Urban farming is a growing movement around the world. Grandmothers, children, teachers, and punks alike can be found babying a pepper plant or picking off rosemary leaves for dinner. Plants and food connect us deeply to our homes and our communities. But when it comes to urban farming, where should you get started?
If you don’t have any previous experience with farming, that’s okay! Everyone has to start somewhere. For many people living in a city landscape, exposure to farming practices and gardening techniques just isn’t a part of their experiences in life. The best place to start is a quick walk around your neighborhood. There are often community gardens and urban farms already hard at work. Chances are, the people running these spaces could use an extra pair of hands. Don’t waste time, ask how you can help and get your hands dirty. Farming and cultivating practices have been passed down for thousands of years and now you can be part of that lineage.
Perhaps a walk around your neighborhood doesn’t glean any results. Fear not! Try a quick google search of the city you live in relating to urban farms. You might be surprised at what comes up. There are so many hidden pockets and corners within a city’s limit. You can call organizations to get involved or email them for more information.
Something to keep in mind is that it is important to understand the landscape where you live. While working on a vineyard in California will most likely be an awesome experience, it might not be the most helpful to grow tomatoes in Scotland. Wherever you are, seek out experienced locals with knowledge about the climate, the soil, and the native plants. This will save you from making avoidable mistakes and also lessen your environmental impact.
If you do find yourself far away from home, you can still dive into farming practices and learn how other people in other landscapes are able to cultivate urban farms. This will enrich your understanding of the planet and all the different ways to grow food in a cityscape. Explore online platforms like WWOOF and HelpX to seek out urban farms, nurseries, or garden projects all over the world.
So you’ve volunteered around town, traveled a bit, or read a bunch of books and are dreaming of how to start your own urban farming adventure. That’s so exciting! But where to plant?
This will probably be the most important decision you make. Chose wrong and your farm won’t last for long. Do you have access to a massive backyard that gets great sunlight? If so, what are you waiting for? For most of us though, that isn’t an option. Alternatives for city slickers include community gardens,and south-facing porches, balconies, and windows. Whatever your space, do research on what certain plants need and make decisions based on what type of space you have available. It is also important to research city ordinances and neighborhood committee codes. Some places have strict rules about chickens and other animals in particular. It would be a major bummer to invest in 6 chickens and a coop, only to receive a fine and an eviction notice.
Alternatively, many city kids and urban dwellers resort to what is known as “guerilla gardening.” While I’m not encouraging illegal activity, I’m not not saying you should let unused space go to waste. If you’re feeling rebellious, you can try planting seeds in a quiet corner of a park, a city boulevard, or an abandoned lot. This type of urban farming has to be fluid and flexible, as these spaces are unpredictable. However, there are examples of neighbors turning an entire boulevard into an edible garden all while operating beneath the radar of city officials. It’s awesome. I’m not saying you should necessarily do this. I’m saying some people already have and it’s an interesting idea…..
The initial costs of seeds, soil, and building raised beds, irrigation systems, and trellises can rack up really fast. Determine what it is you want to accomplish realistically and then sit down to budget out your costs. This can be really helpful to do in advance of the planting season and can be an important step in clarifying your goals for your urban farm.
Something else to consider is that if the area you plan to cultivate happens to be located near or on the property of a school, church or hospital, often these institutions have grant funding available. This will vary greatly depending on the part of the world where you live. Ask other urban farmers in the area about opportunities in your area and ask church and school administrators if they have these sorts of foundations to work with. People get really excited about farms and gardens and might be willing to help fund the effort.
Whether you have visions of leafy bean poles or are trying to start a cut-flower farm, timing is everything and schedules can go a long way. Know when the average last and first frost dates are or when the rainy season will begin. Have a plan for watering. You can plan your growing season so that there’s always something in bloom. This will make the farm or garden more engaging for everyone involved and it will also help to spread out the joy and labor of harvest time.
There are no two ways about it – farming is hard. There are choices you can make to streamline certain aspects of farming, but in the end, it is an intensive labor of love that will require you to show up and work hard. That being said, it just wouldn’t be the same if it was easy, right? Plus, there is undeniable power in getting your hands in the dirt.
Urban farming requires constant creativity and problem-solving. In many cities, cultivating farm and homestead practices in urban spaces is seen as a radical act. By engaging with these practices, you’ll be pushing back against modern norms and expectations. Spaces that weren’t necessarily set aside for farming can still be used for that purpose, and with a little creativity, you can transform an empty lot into a garden of Eden.
Because farming is so much work, be sure to celebrate what it is you are able to accomplish. This can be hard when there’s so much to do (and there’s always more to do on the farm, city or not). Still, what better way to relish in the work than to pause and enjoy that cherry tomato, or bake that rhubarb pie for your mom. The circle of cultivation can be so beautifully simple – don’t miss it.
No matter how expert you become in urban farming, gardening, and homesteading, there will always be more to learn – and how exciting is that? Take notes as you go about the process your first year, remember your choices and learn from them. Continue reading and consulting with master gardeners and urban farmers in your area. Listen to podcasts. Seek out the advice of mentors and maybe even start teaching new gardeners and farmers yourself. The plants will always have more to teach us.