Welcome to the Urban Farm Revolution

Featured Farmer: Sylvia Bernstein from The Aquaponic Source Subscribe Email Print

Featured Farmer: Sylvia Bernstein

from The Aquaponic Source

Tell me a little about your aquaponic system. What is its name? Size? What kinds of fish and plants are you raising?

My personal aquaponic systems were actually all moved to our business facility when we moved in July, 2013.  There we now have eight large AquaBundance style systems and twelve AquaMini and AquaDesigner countertop systems totaling approximately 1500 gallons of water.  They are powered by a wide variety of fish, from betas, guppies and goldfish to tilapia, catfish, bass and bluegill.  There is even more variety with the plants we grow, with just about everything you can imagine thriving in our showroom and grow lab.  Over the past few years we’ve successfully grown dwarf fruit trees, orchids, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beans, and a variety of herbs, greens, houseplants, and more.

What initially got you interested in aquaponics?

I first learned about aquaponics when I was the VP of Product Development for AeroGrow International, the makers of the AeroGarden countertop hydroponic system.  For years we had been trying to figure out how to offer an organic nutrient for the AeroGarden, but organics is difficult to do in small hydroponic systems because there is typically insufficient microbial activity to mineralize the organic matter and make it bio-available to the plants.  The result was generally either poor growth and/or a horrible smell, or when it did work the nutrients were extremely expensive.  But in 2008 I read an article about aquaponics and, while I was highly skeptical at first, the thriving basement system set up by a co-worker, followed by my own first system convinced me that aquaponics is a viable, sustainable way to grow organic hydroponic crops.

Do you use worms or compost? What do they do for your system?

We add composting red worms to all of our media beds.  Their role is to help process the fish solid waste and plant debris within the grow media.

What do you do with the plants you grow? The fish?

They are a great employee and store visitor benefit!

What is your greatest challenge in your aquaponics endeavors?

Battling some of the misinformation that is out there on the internet.  Anyone can call themselves an expert these days, and everyone has an online voice now.  I have heard some crazy things about aquaponics that simply aren’t true, like you can’t successfully grow fruiting plants in aquaponics.  We do it every day!

What do you enjoy the most about raising fish and food?

I enjoy the solid conviction of knowing exactly how this food was raised and, with regard to the fish, what it was fed and the conditions under which it was raised and harvested.  I also enjoy the huge variety of produce that becomes accessible when you grow your own herbs and vegetables from seed.  Instead of just a green bean you would get from the grocery store, for example, I now have access to ten varieties of green beans if I grow my own. 

Why do you think urban farming and aquaponics are important?

In 2007 we went from living on a primarily rural planet to a primarily urban one, so to me the need for urban farming and aquaponics is a matter of simple math.  Global population levels are rising at the same time as a higher percent of that population are living in urban centers.  According to the UN FAO, we can only clear about 20% of the remaining land on earth for farming – the rest is unsuitable.  This takes us to 48% total of the total earth’s surface available for farming.  That is it.  We will increasingly have no choice but to turn to urban agriculture to feed ourselves.

Do you think this is a growing movement? Are aquaponics going to play a large role in the future of agriculture? 

I do, for two reasons.  First, I believe aquaculture will continue to play a significant role in growing our food – it already provides over 50% of the fish consumed globally.  And aquaponics takes the costly waste byproduct of aquaculture and transforms it into a beneficial input into another growing system.  A cost center becomes a profit center.  Second, because aquaponic systems recirculate their system water they use far less water than any other form of agriculture.  As population growth and climate change combine to put increasing pressure on our water supply, we will turn to aquaponics more and more as a water-wise way to grow our food.

Do you have any advice for someone just getting started?

Yes!  Seek out reputable sources of educational material rather than just doing an internet search and reading whatever free material comes up first in the search engines.  The small amount that you pay for a high quality book, DVD or online course will be made up for many times in avoided costly mistakes down the road.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Aquaponics can be done on a wide range of scales – from small desktop systems to huge commercial farms.  I hope that everyone reading this is compelled to start an aquaponic system on some level that interests them.  I think you will find creating your own aquaponic ecosystem is both fascinating and rewarding.  Give it a try!


