Backyard Bounty

Imagine a city where backyard fences are relics of the past, where neighbors share gardens brimming with edibles: fruit, veggies, chickens, goats, and herbs of every variety. Imagine if each neighborhood has a community building where residents borrow garden tools, share seeds, or host potlucks; imagine if the city fosters walking, biking, or carpools instead of driving, recycling instead of waste, community rather than isolation. Imagine if each household receives money from the public utility. For some, the process of transforming cities into sustainable entities has already begun.

The mounting interest in community and backyard gardens indicates that sustainability is becoming a priority. As housing developments continue to unfold over peripheral Bay Area farmland and peak oil begins to take its toll on large-scale farming, city residents are beginning to take seriously the quest for alternatives to heading off to Safeway.

Christopher Shein, who teaches horticulture at Merritt Community College and manages Ploughshares Nursery, says urban agriculture can contribute significantly. His own garden is a virtual Eden, overflowing with an abundance of fresh produce. He harvests enough eggs to feed his family from a few hens, whose manure enriches the garden. “Roosters are banned from backyard farms here in Oakland, and any other farm animals should be at least 25 feet from the house next door,” says Shein. “But if you have a good relationship with your neighbors, there are usually no problems.” He and his neighbors have removed the fences on either side of Shein’s house to create a large shared garden. Through a lot of effort, the group transformed the shared area from a wasteland to a valuable resource.

Shein says that organization, communication, and participation are keys to success. Organization is the most challenging, topping technical and cultural hurdles. Many people believe themselves too busy to cook dinner, let alone grow it themselves. Few neighborhoods encourage community involvement, and a big project requires door-to-door promotion to educate and gain participants. As farming isn’t a skill that many city dwellers learn in childhood, even people willing to put in the time may worry that they lack the skills necessary to bring in successful yields or that they will break city zoning restrictions.

But some cities and nonprofits offer workshops for community organizers to overcome many of these challenges. And school districts are increasingly incorporating food education into secondary school curricula. Students experience hands-on training in campus gardens while studying science, ecology, and nutrition. Students learn about healthy eating—and the skills set may lead to a more fruitful future for urban agriculture.

Though these schoolyard projects can be deterred by vandalism, zoning regulations, and financial limitations, community support is available. Alice Waters initiated the Edible Schoolyard Project at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. High School campus more than a decade ago, and now thousands of educators come to visit the former playground every year to learn about starting their own projects. For information, including resources for funding, visit the edible schoolyard Web site (see below).

Starting any garden, personal or community, means committing to a great deal of setup. New green businesses, such as Berkeley’s All Edibles, offer to install an edible garden on any piece of land for a small fee for man-hours and supplies. This is a convenient way to go for communities and families with limited time but some money. Afterwards, gardens based on the permaculture model—agriculturally productive landscapes designed to mimic natural processes—require very little upkeep. Shein says tending his own garden adds up to about an hour of watering per week. He says, “If you plan your garden carefully enough and put in the initial effort, it will pretty much take care of itself.”

One major challenge that all community gardeners face is the issue of land tenure. Ideally, all community gardens would be permanent after their installation, but many gardens become defunct after a year or so because the land belongs to a private party and the lease is uninsured. Shein says that he has seen many of his own community garden projects go to waste because the property had not been secured. He recommends that organizers try and obtain city property—such as public park space—or obtain land through nonprofit organizations such as local land trusts that have already purchased and insured the land.

Urban farmers must test the soil: sometimes traces of lead and other heavy metals can taint edibles. Shein suggests sending soil samples to be tested before planning a garden. If tests come back positive, the land can still be saved by first planting a cover crop of plants that pull heavy metals out of the soil, such as mustard greens, and then adding layers of mulch or planting on raised beds.

Any garden can be irrigated with a graywater gravity or pump system that recycles shower, bath, and laundry water. Though residents interested in utilizing graywater need to obtain a permit from the Administrative Authority, in March 1997 the Building Standards Commission approved the revised California Graywater Standards to allow graywater in commercial, industrial, multifamily projects, and single-family residences. There have been no reported cases of illness tied to graywater irrigation, so it is a sanitary and sustainable choice. But graywater systems can be complex to set up, so they are a good example of the planning that goes into creating a self-sustaining garden.

When asked if he thinks urban agriculture could sustain the Bay Area, if the utopian dream could become a reality, Shein, with his backyard a living example, is optimistic. But he is also realistic: “We would need many more city gardens and much more governmental and financial support for that kind of project.”

Resources: Center for Ecoliteracy, Edible Schoolyard, American Community Garden Association, Ploughshares Nursery, People’s Grocery, City Slicker Farms, Merritt College Landscape Horticulture, Solar Living Institute, Wildheart Gardens

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