Excerpt from Chapter 2: Urban Ecology
Many people see ecological living as something they will do later, when they can finally afford a big place in the country, but I say, “Start now!” Even, or perhaps especially, if you live in a tiny apartment surrounded by a concrete jungle, you should always try to find simple ways to repair the earth, educate others, and prevent further destruction of the natural world.
Growing ecological gardens, wherever you can, is never a waste of time. Nothing lasts forever, and if you can get a few baskets of food without damaging the environment, and perhaps leave behind some long-living fruit trees, then the larger ecological community will surely benefit from your labors. If you can do these things while also educating others, then your work will succeed many times over.
In addition, not everyone wants to live in the country, and if everyone moves there it will all become the city. Many people plan to spend their lives in the city, happily, and have no plans to go rural. This is good, because if we want to support the growing human population for more than another few centuries, we are going to have to grow up, not out. We also must ensure that urban communities can provide for their own needs, using resources from the local area. These needs include food, building materials, water, medicine, and much more, and currently there are no cities to provide a model.
We can, however, create our own models by simultaneously caring for the earth, caring for the people, and recycling resources. In these models rural food surpluses will supplement urban subsistence gardens, and the ecological integrity of each bioregion will depend upon how well the city dwellers can provide for themselves.
Improving the ecological health of cities is crucial to achieving a healthy bioregional community, and if the ideas in this book inspire you, then begin doing these things now regardless of where you live or whether you rent or own your garden site. Do it for the land and to experience the personal transformation; consider the harvest a bonus, rather than the goal. The sooner and more fully we embrace an ecological ethic in our daily lives, the better our ability to place ourselves within the deep ecological context of our communities, and the clearer that context, the more accessible our vision of paradise.
Urban ecology is not so much a matter of “saving the earth” as it is a chance to improve the integrity of our own human lives and, thus, our chances of survival as a species on earth. The earth probably does not care whether we save her. She will most likely continue to turn and breed life long after humans have gone extinct. If we continue our current trend of wanton consumption and shameless waste, this may occur much sooner than later.
I know I sound like Chicken Little saying, “The sky is falling!” but if we don’t change our direction, we will get to where we’re going, which is currently extinct. This deep impermanence, while it may seem grim at first glance, is actually a blessing: Our own fragility gives us the impetus to act now to create healthy lives that harmonize with nature, and to know the comfort, joy, and inspiration brought on by an organic life. Why waste years and decades locked into jobs and consumer boxes that kill and oppress us when paradise is the alternative?
In my experience most people want to eat healthy food, care for the earth, and do other things that help create a better future for humans and other species, but they feel powerless against economic and social constraints. This has a lot to do with the fact that millions of people don’t have a place to grow food, and the people who do have access to land, such as in rural and suburban areas, rarely steward it to the extent we need.
In addition to land, we also need tools, seeds, plants, and other materials, and most people can’t afford to just go out and buy it all. It is a common misconception that you need a lot of money to transform your home, garden, and community into paradise. But you can’t buy your way to a healthy ecology—you have to innovate it.
Integral to growing paradise gardens is recycling resources to do so. Every city in the world is rife with useful waste, and recycling it is an essential component of a healthy urban ecology. By understanding the flow of resources in the community around our gardens, we can better place those gardens within their deeper ecological and social context.
Yes, growing organic food is always worth doing, but what of the truckloads of good organic produce that farmers and distributors throw away? Using this waste for food and growing something else makes so much more sense.
Get acquainted with locally available, free resources—land, food, and otherwise. This is the first step in turning your yard into a garden and your neighborhood into a community, and recycling those resources is the next step. Focus on making best use of what is near you now, and buy new stuff only as the very last resort. The more we recycle the waste stream toward meeting our basic needs, the closer we come to closing the ecological loop.
Urban ecology is a big issue, and one that will take many years and many ideas to understand, but if we start with growing food where we can, we will be moving in the right direction. We can find space and resources that don’t cost money; we can build gardens and communities that make social and ecological sense.
This chapter will focus on making these resources more accessible. We will look at how to find a garden space if you don’t have one, and how to make the most out of the spaces you find. Then we will see how to tap into the flow of useful surplus that goes to waste every day, in every city in America, and how to divert that flow toward your garden and community.