*Photo from The Aquaponic Source

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

GMO, Hybrid & Heirloom Seeds - Just What is the Difference? Subscribe Email Print

GMO, Hybrid & Heirloom Seeds—

Just What is the Difference?

By Greg Peterson

Often, people ask me if the Urban Farm trees and plants are genetically modified (GM), or how they can know if a plant or seed they are buying is genetically modified.  Generally speaking, small farmers and home gardeners are immune to the marketing of GM seeds and plants because the companies that do the work to genetically engineer plants and seeds are not interested in selling to such a small market.  Yay for us…for now.  Here is the most current list of GM crops on the market.  

In an effort to clear up any seeds of confusion I am dedicating this column to distinguishing the three distinct “types” of seeds: open pollinated (or heirloom), hybrids and GMOs (genetically modified organisms).  Heirloom seeds are left just as Mother Nature intended, while the hybrids and GMOs involve some level of human intervention.

Open pollinated or heirloom seeds as they are sometimes called, are seeds that have been passed from generation to generation and have stayed true to their ancestral roots by consistently producing the same offspring.  This results in plants that genetically are hundreds, or thousands of years old, each developing a resistance to the diseases and pests with which it evolved.  When this type of seed is planted and allowed to grow and go to seed again, it will always produce the same plant.

Seed banks serve a vital role in the preservation of the genetic diversity embodied in the open pollinated species.  Organizations such as The Southern Seed Legacy, Seed Savers International and Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance have created systems and methods to preserve open pollinated seeds and cultivars.  Of particular interest to me is the way Cornell University in Geneva, New York maintains an incredibly diverse collection of apple and grape plants, boasting over 2,500 apple cultivars and 1,300 grape cultivars.

Hybrid seeds have their own magic. I find that most people are familiar with the term hybrid, which is similar to the process that occurs in nature called natural selection.  The process is simple: plant A cross-pollinates with plant B, together creating plant C.  In essence this is how plants and animals slowly evolve.  Here is where it gets interesting -- about 150 years ago a gentleman named Gregor Mendel discovered that different pea plants (Pisum sativum) carried different traits and that by selectively breeding these plants he could bring out or, conversely, suppress these different traits.  The value in this method is that the “positive” traits in a plant or animal can be brought out, while the “negative” traits can be suppressed. 

So now onto real life…a farmer has a really sweet watermelon (A) but it has a lot of seeds, and watermelon B has a great shelf life.  By selectively breeding these two plants the farmer finds that the resulting watermelon magically doesn’t have seeds, and he gets a sweet fruit with a long shelf life.  The unfortunate part of this process is that hybridized plants often make seeds that are not necessarily viable for future generations.  So, saving seeds can be somewhat futile or, of course, impossible with “seedless watermelons.”  That being said, magic can happen in saving hybrid seeds, so if you want to experiment with them, go for it and see what you produce.

I also want to clear up some internet mistruths that are being spread.  Hybrids are NOT genetically modified.  It has been stated that humans have been genetically modifying seeds for hundreds of years, but this is simply not true.  Hybrids cross pollinate with only those plants that they are sexually compatible with.  Period!

Genetic modification or transgenic is a process by which a gene is taken from one species such as a fish and transported, typically with a virus, to another species such as a tomato.  This is a process that does NOT exist in nature and only happens in a laboratory.  For a great primer on this topic, see the book Genetically Engineered Food:  Changing the Nature of Nature, by Martin Teitel & Kimberly Wilson.

Another term you may have seen applied to seeds is organic.  Simply put, organic seeds are those that have been grown in a manner that is consistent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic Standards.  There are organically grown heirloom and hybrid seeds.  However, under the current organic guidelines you will not see organically grown GMO seeds because by definition they are excluded.

