If you've got a plot of land, however small, you can grow your own food - and you don't even need to know how to do it. That's the idea behind the growing number of community gardening programs and urban "farmers for hire" helping city dwellers discover the joys of tending a garden and eating fresh, home-grown food.
Seattle, Washington, is at the forefront of the urban gardening trend. Programs like the Longfellow Creek Garden in West Seattle build community spirit and teach residents about gardening and agriculture through planting parties and other activities. Organic gardening classes at the nonprofit organization Seattle Tilth continually fill up, even with several new classes added each year. Through Urban Land Army's Land Link campaign, people who want to grow things but don't have anywhere to do so can connect with landowners who want to enjoy fresh produce but don't have the time or inclination to garden.
Urban farming has even reached the workplace. At HomeStreetBank in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, manager Maggie McKelvy got permission to start a P-patch on a plot of land near the drive-through window. Her co-workers enthusiastically joined in the effort, donating soil, seeds, and expertise to create raised vegetable beds.
"It increases your standard of living to have good food, to watch the food grow, to take an active part in it," says Colin McCrate, owner/operator of the Seattle Urban Farm Company, which helps clients create their own urban gardens. "Once I started growing food, I became a lot more interested in what I was eating, and I started eating better."
McCrate believes that many people are becoming frustrated as the organic food movement has been co-opted by large corporations. He sees backyard farming as a way to reconnect with healthy, environmentally friendly food. The Seattle Urban Farm Company offers a range of services, from short consultations to complete design, installation, and maintenance.
McCrate and his team of expert organic farmers work with roughly 40 different types of vegetables and herbs, each with a distinct harvest time. The most popular are tomatoes and carrots, while salad greens, bush beans, and sugar snap peas grow particularly well in the Northwest climate. A 20-by-20-foot bed is ideal for a family, says McCrate, but he'll work with whatever space is available. Most gardens cost roughly $300 to $ 800 to set up, though prices vary depending on garden size, type of crop, and specific site conditions. Sun exposure is often the limiting factor.
"For urbanites who don't have the knowledge about growing things, it's nice to have someone take the guesswork out of it," says Amy Pennington, another gardener-for-hire in Seattle, whose business is called Go Go Green Garden. "People have become more conscious about their food choices. Backyard gardens are all the rage, and this is sort of an extra cap, hiring someone to do it for you."
Jennifer Sill hired McCrate and his team to set up a vegetable garden for her family. McCrate installed two different plots, a row along the west side of the house and a larger bed in the backyard. A drip-irrigation system keeps the plants well watered. "Irrigation is one of the maintenance things people neglect," McCrate says. "Vegetable plants need tons of water, especially with dry summers." With drip-irrigation, water goes straight into the soil instead of evaporating.
Sill's two young sons love getting dirty and seeing things grow. "I could have stuck some things in the ground, but it wouldn't have been a little farm," Sill says. "I wanted to have a variety of things that the boys could pull out of the ground or pick off the vine. It's a great experience that I couldn't give them on my own."