Back to the Basics: Urban Farming is Catchy, but Suburban Farming is Where it Began and Must Return.

Written by Jeff on September 18th, 2009

Community GardenUrban farming, urban gardening, urban agriculture or urban-ag seems to be all the rage today.  Every planning blog, sustainability organization and local news outlet has covered this issue, but I want to put it back into perspective. First off, I need to state that I think it is great we’re starting to farm rooftops, window sills, and even pickup truck beds; but I feel the hype over urban agriculture has gotten away from our modern history as city dwellers.  I do think being able to produce some food for yourself or your family while living in the concrete jungle is cute but it really isn’t going to make a dent in our current dependence on Big Ag.

If we take a historical look at how cities emerged through the 1800′s & 1900′s we’ll notice that the core city usually had a first ring suburb and then the farms. These farms were within a days drive or train trip.  This is how produce and meat originally made its way into the mouths of city dwellers.  However, with the advent of the truck, interstate highway system, and suburbs farmland has been pushed out further and further from the cities they originally served.  Now with Big Ag controlling much of what we eat the food on the shelves in the store can come from almost anywhere and why you can get strawberries in December in Boston or avocados in February in Los Angeles.  We will never return suburbia to farming so we must come up with alternatives, and that is why the urban agriculture movement is appealing and something almost anyone can get behind and support.

Rooftop or Community gardens are most likely the only viable urban farming that can produce enough goods to sustain several families.  Finding enough rooftops and community gardens that have access to enough light and water, or can take the weight of 200,000 pounds of top soil is tricky.  I found it difficult to get data on amount of crops produced per sq. foot in a garden but I did find an article that discussed cost.  The outcome was around $1.50(gross) per sq. foot. Therefore a 400 sq. ft garden could produce around $2,400(gross) of produce ever six months, depending on climate of course.

As catchy as urban farming is I believe there needs to be a return to suburban farming.  The typical suburban lot is anywhere from 1/4 – 1 acre.  The amount of square footage that can be devoted to a garden is much greater than downtown anywhere.  There is also readily available soil and most likely no permits necessary.  Granted the output per acre is much higher in a suburban setting the output per capital is much lower.  But why don’t you see many suburban gardens?  I don’t believe there is one in my neighborhood.  Many individuals take great care of their flower beds but I don’t think anyone has a garden consisting of more than a tomato plant or two on their patio.

Backyard Garden

I’m glad the urban farmers of the world are trying new things but the suburban farmers, or gardeners, need to make a come back.  Gardening during the 40′s and 50′s was much more prevalent than any other time.  My grandfather, at 91, still has a significant garden and I remember growing up and eating fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and goose berries.  I don’t know why you don’t see as many gardens as even 10 years ago.  Planning Magazine had a great article in the August/September issue about edible front yards.  This is an answer to inner ring suburbs with small yards.  There was plenty of unused space and sunlight in the front of the house.  The dual benefit of an edible lawn (or garden) is the produce it will yield and the mowing and lawn care it will cut out.

But how can suburban gardening make a comeback?  I have a couple of ideas that may work.

First is to use Home Owners’ Associations as a promotion tool to get communities interested in gardening, perhaps with a community garden.  Land Bank Colleges Extension Services could be used to educate key citizens within a subdivision as local experts.  One of the drawbacks to gardening is the fear of failing or wasting ones time.  Knowing when to plant certain crops or how to treat for insects or fungus naturally can be invaluable but often difficult to get good sound information, you think the guys at Home Depot know more than handing you a bottle of Ortho?

Second is the promotion of a community produce swap.  Every person and soil can produce different crops as a specialty.  Maybe I grow wonderful zucchini and you grow great tomatoes.  We could swap some of our crops with each other. This has always been done informally through family, church, or the office when someone with a garden has an extra yield of peppers and brings in the extra for everyone to take some if they want.  But what I vision is a larger, non-profit, organization located in the community that can promote and even certify the transfer of produce between willing participants.  Making access to local produce is obviously a good thing and any organization than can facilitate local gardeners trading their produce would make more individuals willing to put on the gloves and get out the watering can.

Third is along the lines of community education.  Instead of just grabbing seeds off a shelf and hoping they will grow why can’t a potential gardener go online, plug in where they live, the size of garden they want and how many of each crop they desire and get step by step guidelines on how to prepare the ground, when to plant, and how to care for their crops.  Daily or weekly emails could help them keep on watering, fertilizing, and what to expect.  This could be done relatively easy and at a low cost and could be maintained by the local coop or exchange program.

As urban farming is gaining interest I believe their suburban counterparts only need to begin to look to their back yards for an easy option to being green, sustainable, and saving hundreds of dollars a year; not to mention the satisfaction that you are providing for yourself and family with your own hands.

I’d be interested to hear any other suggestions to get suburban gardening going in newer communities and any cases that have worked around the world.


1 Comments so far ↓

  1. Lauri Berger says:

    I think the main reason that suburban farming is so much less than in the 40s and 50s is simply time. Two income families or single working parents simply don’t have or want to spend the time on a garden, it’s so much easier to just go to the store! I do love your idea of produce swapping and actually I do a very scaled-down version of this right now, trading my excess (especially apples in June) with other gardeners I know in different parts of the country. It’s not local yet, but it works for me since my growing season here in Arizona is often opposite of everyone else. I would love to participate in a local or regional crop swap with other suburban gardeners. Perhaps we should start something…

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