All this being said, my go to for seeds is the open pollinated seed.  This gives me the long term effect of essentially free plants growing year after year in the yard here at the Urban Farm.  I let nature spread the seeds and then, next year and for many years to come, I have a nice crop of plants growing with little effort on my part.  Some people call them weeds—I call them volunteers that lighten my workload.  Yay for the lazy gardener in me

Where to get Good Seeds!

Building a Community Compost? Subscribe Email Print

Building a Community…Compost?
By Melissa Miller

One great (and smelly) thing we do at my farm is our community compost. The farm is located right in the middle of our nation’s capitol, downtown Washington, D.C. It is about ½ acre and produces approximately 500 lbs of fresh produce a year, all of which goes directly back into the community. Urban farming has many obstacles to overcome, but surviving in a densely populated area also has its benefits. Cities have a lot of people and in return A LOT of food scraps. Unfortunately, Washington, D.C. does not have a city composting system and because of this community members need to figure out what do with their food scraps. There are great companies out there such as Compost Cab, which will pick up your food scraps for a small price per week (the last time I checked it was around $8), but with a lack of a yard and money most individuals tend to  just throw their food scraps away.

We decided as a farm that we needed the community as much as they needed us in the composting war. We were spending money to ship in compost from outside the city and the community needed a better option than throwing away their food scraps or paying to have them picked up. Our solution: a community compost! Our community composting system is open, meaning people do not need to be trained in order to drop off their food scraps. We have two trash cans on the outside of our fence where donations can be dropped off. I throw (untreated) saw dust in them and make sure the lids are on tight to keep the smell down. We do have signs hanging on the fence with items that we want in our compost. We also have those items posted on our website. Things that we accept in our compost include:

  • Coffee grounds and filters
  • Tea bags
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Used paper napkins
  • Paper bags, ripped into smaller pieces
  • The crumbs you sweep off of the counters and floors
  • Paper towel rolls (ripped into smaller pieces)
  • Stale saltine crackers
  • Plain grains
  • Used paper plates (as long as they don't have a waxy coating)
  • Nut shells
  • Old herbs and spices
  • Stale beer and wine
  • Paper egg cartons (the light brown ones, ripped into smaller pieces - though your local egg farmer also might want these.)
  • Toothpicks

Our open systems allow people to donate one time or several times, for free, and whenever they want. The farm gets about 668 pounds of food a week, which otherwise would be going to the landfill. On the farm’s end, we are now getting free compost, which we know is organic and full of micro and macro nutrients. The ideal situation is that the community members who donate their food waste will then buy produce from the farm. This system of composting creates a closed circle system and is a great example of using community resources for low-input farming. We also get happy plants, happy farmers and happy neighbors (as long as the compost doesn’t smell too bad).

I do not want to leave you thinking that this system does not have its downsides. We do allow everyone and anyone to leave compost and some people are not fully educated on what they can compost. We spend a lot of time picking through food waste and taking out what we do not want. Some community composting systems lock their donation bins and, in order to get the combination, one must complete a composting class. However, this limits members who do not have the time to go to the class.

One emphasis I do have for this model is that you do not have to own a farm to do this. I would recommend this model for any community garden, or a group of neighbors who have a passion for sustainability. What you do need is a space to compost. I recommend asking a farm or community garden for space. You can also go to the city and ask about using empty lots. Make sure you have a plan of attack and that all details of the compost are figured out before you approach a potential partner. You will be surprised about how many people get excited about composting. Which composting model you choose to use is your choice, but if you are in the city rats are always a real problem. We have two models at the farm: one is a hot compost pile, with a shell made out of straw; inside it is lasagna layered with carbon and nitrogen layers (a c:n ratio depending on the time of year). We also have Compost Knox, a critter-proof bin that we also lasagna layer and nest with straw. It has a paver bottom, chicken wire sides and a tin roof—this system is great if you are worried about critters. We use straw in both designs for smell retention and to fend off rats.

