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Urban Gardening: Green Thumb Not Required

By Jenni Simcoe
Published: Wednesday, October 27, 2010, at 03:32PM
Jason Boarde of Pedal Patch Community Eric Richardson

Jason Boarde of Pedal Patch Community checks in on a rooftop tomato plant in the Arts District.

Downtown may be lacking in green spaces, but your loft doesn’t have to be similarly barren. Urban gardening, a necessity for many urban dwellers throughout the years, has become trendy again because of the locavore movement. The trend of eating food from within 100 miles has caused a growing number of newbie gardeners to take to their balconies, rooftops and indoor spaces in order to benefit from the freshest and most sustainable crops available: their own.

“Much of our space is under-utilized Downtown,” said Jason Boarde, executive director of Pedal Patch Community, a non-profit urban agriculture organization based in the Arts District. “People don’t realize what’s possible with a small amount of space,” he added.

Boarde suggests that loft dwellers take advantage of balconies or rooftops and turn them into full turf gardens where they can plant crops to their heart’s content. Boarde says to start with a waterproof barrier before adding soil matter, sand and mulch. (Your neighbors below will thank you for this all-important step that prevents dripping to their balcony.) It’s also important to create a boundary with either bricks or a wood frame outside of the plastic barrier to keep the soil contained.

Boarde says that most first-time gardeners make the mistake of making soil the top layer that dries out quickly. Instead he suggests layering soil in as follows: One part mulch mix (soil, humus and mulch); one part high-quality soil; one part humus and/or compost (middle layer); one part soil (top layer); one part mulch mix (top layer); sandy-loam soil or small layer of sand to top off. (Sand allows water to penetrate surface and prevents pooling. Dry mulch can be utilized as a substitute for sand.)

Soil constantly needs to be replenished to keep plants healthy, so an important step in urban gardening is to set up a home compost system. Kits that fit under the sink can easily be fed with organic matter such as leftover fruit peels, coffee grounds and other food scraps.

“Space is at a premium so using the French method of densely growing crops in small spaces is recommended,” Boarde said. After planning space, the next conundrum is to figure out what to plant in the space.

“If you are very limited on space, I’d start with salad greens,” said Tara Kolla, grower/proprietor of Silver Lake Farms, a community supported agriculture organization. “They can grow in a very shallow container and the harvest rate is very fast.”

“Swiss chard is a great green for first time gardeners because it’s very hearty and a perennial that will continue growing for a year or more,” said Boarde. Chard, kale, baby lettuces and other dark greens also don’t require a lot of sunlight, which is a consideration for balconies that receive a lot of shade throughout the day.

Boarde and Kolla also favor growing herbs. “I like the idea of growing herbs at home,” said Kolla. “The tiny containers that herbs come in at the grocery store are such a waste.”

Sara Paul, founder of California CSA, a community supported agriculture organization (see sidebar) says that tomatoes and fruit trees are also a great balcony crop because they grow vertically. “I had a grapefruit tree on my porch of my old apartment. The smell of the flowers was unbelievable!”

Tomatoes are an easy crop to plant in a small container because they grow upwards on stakes rather than spreading horizontally. Boarde has cherry tomatoes planted on the rooftop of the Toy Factory Lofts where his office is located. “We used a bathtub as a container because it’s a great way to recycle and repurpose something that would otherwise end up in the trash,” he said. Boarde suggests finding an unusual container such as a crate, sink or bathtub from a junkyard or garage sale to use as planters.

Wooly Pocket, a national company based in Downtown L.A., has made indoor planting a cinch. Their felt pockets are waterproof and can be hung on a wall indoors for a vertical growing garden. “Our felt containers are made out of 100 percent recycled plastic bottles,” said Aurora James, marketing executive for Wooly Pocket.

James admits she didn’t have much of a green thumb when she started working at Wooly. But she says she caught on quickly because the Indoor Wally pocket is fairly self-sustainable.

The Wally pocket is a brightly colored blue felt pouch that looks a bit like a large envelope and has rivets that allow it to be attached to the wall. Curly mint, sage, parsley and basil are all easily grown in Wallys according to James. “Wallys are as easy to hang as a painting by simply using wall anchors that are provided with each Wally,” said James.

Wallys make gardening easy, according to James, but that doesn’t mean a plant won’t die on occasion. “It’s the cycle of life. Sometimes plants die. The main thing people do to kill plants is that they over water them. I still occasionally do, but the Wally makes it easier because it holds the moisture in the built-in tongue and keeps the soil moist.”

A high quality potting soil is the second key to successfully cultivating plants says James. “E.B. Stone Organics’ Edna’s Best potting soil is what I recommend. It smells sort of like wine. I’d avoid any potting soil in the house that has a manure scent,” she said.

Wallys and other containers can easily be used where rooftops and balconies aren’t available. Boarde suggests a DIY approach to making your own container garden. “You can take an old shoe rack and fill it with cut off 2-liter containers or just hang containers one beneath the other to catch the water as long as you have a barrier at the bottom to protect the floor,” he said.

All of the experts agree, it’s not how big the space is or what you plant, it’s that gardening is fun and lessens each gardener’s carbon footprint. “Just try it,” says James. “It’s not as scary as I once thought it was.”

Another Way to Eat Local

Farmers markets have made it easier to eat farm-fresh produce picked more recently than what you would find at the grocery store, but even those buys aren’t as fresh as possible, says Tara Kolla, grower/proprietor of Silver Lake Farms, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) co-op.

CSAs are either run by growers or by a cooperative that buys directly from local farms. Members are called ‘share-holders’ and pay a weekly or biweekly fee for a box of fruits and vegetables.

A CSA box’s bounty is a different combination of produce each week and depends on what is seasonally available.

“People who join CSAs are more adventurous than those who shop farmers markets because they never know what they will get but they always are open to trying new things,” said Kolla. She says that produce like parsnips, turnips and kohlrabi provide a “challenge and new possibilities to members” that they wouldn’t necessarily try if they shopped elsewhere.

Several CSAs serve Downtown. Some offer home delivery while others have pick-up locations.

  • California CSA offers organic produce from a variety of farms. A weekly bag costs $25 with $2 going to a local PTA or school. The pickup location downtown is located at Threads Cafe at 3rd & San Pedro — csacalifornia.org

  • Farm Fresh To You offers a variety of sized boxes that range in price from $25 to $110 depending on how large of a box is ordered. This CSA delivers straight to home or office on Tuesdays — farmfreshtoyou.com

  • Pedal Patch CSA offers fruits and vegetables along with optional protein items such as grass fed beef and pasture raised chicken and eggs. The prices range from $35 and up and are delivered via UPS Ground to your home — pedalpatchcommunity.org/csa

  • Silver Lake Farms offers local produce from its farm in Silver Lake for $125 for ten weeks on a biweekly basis and $250 for ten weeks on a weekly basis. A fresh bread add-on is also available — silverlakefarms.blogspot.com

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