic veggies, lettuce, carrots, peppers, and peas, and I started it for two basic reasons: The first was because of how expensive organic vegetables cost at the market and the concern of pesticides/herbicides used on non-organic. The second reason is self-sustainability. With so many natural disasters and food shortages around the world, I feel more secure knowing that I can go to the backyard any time that I need to.

Do you use any organic, permaculture, hydroponic, biodynamic, or other methods?
My gardens are 100% organic and I would say that my planting style is a hybrid of square foot and companion planting. I use a compost/compost tea, worm castings, and bush beans to fertilize the soil and I use chamomile to put nutrients in to soil for the veggies to absorb.

Do you use compost? Where do you get it and how does it help your plants grow?
I have a compost pit in the corner of my yard that I put all my grass clippings, leaves, veggie and fruit scraps, and eggshells into. As soon as the soil can be tilled I mix in as much compost into the soil as I can and also a lot of leaves so that they can break down later in the season. The leaves attract a lot of worms which help fertilize.

Do you have any urban livestock? Chickens? Bees?
I do not currently have any livestock but am working towards getting a flock of chickens next summer. I would also love to get into beekeeping but cannot due to my family being allergic to bee stings.

What do you do with the food you grow?
We either eat most of what's harvested or share with family.  We have made a lot of baby food and eat fresh veggies with almost every dinner. I also save as many seeds as I possibly can and whatever I do not use I try to share with friends, family, and coworkers.

What is your greatest challenge in your farming endeavors?
The biggest challenges I face are time—I have a 2 month-old baby boy that requires a lot of my free time. Also, bugs & weeds—growing organically has its pros and cons.

What do you enjoy the most about growing food?
I start a lot of my plants indoors during the winter and I enjoy having some green during those months. I also spend all winter planning out the layout of next year’s garden. I would say that the most enjoyable part is being able to harvest after months of planning, planting, and watching it grow. Knowing that I created it.

Why do you think urban farming is important?
Urban farming is important for several reasons. I think that we need try to reduce our impact on the planet. We also need to be aware that we can grow foods without chemicals and genetically modified plants. We need to teach children how to grow and be little more self-sufficient. Everyone who grows even the smallest garden makes a difference. It’s also very important for our own health.

Do you think this is a growing movement? Is urban farming the future of agriculture?
I do think that urban farming is growing in popularity and will continue to grow as food and fuel prices continue to climb. I hope that as it grows so will awareness of commercial agriculture and the practices that they use and how dangerous some of those practices are. 

Do you have any advice for someone just getting started?
The best advice I can give is to not be afraid to try something new. I started my garden trying to spend as little as possible and I wanted to see a return on investment. It turned out being better than I thought it would and has now grown into a hobby that I am very passionate about. You do not have to spend a lot of money to get results; you just have to be resourceful. I have gotten a lot of ideas from reading articles about homesteading from the early 1900s.

Digging Into Aquaponics: #2 - The Fish Subscribe Email Print

Digging into Aquaponics: #2 -The Fish
By Sylvia Bernstein


Welcome back to aquaponics! In my last article we dug into plants.  This time, we’ll explore the fish side of the aquaponics equation.

What Types? (top performers)

Before choosing your fish you need to ask yourself a couple questions. First, are these fish for food or for fun?  If your ultimate aim is to eat the fish (tilapia, catfish, perch, etc.) then you will need to have a significantly larger tank than if you selected most ornamental, aquarium fish (koi is the exception). You should have a fish tank that holds at least 100 gallons for edible, or game, fish because they will generally grow to about 10-12” long before they are ready to be harvested.

Second, where will your system be located and what will the temperatures be like during each of the seasons? If you are growing indoors or in a sophisticated, climate-controlled greenhouse, then temperatures will remain fairly steady throughout the year and you could grow just about any type of fish.  But if you are growing outside, in a garage, or in a fairly rudimentary or off-grid greenhouse where temperatures will fluctuate dramatically, you need to be very careful in your selection of fish.  Your best bet is to stick to cold, hardy North American varieties such as bluegill, catfish, yellow perch, koi and hybrid striped bass.

How many?

The number of fish you can grow depends on the type of aquaponics system you have.   In a media-based design, such as our AquaBundance Modular Systems, the grow beds are providing both the biological filtration (bacterial conversion of the ammonia liquid waste into nitrates) AND the solid waste filtration (mechanical trapping of the feces). This is an extremely efficient, cost-effective and low-maintenance way to grow aquaponically, but you have to be very careful not to overload your grow bed filter. We recommend sticking to approximately one pound of fish per 5 - 10 gallons of water when the system is mature. At the start of the system, however, we recommend populating your tank with one actual fingerling-sized fish per five gallons of water both because the fish will be very small (you need a lot of fingerlings to get up to a pound!) and the bacterial bio-filter will be very immature and not robust enough to handle much waste. Over time, you will lose a few of the fingerlings, and if you end up in an over-stocked situation you can either give your fish away to an aquaponic neighbor, or make a new friend by running a “free fish!” ad on Craigslist.

Feeding your fish

What you feed your fish depends on two things - their size and whether they are omnivores or carnivores. Size is pretty easy to understand. The fish needs to be able to get its mouth around the food pellet or flake, and small fish like goldfish, guppies, and fingerlings of any game species need significantly smaller pellets than larger fish.

Next, you need to look at the protein ratio of the feed.  Almost all fish require up to 50% protein in their feed during their earliest stages, starting with “fry” then growing up to “fingerling” size.  The difference between carnivorous and omnivorous fish, however, emerges as they move from fingerling into their juvenile and grow-out stages.  Omnivores, such as tilapia, catfish and bluegill, require far less protein, often tapering down to 30%, as they get older, whereas carnivores, such as trout, bass and perch, still require 40% - 45% protein. 

Adult fish will eat approximately 1% of their body weight in feed a day, and juvenile fish up to 7%.  A professionally run aquaculture operation will know exactly how much to feed their fish, and will feed them several times each day to optimize their growth.  This level of accuracy and effort is too much for most home aquaponic gardeners, however, and we use the much more easygoing feeding technique of feeding your fish as much as they will eat in five minutes once or twice a day, depending on how much nitrate you have, or need, in your system.

Water quality testing and maintenance

Fish are totally reliant on you to create a hospitable habitat for them, so there are a few things that you should watch out for to make sure they survive and thrive. First, make sure the temperature of the water is within their healthy ranges. With the exception of cold-water fish like trout, most of the fish I’ve mentioned so far will be happiest, eat the most, and grow the fastest between the low 70s and low 80s Fahrenheit.  The difference with tropical fish, however, is that they won’t survive below a temperature of 60 degrees F, while native American fish will.

Next, make sure that they have plenty of oxygen. The minimum level of oxygen that most fish species can handle is 4 ppm, and most prefer far more than that. Know that as the water temperature increases it becomes harder to keep it oxygenated, so as summer approaches you may want to add an extra aerator to your fish tank.

You should also pay close attention to some water chemistry parameters. Ammonia and nitrite levels in a fully-cycled, mature system should be at or near zero. If they start increasing, that may be a sign that either there is a dead fish in the tank, you have been overfeeding and there is decomposing food at the bottom of the tank, or there is an anaerobic zone somewhere in your grow beds. This is very dangerous for your fish and should be corrected immediately. Also, be sure that your pH does not sink much below 6.0, or that the pH in your system changes rapidly.  Either condition could be dangerous for your fish. 

In conclusion

Fish are the lifeline of an aquaponics system, and certainly the element that makes it the most unique and fun! If you follow these basic guidelines you will be able to enjoy a problem-free relationship with your fish, right up to the point of harvest, should you choose to do so.