Compost is the key component to successful agriculture. It helps nourish the plants, fend off disease and provides great soil structure, among many other things. If you do not have the space to compost at home I would suggest looking for a community compost program or starting one yourself. In return, you will be helping the environment by eliminating landfill waste and giving yourself organic and nutritious compost to plant with. Community composting programs…I dig them!

Melissa is the Farm Manager at Common Good City Farm in Washington, D.C. She graduated from Georgian Court University with a B.A. in English and a minor in Environmental Science. She continued her education at Georgian Court University to earn a Master's degree in Holistic Health, where she studied urban farm design and worked closely with school systems to form successful kitchen garden programs. Melissa has worked on farms in Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico as well as having urban farming internships in New York City and Boston. You can reach her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Featured Farmer: Anna Thornton from Balm of Gilead Garden Subscribe Email Print

Featured Farmer: Anna Thornton

from Balm of Gilead Garden

Editor's Note: We are excited to introduce Anna Thornton as our featured farmer for the month of January. She and her husband, William Thornton, are doing some amazing things at her urban farm, Balm of Gilead Garden, in Phoenix, AZ. Below is our Q&A with Anna. Please note, these are Anna's personal responses and are not necessarily the opinion of The Urban Farm.

Tell me a little about your urban farm. What is your farm’s name? Size? What are you growing? What kind of climate are you growing in?

Our farm is called Balm of Gilead Garden.  Our property is over 10,000 sq ft and we currently have our garden in our backyard and will be changing our front yard into an edible landscape.  We grow vegetables, herbs and flowers that we can eat or use in some way.  Our fruit we currently have growing are grapes, apples, peaches, pomegranates, lemons, oranges, plums and strawberries.  The herbs growing are lemongrass, oregano, thyme, dill, parsley, garlic chives, savory, etc.  The vegetables growing are currently green onions, broccoli, fava beans, radishes, beets, Swiss chard, kale, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, peas, cabbage, etc.  We are growing our produce in the desert southwest climate in Phoenix, AZ, also known as zone 9.

What initially sparked your interest in urban farming?

We started gardening when I was reading about all the herbicides, pesticides and GMOs in our food causing sicknesses and diseases.  I knew I needed to start the garden to heal my body and supply food to others.

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

Here at Balm of Gilead Garden we do not use any herbicides, pesticides or GMOs in our garden.  We are growing organically.  We are incorporating permaculture and biodynamics into our growing practices that in the long run will be for the benefit of humans, soil and the eco-system.  For example, we believe that God created a land Sabbath for a reason.  This is applied on every 7th year.  We will not be doing any sowing of seeds or planting on the 7th year.  The land will rest.  We will have available to our family anything that grows during that 7th year for our household but there will not be any planting.  This is so that the soil can rest and rejuvenate.  Everything we learn through gardening, permaculture or any garden practice, we seek God’s word to see if that practice is to be applied in order for the ecosystem to balance the way He intended it in His original creation.  We have also installed some water harvesting systems into our landscape to conserve water.  We also raise worms for the purpose of worm castings.  Our Black Soldier Fly unit was created this year for the purpose of giving our chickens more protein in their diet.

Do you use compost? Where do you get it and how does it help your plants grow?

Here at our place we do make compost on our own, as well as bring in outside compost for the garden.  We use a company here in Phoenix called Grow-Well for our compost.  When we make compost we use a combination of spent plant, leaves, shredded newspaper, hay, chicken manure and water to make our own.  Using compost is important for the plants to receive the nutrients they require.  Without compost we would not be able to grow plants.

Do you have any urban livestock? Chickens? Bees?

We get our chicken manure from the chickens we have in our backyard.  We built a chicken coop for them.  We currently just processed 10 meat birds and have 8 laying hens that we get our eggs from on a daily basis.

What do you do with the food you grow?

The food we grow we incorporate into our daily meals.  When there is excess we give it away or if someone wants to give us a donation for our church we do that too in exchange for produce from our garden.

