What is Urban Agriculture

Urban agriculture can be defined as growing, processing, and distribution of food and animal products by locals and for locals within an urban setting.  Examples of Urban Agriculture include but are not limited to : 

  • community and backyard gardens
  • rooftop and balcony gardening
  •  growing in vacant lots
  • Aquaculture and hydroponics 
  • market farms 
  • raising livestock and beekeeping.
  • Vertical growing

Urban agriculture is not just the process of growing these products.  It also includes how you sell the products.  Urban agriculture includes things such as farmers markets, roadside fruit, and farm stands, how you market and sell the crops.  It includes where you make the value-added products even down to how you address food waste and food security issues. Since it is more profound than how you produce and sell the products, it is safe to say there is not just one definition of urban agriculture.  Being as how it addresses so many issues its form adapts to the environment- economical, social, cultural, and political.

urban agriculture

Why is urban agriculture important?

Urban agriculture has many benefits. Not all benefits are related to food. Urban agriculture helps rebuild fractured communities, addresses food security issues, develop local food systems, promoting economic development, and improve urban biodiversity and environmental health.

Environmental Health/Pollution 

Most of our current produce comes from a flawed agricultural model and food system.  If you remember back to before mega-farms existed, every neighborhood and city had farmers producing a wide array of products. See, urban agriculture is not a new topic or idea. Once the onset of mega-farms took place, this destroyed the concept of local. 

Mega-farms are one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels. Mega-farms are one of the most significant pollutants in the world.  I don’t mean on the actual farm while they are growing, I am referring to once the food is picked, processed, and packaged. After the three Ps, the produce must now be delivered. Delivery means either 18 wheelers on the road or shipping containers sent out to sea, take your pick either one is a significant contributor to adverse air quality issues.

Destructive farming practices

The farming practices applied on large scale farms destroy the soil microbiology. The use of Glycosophate, salt-based fertilizers and pesticides all take their toll on the land.  Most modern urban agriculture practices do the opposite. Urban agriculture is focused on organic and regenerative growing methods. By definition and location urban farms are smaller than the large scale agricultural farms; therefore, the urban farmers are more likely to have a connection to the land and care about the soil quality. They are more like to practice organic methods that help to rebuild and strengthen the quality of the soil, therefore, being able to produce more healthy products with a smaller footprint.

Address food security

Food insecurity is described as not knowing where your next meal will come from. More than 15% of Americans suffer from this problem.  Urban Agriculture can help address these issues. While it is not a guaranteed fix, it does offer options which can lead to a solution.  Having access to this food can help address the issue of consuming too much processed foods. Urban farmers should work with members of the community to ensure that what is being grown on the farms reflects the wants and needs of local residents.

Seasonal Produce

Over the past decade, there has been a massive push to eat seasonally. Well, that’s what urban agriculture is about. Since food is produced locally, there is no choice but to grow with the seasons. Seasonal produce is a healthier option than. The food can be picked at peak ripeness to ensure that it is as nutrient-dense and vitamin-rich as possible.

Transition to what grows when

FALL PLANTING GUIDE
Vegetable/Planting TypeSEPOCTNOVVegetable/Planting TypeSEPOCTNOV
Amaranth for grain/seedPLentil/seedP
Arugula, garden (rocket)/seedPLettuce, 30-70 day/seedPP
Arugula, Sylvetta/seedPPPMache (corn salad)/seedP
Basil/plantPMint/plantPPP
Bean, broad, Fava/seedPMitsuba/seedP
Bean, snap (string), pole & bush/seedPMizuna/seedPP
Bean (hyacinth)/seedPMustard/seedPP
Beet/seedPPOnions, multiplying/setsPP
Bok choy, Pak choi, Tatsoi/seedPOnions, short day bulb/setsP
Broccoli/plantPOregano, Greek, Italian/plantP
Buckwheat/seedPParsley/seedP
Cabbage/plantPParsnip/seedP
Cabbage (Napa, Chinese)/seed or plantPPPea, sugar snap, English shell,snow/seedP
Carrot/seedPPRadish, salad & daikon/ seedP
Cauliflower/plantPRomanesco Cauliflower, Hybrid/ plantP
Celery herb & stalk/ seedPRosemary/plantPP
Chard /seed or plantPPRutabaga/seedPP
Chervil/ seed or plantPSalsify, Scorzonera/seed or plantPP
Chives, Garlic & Onion/bulbPPShungiku (Tong Ho)/seedP
Cilantro/seedPSorrel/plant & seedPP
Claytonia/seedPSquash, summer/seed or plantP
Collards/seedPPStrawberry/plantP
Collards/plantPPSugar cane/cuttingPP
Cress, garden/seedPTendergreens (mustard spinach)/seedP
Cucumber/seed or plantPTomato, Cherry/plantP
Dill/seedPTurnip/seedPP
Endive, Chicory, Radicchio/seedPSEED in pots, A/C under lights/greenhouse
Epazote/seed or plantPArtichoke (Globe)PP
Fennel, Florence/seedPBroccoliP
Garlic/clovesPBrussels sproutsP
Gailan (Chinese Broccoli)/seed or plantPCabbageP
Horseradish/rootPPCauliflowerP
Kale/seed or plantPChardP
Kale, Russian/seed or plantPLeekP
Kohlrabi/seed or plantPOnion, short dayP
Leek/setPPRomanesco cauliflowerP
Lemon balm/seed or plantPSpinachP