Sylvia Bernstein
President, The Aquaponic Source - Try Aquaponics - TheAquaponicSource.com
Author, “Aquaponic Gardening: A Step by Step Guide to Growing Fish and Vegetables Together” -http://aquaponicgardening.com/
Facebook - http://www.facebook.com/TheAquaponicSource
Twitter - @aquapon

Seeds and Soak in Idaho Subscribe Email Print

Seeds and Soak in Idaho 
By Belle Starr

It is astounding to think that at the turn of the last century everyone saved their own seeds. Seed saving was part of the fabric of our country. In fact, it was the Patent and Trade Office (ironically) that gave away over 1.2 billion packets of seeds to gardeners and farmers throughout the country. Our founding fathers knew the value of strengthening regions with the seeds to sustain them. These seeds had their own unique diversity, were adapted to niche climates, and displayed characteristics needed for each specific area. Not surprisingly, the Patent and Trade Office was the department that helped gut the free seed program and now allows for patenting of this precious resource. So how did we get from there to here? The path has been littered with all kinds of controversial backroom deals and questionable politics. We have been convinced that we can’t possibly save our own seeds and instead have to buy them every year. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Seed saving is nothing less than miraculous. Take one tiny seed, plant it, watch it grow, produce fruit and burst forth with enough seed to provide your needs for years, maybe decades. “Saving seed is not hard to do. In fact, it is not even hard to do well,” states Jeremy Cherfas, formerly with Biodiversity International in the new movie Open Sesame.

It was this realization that compelled Bill McDorman to start Seed School. Bill McDorman is the former director of the seminal seed conservation organization, Native Seeds/SEARCH. He founded Seeds Trust, High Altitude Gardens. Today, he is one of the principals of the new nonprofit, the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance.  In 2010, he became convinced that we needed thousands of seed savers to step up and start saving seeds, so he and I launched Seed School. Since its inception in September of 2010, Seed School has graduated over 550 students from all over the world. It is a six-day immersion that packs more power into learning this ancient tradition than almost anything available anywhere else.

The next Seed School is slated for November 2nd through the 7th at Onsen Farm, in Buhl, Idaho featuring geothermal greenhouses and hot springs!  A special tuition rate of $400 (instead of $700) is available to three Urban Farm subscribers for this life changing experience.

You should expect to be inspired, empowered and greatly informed by Seed School. There is an ongoing mix of hands-on, experiential, and integrative activities. Students have access to all teaching materials to help them take next steps after they leave the course. Another important aspect of the week-long program is the camaraderie and deep connections made with other seed lovers. Often students describe feeling a sense of “coming home” at Seed School or feeling relieved to find others as concerned and moved by the magic of seeds as they are.

Contact Belle Starr to take advantage of this special offer: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

For more information, go to: RockyMountainSeeds.org

Belle Starr is former Deputy Director of Native Seeds/SEARCH, co-director of the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance and cofounder of Seed School. She is married to Bill McDorman.




October Featured Farmer: Sommer Subscribe Email Print

Featured Farmer: Sommer from Westhagen Farm

This month's featured farmer is Sommer H. at Westhagen Farm. She grows a medley of fruits and vegetables on her 20' x 30' front yard urban farm to feed her family of five. "Having a garden to me is like experiencing Christmas every day," Sommer tells us, "I rush down the stairs and out the door to see what new goodies have grown."

Tell me a little about your urban farm. What is its size? What are you growing?

My Urban Farm is approximately a 20’x30’ area of my front yard. I am currently growing black berries, strawberries, corn, zucchini, crook neck squash, musk melon, watermelon, bell peppers, eggplant, and herbs.

What initially got you interested in urban farming?

Healthy eating and a desire to know where my food comes from

Do you use any organic, permaculture, biodynamic, or other methods?

We originally started with soil purchased from a local farm, but it became too compacted and we could not get our plants to grow past a certain point. We built new beds and filled them with organic soil purchased from Home Depot.

Do you use compost?

We have started composting our own organic material using leftover or spoiled food from our kitchen.

Do you have any urban livestock? Chickens? Bees?

Although I don’t “keep” bees I have planted plenty of bee enticing flowers around my yard to help with pollination.

What do you do with the food you grow?

I have a HUNGRY family of five!

What is your greatest challenge in your farming endeavors?

Pest/bugs, mainly whiteflies. I’ve been able to control a lot of my pest issues with inexpensive shade cloth. 

What do you enjoy the most about farming/growing food?

Having a garden to me is like experiencing Christmas every day; I rush down the stairs and out the door to see what new goodies have grown.

Why do you think urban farming is important?

Not only is it a good idea for everyone to know how to grow their own food, but it can bring a community together. Though skeptical at first, our neighbors are showing interest in how we are able to grow food in this heat!

Do you think this is a growing movement?

Yes. As people become more aware of the negative side effects of genetically modified foods, we will see more urban farms created as a protest.

Is urban farming the future of agriculture?

I don’t think urban farming will become the future of agriculture; however, it could influence the agriculture industry to make positive changes.

Do you have any advice for someone just getting started?

Don’t give up, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and have patience.

Anything else you’d like to add?

This is a learning process that can be frustrating at times, but the successes make it worthwhile.







Growing Healthy Habits Subscribe Email Print

Growing Healthy Habits

When you reach for a snack or are deciding what to make for dinner, where do you look for food? Most of us probably search through the fridge or pantry to see what’s left of our latest grocery run.

Unfortunately, the foods we buy at the store are often not the healthiest of options. In fact, studies have shown that, if we choose to grow our own food, we build healthier habits all around. For example, one study found that people who grow food tend to eat more fruits and vegetables than those who do not and are even more physically active (1)! It instills healthy habits in kids as well: a study published in the Journal of American Dietetic Association discovered that “preschool children who were almost always served homegrown produce were more than twice as likely to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day—and to like them more—than kids who rarely or never ate homegrown produce” (2).

Let’s say you don’t grow your own food, but perhaps you are already eating all the fruits and vegetables your body needs each day. This is an excellent step in the right direction, and you are certainly worlds ahead of many. However, did you know that produce purchased at the store, even when it’s organic, is probably inferior to food you’ve grown yourself? This is because produce in the grocery stores is often picked when it is still green. They do this so that the food has time to ripen during the transportation process and in the store, keeping it from becoming overripe by the time it makes it into your hands. A study found that tomatoes harvested green actually had 31% less vitamin C than tomatoes that were picked right off the vine (3). So, when you harvest your own freshly-ripened tomatoes from your backyard garden, you are actually getting more nutrients out of those tomatoes than someone who bought their organic tomatoes at the grocery store.


  1. Alaimo, K., et al. 2008. Fruit and Vegetable Intake Among Urban Community Gardeners. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 40. pp. 94-101.
  2. http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/nutrition_articles.asp?id=1275&page=2
  3. http://www.aerogardenblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/White-Paper.pdf


It Takes a Community to Grow a Farm Subscribe Email Print

It Takes a Community to Grow a Farm
By Nic Esposito

When giving a talk or presentation about urban farming, the top two questions I receive from audience members are, “Did you test your soil?” and “How do you make money on an urban farm?” The first question is easy. I answer with a resounding “Yes,” and then give the advice that you should never start growing in an urban area without a toxicity soil test. But the second question takes a bit more time because the answer has evolved so much since both my wife and I started urban farming in Philadelphia.