Look Before You Leap
Before we can build ecological gardens and communities, we must first take the time to look deeply into our surroundings and try to see how best to integrate ourselves with the natural ecology. Humans are notorious for their inability and/or unwillingness to look at the natural signs around them, and this tendency is probably how we got in such deep water with the natural environment.
Sure, you might be all fired up to bust out some fabulous project, and I don’t want to discourage spontaneous creative action, but it is essential that we learn to look. Only through careful observation can we avoid making the same mistakes twice and determine what to do next.
During this observant, assessing phase, you should start a journal to keep track of what you find and to document the ideas and designs you come up with later on. Include garden maps and design ideas, seed harvests, lists of where you find good resources, contact information for fellow gardeners, drawings of your projects, and whatever else comes to mind. Such journals will become treasured community heirlooms, so choose a well-bound book with acid-free paper, and try not to leave it out in the rain!
Observation means more than just looking around with your eyes at what you see right now. There are many ways and many levels on which to see things, and I will describe a few important ones here. Before you read any more, take this book and go sit outside, where you have a decent panoramic view of your neighborhood. Now, as you read, look at your surroundings and try to see them in the ways I describe. Do this every morning for a few days.
This exercise might feel a bit contrived, but you really must do it, because it will help train your subconscious mind, and you will be surprised at how quickly your perception changes. Just as a dance step or a piano riff may seem difficult or impossible to do at first but can become easy, even automatic, over time, so can we train our minds to see and respond to nature. Ready?
This is a proverb familiar to hunters, who must learn to look deep into the woods for deer and other prey. Use your eyes and try to see as far into a landscape as possible. Look past the first layer of foliage, through the gap between trees, and past the tops of small plants.
One of the first times I went to the garden of my friends and mentors Alan, or “Mushroom,” and Linda Kapuler, we spent the afternoon wading through a dozen or so varieties of giant marigold plants in bloom. There must have been millions of flowers, and I had never seen marigolds that were different from the little pom-poms sold out in front of supermarkets.
Mushroom said, “Look at these flowers! Aren’t they beautiful?” I replied, “Oh, yes, so many different reds and oranges.” Then he said, “No, look.” And pointed at a single flower just inches from our faces.
I followed the line of his long finger into the center of the flower and saw, to my utter amazement, that it was one of a kind. All of the flowers were marigolds, and the ones in this patch had come from the seeds of a single flower, but each flower had a unique shape and color. By looking deep into the garden, then into the patch of marigolds, then into each flower, I was able to begin to understand what it means to be diverse.
Looking deep also means using all our senses. You should look with your eyes, but also listen, taste, touch, and smell your surroundings. Practice looking deep into a garden, into the woods, into a handful of soil, and at your community. Look in every direction: up, down, under, behind, around, through, and at different times of the day. Write down what you see. Deeper, use your spiritual sense—your intuition—and make note of what your instinct sees.
When developing ecological gardens and other community projects, we need to make observations on different levels. The two main ones are the macrocosm and the microcosm. Each includes important sublevels of observation, which I will elaborate on below. Look deep at each level to create a fractal-like sense of what you see. Look past the obvious, check your assumptions, and use all your senses.
From seeing your garden in the context of your neighborhood to seeing yourself in the context of the universe, the macrocosm is the big picture. This includes the embedded energy in every tool and resource, such as how much pollution was caused by manufacturing and transporting the greenhouse plastic, or how much forest was destroyed for the lumber to build raised garden beds. When you use recycled materials you minimize embedded energies and help prevent pollution by intercepting waste, rather than creating waste through consumer demand.
Looking at the macrocosm means searching for patterns in space and time. Look at all the big things and see how they fit together to make the whole. Look for large-scale patterns and relationships. Try to determine where they go and where they come from by following the connections from one observation to the next. In most cases these patterns will repeat themselves on each smaller scale, and through them we can find ways to make our small work resonate with the big picture.
Now tune in to the subtler details of what you see. Look deep into the macrocosm and pick out the microcosm that is your life, your garden. In the garden look deeper into each detail, from an individual tree to the smallest soil organism. Again, look for patterns and notice opportunities. Within each microcosm there will also be many microclimates—special niches that yield special circumstances, which you can change or take advantage of. I’ll get into microclimates in a minute. For now focus on training your senses to see the details.
Some garden designers believe you should observe a site for at least an entire year before making any changes. I recommend this when at all practical—you will save a lot of time correcting errors if you understand the natural flows before making any changes. Chances are, however, that you will want to start sooner. That’s fine; just start small and spiral outward and you won’t need to worry too much about making irrevocable mistakes.