NOTE: Recommendations based on Central Houston (Hobby Airport/Pearland) 2007-2017 temperatures for areas whose winters stay above 25˚F and are not on the Coast.

Locations south of I-10 far from central Houston, or north of North I-610, plant earlier than shown. Revised August 2017.

Information from Year Round Vegetable, Fruits and Flowers for Metro Houston by Dr. Bob Randall (available pending publication). Used with permission. 8/17

Transition into what tools are necessary to get started 

  • This depends on setup of garden 
  • Tall raised beds then I recommend a hand cultivar tool- can be used as a shovel, a rake, a weed extractor
  • In ground or lows beds- depends on ability to bend over but a Hand cultivar

What Is Vermicomposting?

Vermicomposting is the process of using worms to breakdown organic matter. Not the same worms that you find in your garden.  No, these here are basically super worms. Fun fact, there are over 9000 different varieties of earthworms. Earthworms are one of the oldest creatures on the planet. These worms have a voracious appetite, like the plant in little shop of horrors, and they love to eat. Red Wiggler, or composting worms, can eat up to half their body weight in organic material daily. Usually, they consume around 25% of their body weight, though.  Imagine if people ate that much!

 
What do they eat?

It is more like what don’t they eat. If it is a kitchen food scrap, then it is safe to be fed to the worms; bread, bagels, pineapple or watermelon rinds, coffee grounds or filters, tea bags – you name it. Now, like everything else in life, there are exceptions. Do not feed the worms meat, raw or cooked, animal bones, fresh animal manure, or dairy products. Have you ever stopped to think about how much kitchen waste you actually produce? For one week, I want you to try writing down all your food scraps or waste. Keep a couple of gallon ziplock bags around to store the scraps. You would be surprised how many scraps you could accumulate over this short period.

Worms are housed in a bin with air holes, with bedding material, and are fed kitchen scraps. They eat the scraps and convert them into worm castings. Castings are the fertile digested “soil” or excrement produced by composting worms. They contain a concentrated source of Ca, Mg, N, P, and K, in readily available form. The castings slowly release the nutrients needed for healthy plant growth throughout all stages of the plant’s life. Castings help improve the soil structure and root zone by contributing to build up the organic matter in the soil/growing medium. This helps strengthen a plant’s immune system and decreases the plant’s vulnerability to pests and diseases. Castings also increase the production rates for all flowers, fruits, and vegetables.

 
Benefits of worm castings include:

• Vastly improves soil structure
• Will reduce irrigation costs up to 50% by improving moisture retention in the soil
• Will promote beneficial microbial activity that will result in healthier plants
• Reduce the carbon in the soil and increase the nitrogen levels
• A perfect soil conditioner with naturally balanced levels of minerals & nutrients

 
Vermicomposting

Vercomposting 101: The How To’s

Alright, now that we have gotten that out of the way, it is time to talk about how we actually go about getting started vermicomposting. The idea may seem daunting at first, but if we break it down into the 5 fundamental parts you will see it is not that difficult.

1. Container
2. Bedding 
3. Moisture 
4. Worms 
5. Food 
 
Container

Let’s get one thing clear, like with all things gardening, there is not just one right way to do something. By that, I mean, there is no such thing as the perfect container. The type of container used depends on how much food scraps you are generating and where the bin will be placed. Regardless of what you use, there are a few critical points about the container that applies irrespective of what you decide to make it out of. The bin needs to be breathable, around 12” deep, and have air holes.  