When I co-founded the organization Philly Rooted with my former farming partner Erica Smith in West Philly, this was one of the first questions we faced when developing the Walnut Hill Community Farm. We built the farm with funding from the City Harvest Growers’ Alliance program developed by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Building off of the wildly successful City Harvest Program where participating city gardeners and farmers are provided resources (soil, seedlings, technical assistance) in return for donating a portion of produce to food banks, the Growers’ Alliance provided the same materials in return for city gardeners and farmers selling food back into the marketplace. Although free is always a better price, the innovation of the Growers’ Alliance program was to serve a portion of the population stable enough to not have to rely on food banks, but low-income enough to not be served by high-end farmers markets or natural food-centric grocery stores, while also adding some financial sustainability to the programs and people growing the food.

When Erica and I joined, the question of making money on an urban farm was in stark focus. We both quickly realized that we did not want to be commercial farmers in Philadelphia. However, we also observed and interacted with the many unemployed young people in the immediate neighborhood. So we amended the question. Rather than ask, “How do you make money on an urban farm?,” we asked, “Who should make money on an urban farm?” And hence, the Philly Rooted Growers’ Cooperative was born. Through this cooperative, we subsidized the farm through the City Harvest Growers’ Alliance resources, our management, and fundraising from a local CDC to provide these young people with the resources to grow and sell food at local markets in an entrepreneurial and cooperative way. Erica and I did this for two seasons before turning it over to the CDC, which continues to run the program.

When my wife Elisa started Emerald Street Urban Farm in 2008, which I now co-manage with her, she was part of the Growers’ Alliance as well (it’s actually partly how we met). And although we shared the same mission of community food and economic security, she approached it in a different way. She and her farming partner at the time Patrick Dunn identified numerous businesses throughout the rapidly revitalizing neighborhood of Fishtown/Kensington where the farm was based. They set up accounts with these businesses to sell produce, reinvesting all sales back into the heavily subsidized weekly market that they ran for their immediate community. When I say “heavily subsidized” I mostly mean free, and when I say “immediate community” I mean a community that, according to the Philly City Paper, is positioned next to one of the largest open-air heroin markets in the entire country.  

Although Erica and I, and Patrick and Elisa, are all very proud of what we accomplished at such an early point in our urban farm careers, these programs could not be sustained. Like many farmers, the Philly Rooted cooperative growers faced bad market days, crop failure, and the realities that it’s really hard to make a living growing food. Cooperative members also faced the challenge of winter employment. As for Patrick and Elisa, they dealt with the burnout that comes from having to stay consistent and productive when dealing with restaurants when the farm was their third, and sometimes fourth, job. 

Since then, Erica has moved on to become the manager of the Tree Philly program for the city of Philadelphia, and still grows food in West Philly. Patrick is now on the West Coast working on farms. And Elisa and I have continued to run Emerald Street Urban Farm, spending the past few years refining our growing system into a site that now includes expanded communal growing spaces, a community garden with individual plots, a community kitchen space (with a killer cob oven), a community medicinal herb bed, and a greenhouse that is built using Earthship building principles. But we have also refined the question of, “How do you make money on an urban farm?” into “How do you sustain an urban farm?”

As we have both come to understand, making money does not mean making a profit that she and I use to pay our mortgage or get nachos at the awesome Mexican restaurant down the street. We both continue to work full time jobs. The money that we need to make is to sustain the farm as a community food source for our neighbors, as well as sustain the farm as something that we can manage in our daily lives. So we took a lesson from what I believe to be the most sustainable economic model for farming—the CSA.

Since the first American CSAs were developed in Massachusetts in the 1980s, they have grown to be one of the most profitable and secure models for small-scale farmers.  Taking these lessons and best practices, we developed what we call our Worker’s CSA. Basically, we open the farm every Monday from 4-8pm right after the commercial workday ends, and we invite our community to come grow with us in our community growing area of the garden. We begin the day with a long list of tasks that need to be done, and we usually end the day by providing all participants each Monday with enough vegetables from the harvest to get them through the week. All other harvested produce is donated to a local soup kitchen around the corner from our house. We also have volunteers who entertain the 10-15 kids who show up every Monday by conducting cooking lessons and what we call “craftivity” hour where kids make everything from animal masks to pinwheels.

This system obviously benefits the farm through the built-in labor force that shows up consistently and helps us grow. But it also benefits the workers because their commitment is low, their experience great, their gardening knowledge is improved, their community has green space and they get to take home veggies. In Urban Roots, the documentary about urban farming in Detroit, one urban farmer interviewee said that he would take 15 people over $15,000 any day of the week.

Although Emerald Street Urban Farm has used community association donations to rebuild the compost system, our community garden water system and have written a grant for a new horticulture inspired fence, those 10-15 people who show up every Monday really make it work. And Elisa and I benefit, too. We have a farm right outside of our house where we can pick fresh veggies for dinner every night. I will also be releasing a collection of essays in November called Kensington Homestead, which was inspired by and made possible by all of the great and crazy stories of life on Emerald Street. But in the end, our neighborhood benefits from a farm that has been able to sustain itself for seven seasons and will for continue to do so for some time to come. And it’s the leveraging of people power that keeps it going.

The Wild Wisdom of Weeds Subscribe Email Print

The Wild Wisdom of Weeds

A Q&A with Katrina Blair


Did you know there are 13 plants you can find right outside your door that can help you maintain a state of optimal health with minimal cost and effort? The Wild Wisdom of Weeds (Chelsea Green, 2014) by Katrina Blair is the first book on foraging and edible weeds to focus on 13 plants found all over the world, each of which represents an essential food source and extensive medical pharmacy and first-aid kit.

Author Katrina Blair has spent months on end taking walkabouts in the wild, eating nothing but what she forages, and has become a wild-foods advocate, community activist, gardener, and chef, teaching and presenting internationally about foraging and the healthful lifestyle it promotes. Blair’s philosophy is sobering, realistic, and ultimately optimistic. If we can open our eyes to see the wisdom found in these weeds right under our noses, instead of trying to eradicate them as “invasive,” we will achieve true food security.

Shay Totten, Communications Director at Chelsea Green Publishing, sat down with Blair to talk about her new book and how these 13 weeds can help regenerate the earth and support human survival.


There is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson in your book that says a weed is “a plant whose virtues have not as yet been discovered.” What virtuous uses do the 13 plants offer?

KB: The weeds’ virtues are vast and prolific—they provide important forage for the bees and other wild pollinators, especially as human development is encroaching on wild habitat. They help regenerate the soil and bring fertility back to land that has been disturbed or overgrazed. They often have deep taproots that pull minerals up from the ground into their leaves which compost back on the ground creating new topsoil over time. Their roots break up compacted soil and help aerate the ground for earthworms and other microorganisms. The wild weeds are exceptionally nutritious as protein-rich food sources.  Weeds typically have more nutrition than anything we buy from the store. These thirteen weeds each have powerful medicinal qualities and, through utilizing them on a regular basis, they can not only help cure illnesses, but also prevent them from occurring.  Weeds often grow in abundance so there is commonly little worry about over harvesting them, and they are generally free and widely available as an important survival resource.  



What are the additional benefits we gain (aside from nutrition) – when we harvest weeds for food?

KB: Harvesting the wild weeds is not only useful for food and medicine, but also includes the benefits of increasing personal empowerment and connection to our sense of place.  When we know the uses of the common plants growing outside our homes, we gain a sense of belonging and deepen our interconnectivity with everything in nature. The simple act of going outside to gather our greens for juice or salad or for making a recipes opens us up to the magic of the wild world co-existing with us even in the middle of the city. When we go outside to harvest, we participate in the giving and receiving exchange of nature. It allows us to notice what is happening outside, such as the patterns and the changes occurring throughout the seasons. This engagement brings us in closer connection with our wild home on earth. The wild weeds also offer an abundant resource that can be utilized for enhancing the health of our community. Gathering the plants, making recipes and providing them to your friends, family and neighbors is a great way to educate about their importance and create a community that honors the natural landscape. We offer a wild food CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) to our community to educate and encourage them to get more familiar and comfortable with using the wild plants on a daily basis.