What is your greatest challenge in your farming endeavors?

One of our greatest challenges has been an abundant harvest and have learned that planting directly in our soil is more beneficial than growing in raised beds for us.

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

One of the things we enjoy most is learning how God created the perfect ecosystem to protect us because He loves us and when that is restored we get to share the abundance of food with others and in turn our bodies heal themselves.  We also get share our food with others.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Why do you think urban farming is important?

Urban farming is important because it will take us all growing gardens in order to sustain the ecosystems, it will not destroy the soils like monoculture farming is doing and we will start to see less sicknesses and diseases.

Do you think this is a growing movement? Is urban farming the future of agriculture?

I thinking urban farming is growing.  In order for us to maintain our food security, ecosystems, population growth and sustainability urban farming is the future of agriculture.

Do you have any advice for someone just getting started?

When starting out in gardening, my advice would be to start small with your space.  Create those spaces in the ground and not above the ground.  Cover all your bare dirt with wood chips.  Start out small by growing herbs, marigolds and calendulas.  The herbs and flowers will become your best friends in combating bad insects in your garden. Everyone should compost and have chickens.  Reuse whatever you can, whether it be your waste or someone else’s waste.  It helps your budget and the environment.  Take Greg Peterson's Urban Farming 101 class to get started if you have not already.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Enjoy the failures along with the successes.  Breathe and enjoy the journey because it is well worth it. The education that is learned through this process will forever change you and lessons you will never forget.  In the future we will be giving tours so keep watch for when they will be happening on our Facebook page or our Garden Journal page.

2015, Year of the Urban Farm Subscribe Email Print

2015, Year of the Urban Farm:
Why I Do What I Do
By Greg Peterson

Welcome to 2015…The Year of the Urban Farm.  I am so incredibly excited about the momentum that we as an urban farm community have created over the past two decades.  Especially in the last 3 years, people have come onboard to the ‘grow your own’ movement in record numbers.  I remember having a conversation with a nursery owner a few years ago and she told me that they were having trouble keeping seeds on the shelves because there were so many people gardening.  On one hand I was ecstatic, on the other—shortages of seeds?  The good news is that those seed shortages were relatively short-lived and the market forces of seed entrepreneurs stepped in and grew and supplied seeds.

My journey in exploring our food system began in 1975 when I was in the 8th grade. It has been an interesting one that has spanned from “who is that crazy guy growing food in his front yard?” to becoming a bit of an urban hero.  I love what I do and what propels me forward most days is my ability to share all of the great things that one can do to plug into the local food economy.

When I lecture I love asking the question, “So how many of you participate in the food economy every day?”  It is a bit of a brain teaser, especially when we add the word economy, and that is why I do it…to get people thinking.  When we move through life without giving any thought to it we unconsciously get caught up in the flow, which may take us where we want to go, but most often not.  So I like to plant the seeds of cultural change every time I write and speak.

What is the food economy?  The process of growing, harvesting, packaging, marketing, distribution, preparation and disposal of food.  It is a quite extensive ‘just in time’ manufacturing model that brings food to the grocery store shelves just when we need it.  The process in itself is pretty amazing, having been set up to feed almost 320 million people just here in the United States alone.  The problem is that this ‘just in time’ model leaves only three days’ worth of food on any grocery store shelf, and I argue that if there is a hiccup the grocery store, shelves will be empty in three hours.

So what do we do about this?  There is one simple yet powerful action you can take: begin to participate in the LOCAL food economy.  The model of local food supports and grows our local food systems so that, if there is a hiccup, we are covered since there will be food growing everywhere–and, if there isn’t one, we have healthy happy food growing everywhere.  Either way we win.

My friend and colleague Miguel Jardine and I developed a model we call the LFE or Local Food Economy a few years ago, which includes seven categories: education, creating farmers, culture, seeds, value-added products, collection and distribution, and farming methods.  Each of these categories represents a significant piece of our local food system that feeds, nourishes and employs us.

