urban farmers

My wife and I recently started an organic vegetable garden in one of the communal flower beds of our suburban North Shore apartment building. We’d been talking about growing vegetables for years – owning a bit of land one of these days and producing food with it is a key goal for us. When we got back from Abu Dhabi a couple of months ago, we finally had the will and the downtime to give it a test run. The flower bed was full of compost. Summer was approaching.

There were a couple of harbingers that the garden was meant to be. A cherry tomato vine had taken over much of the flower bed during the four months we were out of town. Though it had nothing to climb on, and was just sprawling on the ground, still it had produced lots of fruit – some of it harvested by my mother-in-law, some of it still on the vine, or falling off into the flower bed. I was sorry to have to pull it out to make room for new seedlings. And among the weeds I also pulled out, I found a little nondescript cucurbit seedling right at the edge of the bed. I wasn’t sure if it was a cucumber, a melon or a squash. But any of those possibilities were welcome. I left that one, carefully clearing away the long grass around it, to be the flagship seedling of our new garden. Both of these plants were volunteers – the seeds had come from the composted vegetable scraps we’d been systematically burying in the flower bed earlier in the year.

I was so happy to see with my own eyes that winter in New South Wales is mild enough that a tomato plant can grow and produce by itself. That’s totally alien to my experience in New York, where the growing season runs from April to November at the latest, and there’s not much for farmers to do over the winter but catch up on TV watching and go through seed catalogs. The mild climate here is one of the many reasons I migrated of course. You really can grow veggies right round the calendar here if you know what you’re doing.

Which we don’t, really. Neither of us have ever done this before. We both spent formative seasons working on organic farms when we were younger, and I spent ten years working in the organic produce business, but it’s very different when you’re growing your own.

It’s not easy. The host of problems we’ve experienced comes across like the lyrics to a bad folk song about hard times. The roma tomatoes have blossom-end rot. The summer squash have downey mildew, and they’re not pollinating. The habañero pepper plants aren’t producing at all. The jalapeño plant produced one lonely pepper, now it’s just sitting there. The yellow beans were attacked by slugs. The onion seedlings died a miserable death. The radishes are being eaten by… something. Seriously, I wanted to take some more snapshots to post here, but so far the outlook is pretty grim.

But some things are going well. The heirloom tomatoes (pictured) are looking great now – big green things that will theoretically be blackish-purple and juicy in a couple of weeks. A new crop of beans is growing. The herbs – basil, thyme, sage, marjoram and parsley – are really thriving in the hot weather and regularly contribute to our kitchen. Same with the rocket, mizuna and rainbow chard. And the little volunteer cucurbit has grown into an enormous vine that’s taking over our front lawn. Turns out it’s a butternut squash, and the fruit on it is getting bigger all the time. We’ll have plenty of squash this year if nothing else. (Figures the volunteer is the one that’s really producing. There’s a lot to be said for just letting things happen.)

It’s going to take years to get good at this – that’s what everyone who knows tells us. I have such great memories of helping my grandpa with his garden on long summer days in Oregon when I was a kid. I’m not sure if it’s the haze of nostalgia, but it seems the beans and tomatoes formed perfect rows of ten-foot-tall plants, and the crookneck squash and cucumbers exploded out of the ground. My grandpa had been doing it all his life. It’s not going like that in our small, overcrowded garden. There are a hundred mistakes we’ve made, a hundred tricks we haven’t learned yet.

But it’s amazing how satisfying it is, how it makes me feel like myself, how quickly the stress melts away and I get into my right mind when I’m down near ground level with the skinks and the ladybirds, weeding or mulching or just observing the plants. I mean to spend the rest of my life doing this. Even if it has to be part-time.

Once I thought I wanted to move to the country and become a farmer – get back to the land and get off the grid. It didn’t take me long to realize I have a lot more city in me than that. I just don’t want to be that far away from all the fun and the danger and the film festivals. Not yet anyway. At this point I think I’d be happy with a kitchen garden on a half acre. And maybe some chickens, like my mate who lives in downtown Denver. But this is the point I’m coming to: you can do a lot with that – you can grow a lot of food on a little bit of land.

I’ve always struggled to incorporate the different elements in my life: music, writing, film, a love of history, a love of everything nautical, a strong belief in organics and sustainable living, vegetarianism, a commitment to spiritual living, a passion for baseball. At times I think I just have too many influences. Sometimes the lifestyles that spring from these interests seem to contradict each other. How does playing funky urban beats fit in with growing food?

Well, the phrase I had stuck in my head as I was thinking about this entry was urban farmers. That happens to be the name of a house music production and remix crew from England; they released a couple of my favorite late-90s jams on the 20:20 Vision label, including this one:

I have no idea why those guys chose the name Urban Farmers. Might’ve just been random. But the point is it inspires me.

Then there’s the Rurals, a house-music collective from Devon, England led by a husband-and-wife team who live and produce music in a farmhouse in the country. They’ve made a career of incorporating pastoral concepts and imagery into their projects (contrary to the hyper-urban or futuristic motifs that are the hallmark of electronic music), naming albums Farmyard FlavoursNettle Soul and Farming Grooves. The sleeve design of Messages, with its birds and bees and floral patterns in a tribute to old-school printmaking, is one of my favorites. (It was done by Studio NMO.)

So it doesn’t have to be either/or. Anyway I’m starting to realize that the so-called contradiction between urban and pastoral urges in my life could represent possibilities for integration, mapping the way my life can fit into a sustainable future. I can take what I’ve learned about organic growing and apply it to city living. You could say this is a necessity. The world’s population is urbanizing at a crazy pace; farming is going to have to become more urban to keep up with it. This is the crucial next step in the local food movement.

Take a walk around the neighborhoods of the North Shore and you’ll see plenty of gardens, some of them pretty ambitious – beanstalks or cornstalks towering over the fences. It’s not a new idea. People have always loved growing a couple of tomatoes and some basil with their extra garden space. But I think more systematic, widespread and large-scale food growing in the city and suburbs should be considered. The population density of greater Sydney is skyrocketing. Suburban living as we think of it, with its wasteful and selfish tendencies, won’t work anymore. Nor is crowded urban living desirable for anyone. Medium density is the way forward. We’re already seeing it in classically suburban Lindfield: apartment blocks are replacing detached houses in some places. The paradigm is shifting.

Integrating urban food production into the region’s economy seems to me a great solution for this medium-density, mixed-use future. Increasing the land’s productivity, reducing supply lines while decreasing fossil-fuel use, making food a more immediate and involved experience for more people: win, win and win. It will be especially important here in Australia, the nation with the most urbanized population on earth. Much of this continent is not suitable for growing food, and the little that is has often been mismanaged and damaged. (This issue is tackled in Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which I just finished reading.)

But think of all the fertile land that exists in the suburbs. It’s like a huge untapped growing region made up individual plots of land. Most of it being used to grow lawns. But there are alternatives. Recently my wife visited a home not far away in posh, über-suburban Killara that had a huge and very productive garden taking up the entire backyard, with a chicken coop on the side.

And growing food is something everyone can do. As much as I’m going on about the problems I’ve had, it’s not something you need a degree or a certificate in. It’s part of everyone’s heritage. And it’s something you can do while also having a job and having a life. We just have to find the collective will to make it practical and desirable for more city and suburban people to do it – in backyards, in containers, on rooftops, in little flower beds like ours.

So, yeah. Urban farmers. The other day I was in Hyde Park (in Sydney’s city center) and noticed a container flower bed full of vegetables: kale, chard, lettuce and lavender. Purely for ornamentation you know. But just think of how much food we can produce like this when it comes down to it. It’s gotta be another sign.

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