As a vegetable gardener, I’ve just moved to the big city. For years, I had a pretty country garden of almost 2,000 square feet at a weekend house. But I grew weary of trying to force my family to the country when they wanted to spend their weekends where the action is.
Read the last Garden Rant on understanding garden design.
So I have just made a vegetable garden of about 800 square feet in my small city yard in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. I’m sure that by harvest season, this garden will be so beautiful, it will entirely raise the tone here. I’m sure also that once things get really rolling, it will yield so much gorgeous food my family won’t be able to eat it all.
The only thing I’ve really lost by trading country for city is the fantasy of self-sufficiency. I used to grow more than 100 pounds of storage potatoes a year. But there is no way that a year’s worth of potatoes or parsnips or pumpkins is coming out of my urbane little plot. There will be no wheat-growing experiments here. Let’s not pretend.
As a result, I opened the many books published this spring on urban self-sufficiency with both interest and skepticism. Fortunately, Thomas J. Fox’s Urban Farming: Sustainable City Living in Your Backyard, in Your Community, and in the World is written for grown-ups. It considers politics and history as well as how-to, and informs me that as late as 1860 there were 50,000 hogs in Manhattan. And Fox actually sounds like an urban sophisticate. Before offering advice on fruit tree diseases, he advises, “Get yourself a drink and sit down.”
In The City Homesteader: Self-Sufficiency on Any Square Footage, Scott Meyer takes on a more cheerleading tone. He offers good advice for growing a lot of food into a small space—as well as simple instructions for preserving food and making basic household products such as laundry detergent. However, Meyer puzzled me by spending time on such countrified activities as foraging for wild edibles.
The charm of Andrea’s Bellamy’s Sugar Snaps and Strawberries: Simple Solutions for Creating Your Own Small-Space Edible Gardens is that it treats urban gardening not as a matter of life and limb, but as a source of fun and beauty. The first chapter of this nice, easy-going primer for beginning gardeners is, interestingly enough, about style questions. Hey, she’s right! We’re urbanites. We look good to feel good.
Your Farm in the City: An Urban Dweller’s Guide to Growing Food and Raising Animals is by Lisa Taylor of the nonprofit Seattle Tilth, which has taught city dwellers to garden for decades. I wish Taylor hadn’t emphasized the class-taking, list-making, library-visiting and journal-keeping quite so much, since all that fussiness and caution would turn me off if I were a beginner. On the other hand, it’s a joy to open such a lavishly illustrated and beautiful book, one that is absolutely stuffed with interesting information on everything from pigweed to hoop-house construction.
My favorite of all these recent books by far is Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen’s Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World. They don’t spend much time on gardening, and some of the time they do spend they waste on the sweaty and useless practice of double-digging. But they make up for it with an unsqueamish and expansive range of interests that include chicken slaughter, soap-making in a blender and beer-brewing.
Theirs is a truly citified definition of self-sufficiency. You may not be able to avoid the supermarket entirely in a urban yard—but Coyne and Knutzen will do everything possible to keep you out of the drug store and beverage center instead. Amen to that.
Michele Owens, a primary blogger at Garden Rant, is the author of the book Grow the Good Life: Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise, published by Rodale in February 2011. Her articles about gardening have appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, Garden Design and Organic Gardening. She is a former political speechwriter and a joyful vegetable gardener of almost 20 years.