So how do you participate in the local food economy?  First and foremost, buy local food by shopping at local stores and restaurants.  This is usually quite simple…just find a farmer’s market to visit each week and, when you eat out, select restaurants that purchase locally grown food.  Start simple—maybe spend an extra $5 per week locally and work up from there.

Next, begin to grow your own food.  Growing your own food is easy and once you make this discovery you will be hooked.  This is where we come in.  Over the next few months we will be launching several new online classes designed to walk you through the processes of growing your own food and saving your own seeds.  Watch our newsletters for all kinds of free webinars and online classes to walk you through this process.

Finally, if you are feeling really energetic, you might think about starting your own local food economy business.  The cool thing about the LFE model is that there are so many places that you can plug in and make a living while contributing to the system.  Start a seed growing business, become a local purveyor of specialty value-added products or grow food in your front and backyards to share with the community. The possibilities are endless, and they bring resiliency to our communities, food to our plates and prosperity to our finances.

2015 is the most exciting urban farming year I have seen.  The possibilities for contributing and participating in it are virtually endless.  Take a class, go to a market, and play full out in our local food system.

Changing the World One College Campus at a Time Subscribe Email Print

Changing the World One College Campus at a Time:

Urban Agriculture at NYU and Beyond

By Tayler Jenkins

With their abundance of dedicated knowledge seekers and bright-eyed young activists, college campuses are known to be hubs of innovation and idea generation—a recipe for changing the world. Many would consider the purpose of a college education to be finding a nicely-paying and hopefully fulfilling career. Yet, often, colleges benefit students and their surrounding communities far beyond academics. For instance, many students are finding that, in addition to their formal education, campuses are stressing the importance of creating sustainable communities, growing food and connecting with the land.

Colleges can become leaders in this arena when their ideologies and operations are forward-thinking and integrated into academics and the community. New York University has the right idea—George Reis, supervisor of sustainable landscaping at the university, has incorporated sustainable designs and principles in all aspects of urban landscaping on campus. Reis is passionate about supporting pollinators and native plants, incorporating organic practices, and composting—all essential components of landscaping practices at the university.

“I think we’re getting ahead of the curve… especially when it comes to integrating our grounds into the academic mission,” Reis says about urban landscaping at NYU, “we’ve been asked to come up with new solutions for the way we work and to really reach out to people in the community, and so that’s been, I think, a great strategy for us.”

Urban agriculture on college campuses are inspiring and educational for students with an interest in sustainability, health, or growing their own food. At NYU, students in environmental studies and food systems programs further benefit from the sustainable landscaping program because it provides research opportunities.

The best part about all this is that you don’t have to be in college to change the world—urban agriculture is springing up all over the US, not only on campuses but in homes and communities. Soil, seeds, and a little inspiration are all you really need to join the movement.

Is your university also ahead of the curve when it comes to sustainability and urban agriculture? Share it with us in the comments below! 

Urban Farm Answers: How can you tell if a tree is alive? Subscribe Email Print

Urban Farm Answers

Anthea asked: How can you tell if a tree is alive?

Greg's Answer: Anthea, Great question. Start at the growing tip of a branch move down the branch 3 inches or so. You can either bend it and if it is flexible it is alive and if it breaks it is dead - or you can just use clippers and cut it. Look at the wood and if it is pliable and green it is alive - brown equals dead. Keep moving back a few inches or more and do the same thing. You are looking for live branches on the tree. If you find live branches stop. You can continue this process all the way down the tree until you either find life or get to the ground and never find life. That will give you your answer. Hope this helps.


Digging into Aquaponics: #3 -The Systems Subscribe Email Print

Digging into Aquaponics: #3 -The Systems

 By Sylvia Bernstein

Welcome back to aquaponics! In my last article we dug into fish.  This time we’ll explore the styles of aquaponic systems.

What Types of Aquaponic Systems?