A fair number of readers probably already know about eating dandelion, clover, amaranth, and mustard. What are some less common plants that people might not know are edible, and what would be a good starter recipe to get their interest?

KB: Purslane is a very commonly found plant that is a delicious succulent with a mild and pleasantly sour flavor. Adding purslane to salads, sandwiches and soups is a fun and easy way to incorporate the wild plant into our life. Lambsquarter is another very common wild weed that grows around our homes and in and around our gardens.  It can be used in meals just like spinach, either fresh in salads or steamed in other dishes. In the fall, the seeds become ripe and, after being harvested, can be prepared like the “pseudo grain” quinoa. The best starter recipe I would recommend is a simple green juice. Whether it is wild lambsquarter, mallow or purslane, a large handful of the greens can be harvested fresh and added to the blender with one chopped apple, half of a peeled lemon. Add three to four cups of water and blend. Use a kitchen strainer to remove the pulp from the juice if desired.  Drink the juice fresh and experience the amazing energy and inspiration that comes from this regular practice. 




One of the plants in the book is the thistle, which I think many readers may consider a plant to avoid touching given the prickly spines in the leaf edges. What’s the best way to harvest thistle, and what’s your favorite use and/or recipe?

KB: Harvest thistle from the back rib of the leaf where there are generally no prickly spines. You can also use gloves to harvest the leaves. One favorite recipe that I love to make each week for our farmers market in Durango, Colorado, is the thistle root Chai Tea. The recipe is delicious and the benefits of thistle root support the liver’s regeneration.  It is fairly easy to dig up the root of the thistle.  One or two thistle roots are enough. If possible, use a thistle that is younger in growth rather than one that has already gone to seed because the root will be more tender. Once harvested, wash the root and place it in the blender with an equal amount of fresh ginger root, and about one teaspoon each of chai spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, and black pepper. Use one full blender full of water, blend thoroughly and strain out the pulp. Add the strained tea back into the blender and add one cup of cashews and one-half (1/2) cup of honey.  Blend again until creamy. Serve over ice or warm on the stove and serve hot.




Book Review: Old Manhattan Has Some Farms Subscribe Email Print

Book Review:

Old Manhattan Has Some Farms

By Susan Lendroth, Illustrated by Kate Endle
Reviewed by Tayler Jenkins

In this children’s book released just last month, Lendroth writes a fun new song to the tune of “Old Macdonald Had a Farm”—in this version, kids learn about urban farming in cities across the United States, from rooftop gardens in Chicago to hydroponics in Seattle. Illustrations feature kids all over the country taking part in growing food by composting, potting plants, watering plants, beekeeping and, best of all, sharing and eating delicious fresh foods. Through these bright and colorful illustrations and smoothly-flowing lyrics, this book is an excellent way to introduce kids to different aspects of city farming and teach them that you can grow food anywhere. At the back of the book, there are even some tips for singing the song using your own hometown’s name.  

Old Manhattan Has Some Farms is an excellent tool for anyone that wants to teach their kids about urban farming in a fun and age appropriate manner. It is catchy, too, and before you know it the entire family will be singing “E-I-E-I-Grow!”

The book can be purchased on Amazon or may also be available at a public library near you. 

The Secrets of The Funky Kitchen: How to Prepare Traditional, Wholesome Meals in 30 Minutes or Less a Day! Subscribe Email Print

The Secrets of The Funky Kitchen:
How to Prepare Traditional, Wholesome Meals in 30 Minutes or Less a Day

Monday, September 8th, 6 PM Pacific


If you think making nutritious homemade foods from scratch takes too much time or costs too much money, you need to know about this.

My colleague, Sarica Cernohous, an acupuncturist, mother and author of The Funky Kitchen, is hosting a FREE webinar where she'll reveal her favorite tips and tricks for making delicious meals using traditional food preparation techniques in less than 30 minutes a day, even on a tight budget.

Sarica explains how it’s not enough to shop for healthy food at the supermarket. The next step to truly vibrant health is to prepare that food in ways that make it easy to digest and absorb the most nutrients.

It’s easier than you think. Sarica will dispel the common myths and show you exactly how to get started preparing nutrient-dense foods just like your great-grandmother did. Your family is going to love this.

Register and reserve your spot for this complimentary training now by clicking here.

Beyond the secrets Sarica will share, she's going to be offering some other very special learning opportunities to all attending the webinar--if you're ready to take you health to a new level of vibrancy and clarity, you won't want to miss this event! 

House Grass to Home-Grown: Transforming Lawns into Edible Gardens Subscribe Email Print

House Grass to Home-Grown:
Transforming Lawns into Edible Gardens

By Kari Spencer


Are a carton of juice, a head of lettuce or a bouquet of flowers on your shopping list?  Most folks will run to the grocery store for such items, but have you ever considered producing some of these everyday food staples at home?  Some of your neighbors may be doing just that.  From backyards and front lawns to patios and fire escapes, there is a growing worldwide trend to convert outdoor spaces that have been traditionally empty or strictly ornamental to vegetable gardens and urban mini-farms.

For homeowners and renters alike, many city-dwellers have inherited a yard, a balcony or patio from the previous occupant.  Often, these visible outdoor areas are homogenous, cookie-cutter spaces, where neatly-trimmed grass or a few well-placed flower pots are admired and appreciated by the neighbors.  But for some innovative gardeners, a feast for the eyes is not enough.  They want something edible in return for their hard work, the water and the expense of tending a landscape.  These food revolutionaries are maximizing their cultivation area by converting landscapes, patios, and nearby vacant lots into productive edible gardens.  In the quest for more space to grow food, even conventional front lawns are being transformed into maverick, and highly visible, vegetable plots.

What compels these gardeners to roll up their sleeves and become front yard farmers? Many are motived to save money at the grocery store by growing their own fruits and vegetables.  Organic or natural growers view vegetable gardening as a method to eliminate pesticides and genetically modified organisms from their diet. Some gardeners are driven by a desire to eat more locally, and what could be more local than stepping out of your own door for produce?  Others simply want a greater connection to nature and to the source of their food, enjoying the experience of sowing seeds and nurturing them as they grow.  Satisfaction is derived not only from the harvest, but from the very process of tending and cultivating the garden.  If their backyard is too small or shaded to grow what they need, the garden may begin to spill onto the front yard.  

Though publicity is given to highly energetic gardeners who devote their entire front lawn to growing food, not everyone is so ambitious.  Front yard gardens take as many forms as there are front yard gardeners.  Some are satisfied to grow a small lettuce bed or a border of edible flowers.  Other approaches are growing a stand of fruit trees, replacing a fountain with an herb spiral or hanging a row of baskets overflowing with strawberries instead of flowers.  For gardeners who desire ample growing space but don’t want to take out their grass completely, a few raised beds as well as the lawn are becoming an increasingly common site.  The configuration of the garden depends on how much time and money the gardener wants to spend, as well as their preference for the type of appearance that they want to display. 

If visions of an edible estate are making you anxious to get started creating your own front yard farm, be sure to check with your city codes and HOA rules before tilling up the lawn.  Some municipalities discourage, or even ban, front yard vegetable gardens.  It would be a shame to go to the trouble of creating a garden, only to have to undo it later, as has occurred in a few high profile cases nationally. 