The most common bins used by home vermicomposters are plastic rubbermaid totes. They are relatively cheap, can be stacked, come with a lid, and can have air holes added easily. If you are planning on vermicomposting outside, not on a covered porch or balcony,  then you should look at building the bin out of wood. Try to stay away from pressure-treated lumber and use naturally rot-resistant wood, like cedar.  

Whichever bin you decide on is a personal preference, make sure you have a lid of some type. The cover helps retain the moisture within the container and helps keep the bin dark. Now a cover can be anything from burlap sacks that we wet and put on top to the cover that comes with the plastic tote.  If the bin is outside, then I recommend a solid hinge cover. This will help keep all unwanted visitors, rats, opossums, and raccoons from interfering with the composting

 
Bedding

This is where the worms spend their life, so it is crucial to understand the purpose. The bedding retains moisture and air for the worms. The worms will actually eat and process this bedding into castings, so the size of the materials matters. 

The first time I did vermicomposting, I filled my container up with garden soil and compost. Ha, I thought I was doing the worms a favor. Came back one week later and all the worms that weren’t dead were trying to climb out of the bin. That’s when I learned that bedding is actually essential.  

When it comes to bedding, you do not need store-bought options. You can use any of the following:

  • Shredded newspaper 
  • Shredded Cardboard 
  • Peat Moss 
  • Coco Coir

Before filling your bin, you need to prepare the bedding. This is done by shredding and moistening your materials. You do not want them to be waterlogged and full of moisture, you just want the bedding moist. Now fill your bin 2/3 of the way to the top. This bedding is where the earthworms get their moisture from; therefore, it needs to remain moist at all times. If it starts to dry out spray the top with a spray bottle.

Now that you know what vermicomposting is, are you ready to get started? Let me know in the comments below!

6 Methods of Composting

Now that we know the benefits of adding compost to our garden, we should discuss different methods of composting. These ways will work whether you live in an apartment with limited space or whether you have sprawling acreage. There is a way to compost for everyone regardless of your living situation.

What are the different methods of composting?

1. Open Air Composting

Open air compost is what most people envision when they think about composting. Open-air composting is an anaerobic composting method that needs air to properly compost. Make sure to pay attention to your combination of nitrogen-rich or green material versus your Browns or carbon-rich material. Improper ratios can lead to smelly composting pits that attract all types of vermin to your gardening area. Open-air composting is relatively easy to set up all you need is a space to place your materials. When done correctly, you create an ecosystem where fungi and other microorganisms are attracted. Make sure to bury your food scraps deep within the center of the pile to discourage rats and other pests from visiting your composting area. This method is labor-intensive because it involves regular flipping or turning the materials to ensure that the compost reaches the ideal temperature.

methods of composting

 

3. Trenching or Direct Composting

This is one of the easiest methods of composting. A form of passive composting, I love to incorporate these into all of my gardens, probably for nostalgic reasons. I believe that early farmers and gardeners probably composted in this method. I like to dig a hole or trench for direct composting and bury my food materials in it. One downfall to this method is that the anaerobic conditions lead to a prolonged decomposition period. But what I do like is that I can dig one trench and fill it up slowly, and as I work one section and fill it up, I can cover that area and then continue down the line. This method is excellent for people who do not have a lot of time and who do not want to put a lot of effort into composting.

4. Vermicomposting

This is one of my favorite methods of composting. You can start a worm farm in an apartment or an urban garden. The composting worm of choice is the red wiggler worm. While you can purchase these all over the Internet, I prefer to go outside and harvest them myself. This way, I ensure that I end up with indigenous worms that can withstand my climate. With worm farming or Vermicomposting, you bury food scraps into a bin where you house worms in a Coco core and newspaper mixture. For more information on vermicomposting, read here. If you’re willing to put in a little bit of work and create a desirable habitat for your worms, they will reward you with one of the best forms of compost that you can have.

 

5. Bokashi

Bokashi – is one of the best methods for indoor composting. With bokashi, you place food scraps into a bin, adding bran that is active with Lactobacillus and other microbes. We create an anaerobic condition and rely on bacteria to break down the food materials. One of the benefits of bokashi is that you can compost everything. Now when I say compost, I mean that loosely really, what we’re doing is pre-composting or fermenting these materials. After being held in our bokashi bin for a few weeks, we’re able to bury these food scraps directly in our garden bed or our compost bin, and they will break down exceptionally quickly. For more information on bokashi composting, click here.

There is no excuse for anyone to say that they cannot compost with these six ways of compost. You just have to be willing to put forth a little bit of effort. But your effort will be rewarded with black gold. And do not think that you must have a garden to justify composting. Compost can be added to flower beds, launch trees, or ornamentals, and the uses are endless.