Aquaponic system designs have been adapted from the hydroponic world, and will seem familiar to anyone with a hydroponic background.  In aquaponics, however, we always need to consider both the optimal system for growing the plants that we want to grow as well as how efficiently the water for the fish will be filtered.  What follows are the four most popular aquaponic system design styles currently in use.

  1. Deep Water Culture (DWC) or “Raft” Systems

    In this system style the plants are growing in holes in a foam board floating on water that comes from the fish tank.  The plant roots dangle directly into the water, and because of this the solid waste from the fish water needs to be filtered out before that water reaches the raft.  The reason for this is if the plant roots get coated with solid waste they will be starved for oxygen, which will impede their growth and possibly cause death.
    Pros – Great for growing leafy greens and other fast-growing, water-loving herbs like basil.  Because the plants are not entangled in media, these types of systems are easier to harvest from than other system types.  And because of the more active filtration you can generally stock the fish tank more densely than in passively filtered systems.
    Cons – The extra filtration step requires equipment and expense up front, and continuous maintenance of cleaning the filters.  Also, it is difficult to grow larger, fruiting plants such as tomatoes and cucumbers in these systems because of the instability of the raft and the reduced nutrient levels from the filtration.

  2. Media-based Systems

    In this system type the plants are growing in a “media” substrate that can be any inert, non-decomposing material such as gravel, lava rock, or a variety of manufactured grow media for hydroponic use.  No exterior filtration of the solid waste is necessary because it is mechanically trapped in the grow bed itself, and is made bioavailable to the plants by naturally occurring microorganisms and supplemented composting red worms.

    Pros – Media-based systems are more intuitive to experienced gardeners because the media bed is very similar to an organic soil garden bed.  The lack of extra filtration makes them easier to set up and less time consuming to maintain than raft-based systems, and they generate higher, more diverse nutrient environments for the plants.  Also, the media substrate is a much more stable base for growing larger plants because the roots now have something to anchor to.
    Cons – Because the plant roots become entangled with the grow media this method can be somewhat cumbersome with fast growing plants, such as lettuce, that are harvested all at once. 

  3. Vertical Systems
    This describes any aquaponic system that is growing in the vertical space above the fish tank.  The fish water is pumped up to the top of the vertical tower, and it drains via gravity, fertilizing the plants on its way.  They are terrific for growing compact plants such as lettuce, strawberries, and herbs.

    Pros – These systems are a fantastic way to make use of the premium air space above the fish tanks in a greenhouse or basement. 
    Cons – Because the water needs to be moved so far up against gravity, they will require a much more powerful pump than for either a DWC or media system.  They can also be challenging to light in an indoor environment because most grow lights are not designed to work in a vertical position (T5 fluorescent fixtures work best). Finally, they often do not work well with tall vining plants with large root masses like indeterminate tomatoes and cucumbers. 

  4. Hybrid Systems
    This is my favorite design because it mixes any combination of the system types listed above to optimize your growing space and create the best conditions for each type of plant you are growing.  We always start with a media based system in order to provide mechanical filtration for the fish solid waste, as well as grow larger, fruiting plants.  The water exiting from the media beds is now perfect for entering a DWC system, which is ideal for lettuces, braising greens and basil.  The water from the DWC can then drain into a sump tank where it can be pumped up to the top of a vertical tower system for your herbs or strawberries.  Or the vertical towers can be fed directly from the fish tank itself as long as there is additional filtration. 

    Pros – Plants are grown in optimized conditions for their type, and grow room or greenhouse space is optimized. Also, if building the system is half the fun for you, this can be an entertaining way to creatively expand your system.
    Cons – This is a more complicated system to set up and manage, which can also mean that it is more costly than a simple media-based system. 

In Conclusion

There is more than one way to skin the aquaponics cat, and no single system style is perfect for all plant types and grow spaces.  Knowing a bit about the plants you are trying to grow, and the system types that are available can create an overall system design that is perfect for your aquaponic gardening needs and wants.


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

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!