In areas in which the law prohibits growing food in the front yard, a subtle approach and a little creativity can make it possible.  Undercover gardeners might consider growing a few unobtrusive vegetables in pots near the front door or hanging baskets of bushy tomatoes from the porch.  Herbs, greens, and lettuces can be discreetly interspersed amongst flowers to create an attractive border. Fruit trees can replace shade trees, and ornamental shrubs can be swapped for edible rosemary or blueberry bushes.  Sweet potatoes and oregano make attractive ground covers.  There are many ways to expand gardening space into the front yard without the tell-tale rows or raised beds.

If your neighborhood doesn’t allow front yard gardens, perhaps you can be the catalyst for your community.  As the stories of renegade front yard farmers are becoming public and interest in gardening grows, a groundswell of public pressure is rising in favor of gardening rights.  Zoning ordinances across the country are gradually changing to support urban agriculture in its many forms.  Most of all, if you are inspired to convert your own lawn to food, jump in, start small or start big, but most of all just start.  Grow food however you are able, and enjoy the benefits and satisfaction of having fresh produce from your very own front yard.


Kari Spencer is a Master Gardener volunteer and the founder of The Micro Farm Project, a tiny urban farm in the heart of Phoenix, AZ.  A former elementary school teacher, she currently enjoys teaching adults, spreading her passion for gardening, cooking and small livestock.  She shares the farm with her husband, Lewis, their four daughters, and a host of chickens, turkeys, sheep, goats, rabbits and quail. Check out her blog!

Chanterelle Hunting in the Pacific Northwest Subscribe Email Print

Chanterelle Hunting in the Pacific Northwest
     By Sarah Jaroszewski

As the long days of summer turn into early fall, golden orange treasures (cantharellus formosas) emerge from the forest floor. Here in the Pacific Northwest, these delectable fungi favor Douglas fir and hemlock forests. These extremely versatile mushrooms are some of the safer mushrooms to identify in the wild and are an amazing addition to your diet, providing both nutrition and wonderful flavor.

The bright golden-orange color is easy to spot in the forest, an uphill angle makes it even easier to find chanterelles growing under and around stumps, fallen branches and ferns.

There is a poisonous lookalike mushroom to be aware of (pictured above) commonly called, “Jack O’Lantern.” (omphalotus olearius). They grow in clumps in different areas of the forest (ie: on logs), have a more brownish color and true gills on the underside as opposed to the distinct forked ridges of the chanterelle (aka:“false gills”). Jack O’Lanterns are bioluminescent—the gills glow in the dark! It’s pretty amazing that an enzyme is responsible for this. Nature is magnificent!

The “false gills” (aka: ridges) pictured below are the best way to distinguish the two mushrooms. 

And remember, if in doubt, throw it out! Go with an experienced person your first time or find a class at a local state park. Be very cautious of what you touch or harvest. There are lots of fun varieties to look at out there but most of them shouldn’t be harvested or played with. 

Also, remember to be respectful of the forest by walking gently around plants, leaving the small baby mushrooms to grow and not overharvesting (leave 20%). Chanterelles have a mutually beneficial relationship with the plants and trees they grow around—helping each other get nutrients and water. They are integrally connected with the forest so it is important to leave no trace and harvest with intention. I bring along a basket and small scissors and clean off needles and soil as I harvest.

I usually cook some of what I harvest and dry a portion in a dehydrator to use during the winter. Edible mushrooms can be very nutrient-rich so properly cooking to preserve these nutrients is very beneficial. You always want to cook mushrooms to break down the cell walls and make them digestible. To best preserve nutrients cook them covered on low heat (below 140 degrees F) with a little butter or olive oil for 15-20 minutes. I cook them this way and then add them to different recipes.
Chanterelles are a source of vitamins B, C and D (one of the only plant foods besides seaweed that can provide you with this essential vitamin). They are also a source of minerals, protein and fiber. 

Wild harvesting chanterelle mushrooms can be a rewarding enriching experience with common sense and safety precautions in place. If you have ever been interested in wild harvesting food, I strongly encourage you to start reading, as there are many guide books and resources online. Being able to identify and harvest food and medicine in the wild has always been an important skill and is no less valuable today. Happy (and safe) harvesting!


Urban Fruit Trees Subscribe Email Print

Urban Fruit Trees
© 2013 Greg Peterson, All Rights Reserved

Greg's favorite fruit: fresh apricots right off the tree
Citrus Hedge
Apple Hedge

My favorite plant to nurture at the Urban Farm is the fruit tree—it appeals to the lazy gardener in me, as I can plant a tree once and reap the bounty for many years to come.  The selection of fruit trees that you can grow is vast -- peaches, apples, apricots, plums, pears, and citrus, not to mention all the tropical fruits you might enjoy. 

Discovering just what works for you and how to pick the perfect fruit trees for your yard can be perplexing and growing fruit trees in an urban area is significantly different than rural orchard growing.  In rural areas a commercial orchardist would have the tools, trucks, tractors and space to grow fruit and grow a commercial harvest.  As urban dwellers we often lack these tools and the time it takes to manage large trees, which often take up 400 to 600 square feet and literally fill up yards.

Most urban farmers do not need or expect commercial results from their urban orchard. A commercial grower would never consider using his methods on a small lot, so why not develop urban methods?

A few years ago my friends over at Dave Wilson Nursery created a concept they call ‘backyard orchard culture’ or urban orcharding (for this article we will call it ‘the technology’), a process designed to help keep our trees small.  Small trees are: easier to pick, prune and manage; allow for high density planting with a greater number of different varieties in the same space of a large tree; and offer what is called successive ripening.

The benefits of keeping a fruit tree small starts with ease of management.  Most logically this makes the trees easier to pick without having to get a ladder or some other height-stretching tool we might have.  Additionally, this also makes the tree easier to protect from birds and other predators.  Netting the trees is an option—however, never use bird netting as it tangles in the trees and will actually catch and kill birds.  My suggestion is to use tulle, a fabric found inexpensively in fabric stores.  This protects your fruit harvest without doing damage to the tree and wildlife.  My friend Jenny actually completely covers her apricot tree and brings it up under the canopy and attaches it a little bit up the trunk.  This creates a dip in the tulle where falling fruit is caught. She then puts a small slit in the tulle that she closes with a clothespin.  This gives her easy access to open and harvest her bounty.  Ingenious I say.

Additionally, small trees offer us the ability to put more trees in the same space as one larger tree.  At one point at the Urban Farm I had 12 trees planted in a small orchard that previously housed one large tree.  Multiple trees planted in a small area is accomplished by planting trees closer together.  I have found that the perfect size tree is 6 to 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide.  Using this logic, planting trees 6 feet apart will give you a nice hedge if you put them all in a row.  I often use this method to create front yard fences along the sides and sometimes the front of the property.  You would be amazed at how much privacy a front yard fruit hedge provides.  In the Dave Wilson Nursery document linked at the bottom of this article they cover more ways to increase your planting density.

Successive ripening, however, is by far the best reason to keep your trees small.  With successive ripening you are selecting different varieties of a type of fruit that will ripen at different times.  By using this method in conjunction with keeping your trees smaller you harvest a smaller amount of fruit off of each tree but have more trees to harvest fruit from at different times.  You are effectively extending your harvesting season for the same kind of fruit.

Here is what it looks like: in Phoenix I choose a Desert Gold Peach, which ripens mid-May, a Tropic Snow Peach that ripens early June and a Mid Pride Peach that ripens in late June.  This means that instead of being able to harvest one crop for two to three weeks I can harvest three crops over 9 to 12 weeks.

Now that you have a basic understanding of urban orcharding, you need to be aware of one major factor in growing fruit.  I call it the “Fruit Tree Secret” that most nurseries don’t want you to know, primarily because corporate sends them trees that will never produce fruit in your climate.  AND they have to sell these trees.