Now let’s take this information, figure out which system is right for us, and start composting.

just grow it

Vertical Gardening: 5 Ways It Maximizes Garden Space

Vertical gardening

Vertical gardening is one great way to maximize your gardening space. When I say vertical gardening, I am not talking about vertically building/stacking raised beds or containers.  I am referring to training a plant to grow against a vertical structure; Like a wall, trellis, fence, or any other vertical plane.  Have you ever grown watermelon or cucumbers?  Remember how the vines started small, cute, and harmless?  Were those vines still small and manageable halfway into the season, or had they begun to grow EVERYWHERE?  When they grow everywhere, they cover some of our garden space, and when you are trying to maximize your area, we cannot have that.  Training plants to grow vertically is a way to get the space-hogging plants up and off the ground ad growing space.

Reasons To Do Vertical Gardening

1. It helps maximize space.

Certain plants tend to sprawl out everywhere when growing.  If you have a lot of gardening space, this is not an issue.  This practice is not an option if you live in an urban environment or have a smaller garden or balcony.

2. It helps gardeners with limited space grow the same varieties as people with spacious gardening areas.

You do not have the space to let these crops sprawl, but that does not mean you can’t still grow them.  Vertical gardening makes it possible to grow certain plants that utilize a lot of space and allows us to grow them in areas where we may not have space horizontally, but it exists vertically.

3. Vertical gardening helps keep the foliage and fruits off the ground.

Why is this important?  Vegetation on the ground can harbor disease and pests that devastate your entire garden.  Keeping these leaves off the ground helps reduce the chances of these actions occurring.  Keeping the leaves off the ground helps increase airflow, which is vital for stopping powdery mildew.  Also, growing plants vertically makes it easier to spot and deal with pests.

4. Vertical gardening brings everything up to eye level.

Having plants at this level is essential because it helps solve the dreaded “Awh man, I didn’t even see that there” problem.  With the plant eye level and higher, you will be able to see all of your harvests, which should result in less food waste.

5. Maybe most important of all, it just looks great.

Growing pumpkins, watermelons, or cucumbers on a trellis adds an aesthetically pleasing focal point to the garden.  It can be quite the conversation piece when experiencing the garden with your friends or neighbors.  Who knows, they may see your vertical gardening example and be inspired to go home and start a garden of their own.

What to grow

Everything cannot be grown vertically.  You can do nothing for specific crops like broccoli and carrots, and you’re just out of luck.  But anything that has tendrils, now that is another story.  Tendrils are appendages that extend from the plant’s stem and their own, and the only job is to find something to wrap around to help support the plant.  See, these plants already want to grow upwards, and we need to train them to grow in the direction we want.  Plants with tendrils include but are not limited to:

  • Peas
  • Pole Beans
  • Cucumbers
  • Melons
  • Winter Squash

Not every variety of these plants has tendrils.  Take peas; for example, Cowpeas and black-eyed peas grow bushier and do not have tendrils, While Butterfly peas and snow peas do.  You must pay attention to the characteristics of specific varieties planted.

Not all trainable plants have tendrils.  The following do not but can still be trained the same:

  • Indeterminate Tomatoes
  • Zucchini
  • Summer squash

BEWARE

When growing vertically, make sure you place the vertical trellis or structure in the proper place.  Improper placement of this can lead to shadows and decreased sun exposure in the garden.  Be sure to put the trellis on the north side of the garden.  This way, it will not cast a shadow on the garden south of it.

How to

Staking – look for a stake made of material strong enough to withstand the weight of the fruits or vegetables.  Try rot-resistant wood, bamboo, PVC, conduit, rebar, or repurposed from other materials, usually driven into the ground during the initial planting of the seed or transplant.  Try to get a stake that, when pushed into the ground, is around 7′ tall.

Trellising – Uses stakes and some lattice material.  You are driving the supports into the ground; the trellis can support the most weight.  Try to keep the openings on the lattice material 4″ or smaller.

Cages –  I mostly use these for determinate tomatoes.  Be careful when purchasing, and make sure you buy a sturdy cage.  Do not be tempted to buy cages made of wire; you can easily bend these with your hands.  Also, avoid the conical cages from the big box stores, and they tend to bend and collapse under the weight of the tomatoes.  I have used cages from Hoss Tools successfully and ones from a company named Texas tomato cages.  When using cages, try driving some stakes right inside the edge of the cage to add extra support.