The secret is called chill hours.  Fruit trees in the stone fruit (peach, apricot and plum) and pome fruit (apple and pear) families require a minimum number of chill hours to set fruit.  Chill hours are considered temperatures between 32 and 46 degrees F and occur between October and February.  Your first step in fruit tree ownership is to determine the amount of chill hours that you get in your area.  To do this, contact your local nursery or cooperative extension office. 

Here in the Valley of the Sun we receive on average 350 hours of chill, so we need to make sure that any fruit trees planted, require less than 350 hours of chill.  Planting a fruit tree that requires more than 350 hours may or may not produce fruit.

The simplest way to determine chill hours of a tree is to look at the tag on the tree—it will say how many chill hours are required. If it doesn’t say this and you don’t know—DON’T BUY THE TREE.  I know because I did this two decades ago.  The peach tree was offered at a screaming $6.99. We couldn’t pass it up so we adopted the tree and planted it.  Fifteen years and zero peaches later I had to pay someone to remove the tree.  That is a hard lesson that you don’t have to repeat. 

In 1975 when I was 14 years old I planted my first 3 fruit trees at my childhood home.  13 years later I planted my first urban orchard and by 1999 other people were curious about how to plant their own fruit trees.  I was frustrated by the lack of information that was available to assist me in doing this.  So, I started offering classes in my living room at the Urban Farm in order to teach people how to grow their own. 

That same year I contacted a local nursery wanting to purchase 50 fruit trees and they were unreceptive to giving me a discount.  So I reached out to Dave Wilson Nursery in California, they were perfectly happy to sell me trees at wholesale.  I had to purchase 100 fruit trees, which I did and the Urban Farm Fruit Tree Program was launched.  The program has been offering community classes, education and fruit trees every year since and has distributed more than 10,000 fruit trees in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area.

If you live in Arizona you can participate in classes and purchasing fruit trees.  If you live worldwide you can participate in our online classes.  Either way, please visit our fruit tree program page at http://www.urbanfarm.org/fruit-tree-program for more details on the program.  Visit this link http://learn.urbanfarm.org/urban-orchard for Dave Wilson Nursery’s free white paper on Backyard Orchard Culture.

If you are inspired and would like to create a Fruit Tree Program for your area email me at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Above all enjoy planting your own urban orchard and reaping the fruits of your labor.


About Greg Peterson and The Urban Farm 

UrbanFarm.org is the home of a wide range of urban farming resources, education, tips and the 10,000 Urban Farms Project, which was created to discover a farm on every street. Founder Greg Peterson began gardening in Phoenix, Ariz. in 1975, discovered permaculture in 1991 and dubbed his personal residence in central Phoenix, The Urban Farm, in 2001. Peterson earned his Masters in Urban an Environmental Planning from Arizona State University in 2006. His long history of environmental learning and growing food in the city contributes to the success of UrbanFarm.org. Peterson wrote and published The Urban Farm Simple Sustainability Series, sits on the board of Native Seed/SEARCH and teaches the class Sustainable Food and Farms at Arizona State University. To find out more visit http://www.UrbanFarm.org

Download Greg’s Free eBook on Urban Farming at http://learn.urbanfarm.org/free-ebook/

It's Pumpkin Season! How to Grow Our Favorite Fall Food Subscribe Email Print

It's Pumpkin Season!
How to Grow Our Favorite Fall Food

By Kari Spencer

At the close of a long hot summer, the arrival of the pumpkin heralds the welcome arrival of autumn.  More than just the emblem of ancient folklore, the pumpkin packs a nutritional punch, supplying a rich source of vitamin C, vitamin A, fiber, and potassium. The kings of the fall garden, pumpkins demand a large amount of real estate in which to grow, generous quantities of water, fertile compost-enriched soil, and ample sunlight. In exchange, the gardener is rewarded with a harvest of pumpkins that are nutritious, delicious, and versatile for many kinds of recipes. 

When to Plant:  Pumpkin seeds will not germinate in cold soil and tender seedlings are easily damaged by frost, so it is best to refrain from planting until all danger of frost has passed. In cool climates, it may be helpful to warm the soil one week before planting by covering it with black plastic. To plant, cut one-inch holes in the material and plant through the openings. In northern regions of the United States, plantings are generally made in late May, or in early July for southern regions.

How to Plant:  Enrich the garden soil with generous amounts of compost or composted manure.  Plant pumpkin seeds one inch deep in mounds or rows spaced 3-5 feet apart, depending on the variety.  To ensure good germination rates, place four or five seeds per hill, thinning to one or two healthy seedlings per hill as they begin to grow and develop several leaves.   

Locate plants near the edges of the garden so that the aggressive vines can be directed away from other plants. As pumpkins begin to develop, support them on a thick piece of newspaper, a carpet square or cardboard to discourage rot that occurs when the tender skin comes in contact with the soil underneath.

Watering:  A regular, deep watering schedule will help pumpkins to grow large in size, at an even growth rate that prevents splitting.   Water the soil around the plant stem using a drip system or soaker hose, and avoid wetting the leaves and fruits, which can encourage the development of fungal diseases.  The ideal time of day to water is early in the morning.  During the afternoon heat, pumpkin leaves will often wilt, and then perk up again as the sun begins to set.  However, if you notice wilting before noon, it may be a sign that the plant needs more water.

Fertilizing:  Amend the soil regularly with a layer of compost or composted manure that is spread on top of the soil or piled in trenches between planting mounds. Begin to fertilize when plants are about one foot tall with a nitrogen fertilizer that will promote healthy vines and leaves. Watch closely for signs that flowers are beginning to form.  Then, to encourage blooms, switch over to a product that has less nitrogen and more phosphorous, such as a “bloom booster” fertilizer.  Too much nitrogen at the bloom stage can cause vines to continue to grow leaves at the expense of flowers, which will result in a diminished harvest.

Increasing Pumpkin Size:  To increase the size of your pumpkins, pinch off the fuzzy ends of the vines when they begin to set fruits.   This will halt lateral vine growth and focus the plant’s energy on producing large-sized pumpkins.  Maximizing the size of giant varieties is accomplished by removing all but one or two female flowers from each vine.  By doing so, all of the vine’s energy is concentrated on growing one or two mammoth-sized pumpkins.

Weeds:  Pumpkins do not thrive if they have to compete with weeds for water and nutrients.  Keep the rows and mounds free of weeds, but be mindful of aggressive cultivation.  Pumpkins have shallow roots that are easily damaged by garden tools.

Troubleshooting:  A common complaint amongst gardeners is that their pumpkins have blooms, but are not setting fruit. It is helpful to know that the first flowers that appear on pumpkin vines are all male.  If the vine has just begun to show flowers, all that may be necessary is a little bit of patience until the female blooms appear, and then fruit will begin to set.  If female blooms are present, but pollination is not occurring, check the weather.  Daytime temperatures hovering over 90oF, with night time temperatures in the 70s or above, hinder pollination.  Fruit set should resume as temperatures drop.

Pests:  Pumpkin pests include cucumber beetles, squash bugs, squash vine borers, corn rootworm beetles and aphids.  Monitor your plants daily to catch infestations in their early development, deterring the insects with a spray of neem oil, pyrethrum, or other organic treatments. Applications should be made at dusk to reduce damage to beneficial insects.  Remove infested plant materials and debris from the garden, and dust the soil with diatomaceous earth to hinder tender larvae.

Diseases:  Powdery mildew is a fungus that shows up as gray or white spots on leaves and stems.  It is an incurable condition, weakening plants and distorting fruits if not controlled.  To curb its negative effects, remove diseased plant material and discard it in a hot compost pile or bag it and throw it away.  Spray the remaining plant with a mixture of one part cow’s milk to nine parts water, or one teaspoon baking soda to one quart of water.  Either of these mixtures will help to prevent the spread of the disease, and both treatments must be reapplied after rain. 

Harvesting:  Pick pumpkins when the flesh is a deep, solid color.  The rind should be hard and the skin resistant to light pressure by your fingernail.  The best time to harvest is in late September or early October. Use gloves and pruning shears to remove the pumpkin from the vine, leaving a few inches of stem attached.  Pumpkins with intact stems not only have a handle, but they also remain fresh longer.  Use caution when handling pumpkins as wounds and bruises decrease the amount of time that they will “keep.” 

Curing: Cured pumpkins taste best and last longer.  To cure harvested pumpkins and harden the rind for storage, set them in the sun for ten days.  Cover or move them into a shed if rain or frost is predicted.  When cured, store pumpkins in a cool place (ideally 50oF,) protected from frost, with none touching another.  Pumpkins kept in ideal conditions should last two to three months without spoilage.

Once carved for Jack-O-Lanterns, pumpkins can rot quickly.  Make your carved creations last longer by submerging them in a bucket with a ten-percent bleach solution (one part bleach and ten parts water.)  After soaking for ten minutes, remove them from the water and allow them to dry.  The bleach will deter decomposing bacteria so that your pumpkin stays fresh.  If you notice a black spot growing on the interior, soak the pumpkin again or cut out the spot and spritz the area with bleach solution. Display pumpkins in a cool area out of the sun to ensure that they look lively throughout the season.

Kari Spencer is a Master Gardener volunteer and the founder of The Micro Farm Project, a tiny urban farm in the heart of Phoenix, AZ.  A former elementary school teacher, she currently enjoys teaching adults, spreading her passion for gardening, cooking and small livestock.  She shares the farm with her husband, Lewis, their four daughters, and a host of chickens, turkeys, sheep, goats, rabbits and quail. Check out her blog!

Your Green Lawn Subscribe Email Print

Your Green Lawn
By Greg Peterson

Oh, the double meaning there. AND why the heck is Greg the Urban Farmer talking about growing a lawn? Primarily because it drives me absolutely crazy how the status quo grows winter lawns. IMHO they are doing it ALL wrong—too many chemicals, too much water and not enough organic material.

So here is how ‘they’ do their lawn. Sometime between Aug 15 and September 15 the crews come in to scalp (cut the grass very short) and then ‘they’ de-thatch the lawn. Interestingly, both of these processes remove many of the nutrients and organic material required for healthy soil and growth.


What "they" start with.  Dirt, no organic material and some lonely seeds.

The next step of the process is to seed. And seed they do—right on top of the dirt, which is devoid of many of the nutrients and all of the organic material that will keep the seed moist while it germinates.

Then they water—lots of water, multiple times each day with the high spots drying out and lacking in germinated seeds while the low spots collect puddles where the seeds rot.


Really their lawn 3 weeks later.

Why is this up for me now? I have been running since the beginning of September and so I have been watching this process as the local municipality reseeds their front lawn - which is close to a half an acre so it is a major production. They started on September 30th with the scalping and dethatching, then later that week they seeded and here we are over three weeks later and there are still great big patches of dirt with no grass growing. The first logical question is: how long does it take for rye grass to germinate? 5 to 10 days and they are well outside that window. You get the picture, the way ‘they’ are doing it is ineffective and wastes huge quantities of water.

But there is a better way.

In our back yard here at the New Urban Farm there is a small patch (18 x 26 inches) of dirt where my sweetie likes to grow grass for the cats. So we took on reinvigorating the space for our own patch of grass. On October 13 we began by leveling the space, added a nice layer of compost (there was no thatch to remove so I had to add my own organic material), planted the seeds then added another half inch of compost on top.


Our lawn after 15 days.

And here is the biggest clincher of the deal?  We watered once a day in the morning then a mere 5 days later there were many little green sprigs coming up through the compost.  Here we are two weeks later with a full lawn. This is a better way.

Lawns… am I all for them? Not really, primarily because according to the book Lawns, they are the crop that we in the United States spend the most money on by purchasing fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that are typically way over-applied. Then, we bag the clippings and send them off to the local landfill.

However, if we were to compost the grass clippings for organic material, use natural fertilizers and build an ecosystem in our lawns that is healthy…I am all for them. Hey, I like my lawn. It feels good as I wander through my garden in my bare feet and provides me with a nice amount of green composting materials to jump start my compost pile.

Happy Gardening

Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Desert Southwest Subscribe Email Print

Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Desert Southwest
By Tayler Jenkins

If you’ve ever hiked through the desert, you’ve observed the strikingly beautiful stretch of rocks, cacti, and shrubs that seem roll on endlessly. The desert is a kind of anomaly that both fascinates and intimidates its visitors, because beneath those breathtaking fiery sunsets a ruthless environment has weeded out all but the best-suited adaptors its harsh conditions. 

In the unforgiving deserts of the southwestern United States, temperatures may reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, and winter nights can drop to bone-chilling lows. The dry air is instantly parching –in an entire year, the desert may only see 3 to 15 inches of rainfall.

Indeed, only the toughest, best-adapted plants are able to thrive in these conditions. The sharp cacti and sparse trees and shrubs can seem unwelcoming, and it makes you wonder if anything friendly could live in such a place. But did you know that the desert is home to a rich abundance of edible and medicinal plants? In fact, Native Americans have been taking advantage of them for centuries.

Understanding how to utilize desert plants is a useful skill, and going out into the desert to scavenge for food makes for a fun adventure. You can even bring something back to make into a recipe at home—have you ever had prickly pear tea sweetened with agave nectar? Just be sure that you know the laws of your state regarding the removal of plants—some plants are illegal to tamper with. Also, always be 100 percent sure you know what a plant is before attempting to eat it. Some plants are poisonous and it would be a shame to misidentify and end up sick from eating the wrong plant.

Here is a list of just a few of the Desert Southwest’s many fine edible and medicinal plants:


This plant has thick leaves clustered at its base, and near the end of its life it grows a tall stalk. It is high in sugar, and the leaves are full of fiber. Its base MUST be cooked and the stalk can be eaten raw or cooked. The juice can be boiled down into a delicious syrup which is actually found in grocery stores as a sweetener. The plant has antibiotic, antiviral, and fungicidal properties as well.

Barrel Cactus
The barrel cactus is a short plant with a thick round shape. Flowers and fruit are both edible. The fruit can be consumed raw and since it does not have needles it can be picked right off the plant. The black seeds inside can be eaten as well.

It is commonly said that water can be extracted from barrel cacti in emergency situations, but this is actually a myth for two major reasons. First of all, cutting open a barrel cactus takes a lot of energy, and the physical exertion to carry out this feat would cause your body to use more water than you would actually receive from the cactus. Additionally, the juice inside has been known to cause diarrhea. So as appealing as it may sound to drink cactus water, I would not recommend it.


The jojoba plant is a bush with tiny, grayish-green leaves. Its oil is popularly sold for hair care and cosmetic purposes. Inside each fruit of the jojoba plant is a single seed. These can be ground up and used as a coffee substitute.


These trees have pods that look like string beans and are quite nutritious. The best time to harvest the beans is when they are hard and golden. They can be eaten fresh, dried, baked or pounded into a meal to make flour. Mesquite flour has a sweet taste and can be used to replace some of the flour in baking recipes. The flowers from the mesquite tree can be roasted and made into balls, or steeped as a tea.

Mesquite tree sap makes a great eye wash or antiseptic when it is boiled and diluted with water. It can also be used to treat sunburns and chapped skin.

Mormon Tea

Mormon tea is a plant made up of long, thin green stems. It is typically steeped into a tea to heal a variety of ailments, including kidney problems, colds, congestion, and urinary tract infections. 

Prickly Pear
The prickly pear cactus is easy to identify with its flat, medium-sized pads and oval-shaped fruits that ripen in late summer or early fall. The flowers and pads of the plant are edible when young and tender, and fruit is ripe and ready to eat when it becomes a deep red color. The best way to eat the fruit is to scoop it out of the shell and roast it. There are an abundance of recipes for prickly pear fruits online, so if you are gathering for fun try bringing some home and getting creative! 

Prickly pear has some medicinal properties as well—it can help to balance blood-sugar, its pulp and juice can soothe the digestive tract, and the inside of the pads can help to heal burns, wounds, or inflamed skin when applied topically.



Tayler Jenkins is a passionate undergraduate student in Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University pursuing a BS in Sustainability. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Tayler tries to embody in herself the changes she hopes the world will embrace. She is a self-proclaimed “real foodie” and an activist in a student organization on her school’s campus whose purpose is to bring more healthy and local food to the university. In the summer of 2013, she spent two months on a permaculture farm in Nepal to conduct research on conservation farming. Tayler is currently the editor of The Urban Farm Lifestyle newsletter and hopes to use it as a medium for sharing knowledge and generating interest in urban farming.

Growing Culinary Herbs Subscribe Email Print

Growing Culinary Herbs

By Kari Spencer

Do you say "herb," "erb," or perhaps "yerba?" No matter how you pronounce it, an herb is not just any plant! Herbs are useful plants, helpful in so many ways, from providing flavoring and fragrances to medicinal and religious applications. But their most common use is culinary—professional chefs and home cooks alike appreciate the value of fresh herbs in the kitchen, which add a range and depth of flavors that please the senses and make dishes more nutritious.

Ounce for ounce, fresh herbs are one of the most expensive items sold in grocery stores. But you can grow your own at home for pennies. It's so simple to grow herbs, and with just a little bit of preparation, you can have your favorite herbs at your fingertips, in your kitchen window or right outside your door!

To get started, select two or three herbs that you like. You may want to choose the ones you purchase most often from the store. Though you can easily grow herbs from seed, when starting out, I prefer to begin with transplants. Buying a transplant allows you to touch, taste and feel the herb before you bring it home to ensure that you will like it. Growing transplants also provides you with a nearly instant harvest, as you can begin cutting a few leaves and tender stems within a few days of planting.

Herb transplants can be purchased from several sources. Basic culinary herbs are usually sold at hardware stores and 'big box' stores that have nursery departments. Chain nurseries will often have a wider selection of herbs, as will local nurseries that generally are more reliable sources of plants that are in season for your area. Check your local public gardens and arboretums for unusual and locally adapted varieties. Finally, shop at neighborhood farmers' markets or join your local herb association, both of which often sell harder-to-find herbs grown by enthusiasts.
Herb transplants are versatile, and they will thrive if you plant them in your garden or in containers indoors or out. In any case, drainage is the key! Add plenty of mulch or compost to your garden soil. And if your soil is heavy or has a clay texture, add a generous portion of pumice or perlite. A good ratio is 1/3 native soil, 1/3 compost and 1/3 pumice or perlite. For containers, substitute potting soil for the native soil in the mixture, and make sure the pot has a drainage hole.

Once the soil is prepared, you are ready to plant. Dig a hole in the soil that is just as deep and twice as wide as the nursery pot. Carefully turn the nursery pot upside down and gently remove the herb, being careful not to damage the stem. Set the root ball of the transplant in the planting hole and backfill with soil. The top of the root ball should be even with the soil so that your plant is neither sitting too high in the pot, nor buried too low. Water the plant to settle the soil and add more if you notice any sunken areas.

Caring for herbs is easy. Water herbs deeply so that the entire root mass gets wet. Remember that herbs do not like to have 'wet feet,' so allow them to dry out somewhat in between. You will know that it is time to water again when the top few inches of soil feel dry to the touch. Most herbs do not need much fertilizer, but if you notice that the leaves are fading in color from deep green to a lighter shade, apply nitrogen fertilizer, such as fish emulsion, blood meal, or any balanced organic fertilizer. Finally, if you notice that your indoor herbs are looking washed out or spindly, with long stems and few leaves, move them into an area that receives more sunlight.

You can begin to harvest a few leaves almost immediately. In fact, when you plant your herbs, give them a little trim right away to encourage branching and more vigorous growth. A good rule of thumb is to harvest a few leaves regularly, and avoid taking more than 1/3 of the plant at any given time. Herbs taste best just before they flower, and gardeners often pinch off flowers as they appear in order to keep the aromatic oils concentrated in the leaves. This is a good practice to improve the flavor of most herbs, except for mint, which tastes best in full flower.
Preserve herbs by freezing or drying them. To freeze herbs, cut, wash and dry their leaves and small stems. Next, lay them in a single layer on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and place them in the freezer. When they are frozen solid, quickly transfer them to a storage container and return them to the freezer. By freezing them in this manner, they won't stick together, and you can remove just the amount you need at any given time.
To dry herbs, cut long stems, then wash and tie them together. Hang them upside down in a paper bag. When they are completely dry and brittle, gently crush the bag. Herb pieces will be neatly collected in the bag. Store them in an air-tight glass jar. Make the most of the herbs you grow by using the tender stems and flowers, which are usually just as edible and tasty as the leaves.

When the weather is cool, plant chives, cilantro, dill, mint, parsley, rosemary, sage, and thyme. During warmer months, plant basil, chilis, lavender, lemongrass, summer savory, and oregano. Most herbs are grown as seasonal annuals, lasting only for a season. Harvest them often while they are in your garden. After a few months, annual herbs naturally begin to fade and need to be replaced. So enjoy them to the fullest while they're at their peak!


Kari Spencer is a Master Gardener volunteer and the founder of The Micro Farm Project, a tiny urban farm in the heart of Phoenix, AZ.  A former elementary school teacher, she currently enjoys teaching adults, spreading her passion for gardening, cooking and small livestock.  She shares the farm with her husband, Lewis, their four daughters, and a host of chickens, turkeys, sheep, goats, rabbits and quail. Check out her blog!

Food Waste: What You Can Do Subscribe Email Print

Food Waste: What You Can Do

Did you know that 40 percent of food in the U.S. is never eaten? Much of it is tossed out before it even makes it to households, and the average American home throws out 14 to 25 percent of their food (an increase of 50 percent over the past 50 years, and also 10 times as much waste as Southeast Asians). Monetarily, this comes out to be about $165 billion of food wasted every year. It has environmental impacts, too: 25 percent of all freshwater and 300 million barrels of oil are what it takes to produce the food that goes to waste globally. Most of this ends up in landfills, contributing to emissions of the greenhouse gas methane. Indeed, landfill food alone is responsible for 23 percent of methane emissions in the U.S.

What can we do about this? A great way to make a difference is by composting food scraps. Currently, only about 3 percent of tossed food is composted, but we have the potential to do so much better! Additionally, before visiting the grocery store or farmer’s market, plan out what you will buy to ensure that you only take what you know you will be able to eat. Know what’s in your fridge and cupboards so that you can keep an eye on food that may soon go bad. Many foods can be frozen and then consumed at a later date. At grocery stores, the oddly-shaped produce is often left behind by customers and then thrown out. Purchase these and you are consuming something that might otherwise have been wasted. Also, when you go out to eat, be sure to take home leftovers to finish later.

Most importantly, spread the word. Tell others what they can do to make a difference. The more people know about food waste and the issues surrounding it, the more we can all work together to minimize our impacts and mend the system.