Now that you know how to see, you’re ready to start looking for a garden site. The next few pages will address the problem of urban land access and look at ways to stretch the spaces you find. If you already have a site, then these tips will help you make it the most efficient space it can be.
What If I Don’t Have a Lawn?
For people who are lucky enough to have fertile soil in their own yard, starting a garden is easy. For those who don’t have good soil—or don’t have a yard at all—starting a garden takes a little more effort. Most soil, especially in urban areas, responds well to organic improvements, and it usually makes more sense to build soil on a convenient spot than to travel far from home to garden in an area that is already fertile.
We’ll learn how to build good soil on any ground in a later chapter, but what if you don’t have a garden space at all? In the next few pages we’ll look at how to find places to grow gardens, and how to make the most out of the spaces you find. The biggest limit to what you can do is your own creativity, so see what you can think of and share your ideas with others. Ultimately city dwellers’ best resource is neighbors, so tap into their hearts and minds, and don’t hesitate to share your own.
The following land-access strategies will help you get started.
Use the Neighbor’s Lawn
It may seem odd in our modern American culture, but in other places around the world people frequently share yard and garden space with their neighbors. If you’ve been eyeing that nice sunny lawn next door, dreaming of filling it with fig trees and big red tomatoes, what could it hurt to ask? Go on, go over there, bring some seeds and a smile, and ask!
I have seen spectacular gardens come together when a group of neighbors with adjacent yards take down the fences between their lots and share the land communally. All the ideas in this book are most effective when done in community, with the people who live nearby. This doesn’t mean everyone can’t have their own space to do as they choose—only that the natural ecology is allowed to be more fully interconnected, without plants, insects, animals, and natural flows having to overcome fences and other human-made obstructions.
Rent a Plot in a Community Garden
Many cities have some sort of community garden program. Ask at the local university, Agricultural Extension Service, or gardening store, or try doing a search on www.google.com—just type in the name of your city and “community garden.”
Most of these programs lease ground from the city and rent out small plots to local gardeners on a seasonal basis. If you can’t find a program locally, would you like to start one? Chapter 9 has several ideas for community garden projects. Also see the resources section for a list of books and websites.
Volunteer at a Local Farm or Help Friends with Their Gardens
Most organic farms offer free produce to volunteers, and some will lease you a small plot of your own. This gives you an opportunity to learn from the farmer and access to the farm infrastructure, which includes important resources such as irrigation, seeds, surplus starts, et cetera. Some farms also hire seasonal workers, which can be a great opportunity to spend your summer learning, exercising, and eating fresh produce. If you can’t find a local farm to work with, volunteer to help your neighbors with their small garden. More options usually reveal themselves as new relationships mature, so build community through voluntary interaction and you won’t be without a garden for long.
Garden in Pots and Containers
Most annual vegetables are well suited for container gardening. Even a small patio can hold a few planters—get pots out of a garden center dumpster or use other recycled containers such as sinks, bathtubs, wine barrels, and plastic buckets with holes drilled in the bottom. Try strawberries, carrots, beets, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, herbs, and salad greens.
Try a self-contained potato garden: Take some chicken wire and make a round cage. Put a layer of thick straw in the bottom and toss some potatoes in. Cover with straw, leaves, or soil, water often, and keep adding more mulch on top as the shoots emerge. Soon you will have a basket full of fresh potatoes.
Use the Roof
If you lack patio or yard space but have a flat, accessible roof, consider building raised beds or planter boxes on the roof. There are fabulous rooftop gardens in big cities all over the world, with everything from small containers of herbs and salad greens to large planter boxes filled with trees and perennials. Get creative with the space you have now and better options will unfold later.
De-pave Your Sidewalk or Driveway
Rent a concrete cutter or just get together some friends with crowbars and rip out the pavement around your house. It doesn’t take that much work to convert a driveway or parking area into a garden. I have seen several wonderful examples, and the residents didn’t regret the lost pavement for a second.
The broken-up pieces—aptly called “urbanite”—work great as steppingstones or patio pavers or for building raised beds and terraces. Park on the street and enjoy the extra exercise while walking home through your new garden.
You may even want to tear down a whole building, such as a garage full of junk; recycle the junk and building materials, and grow plants instead. I would much rather have a living, edible garden next to my house than a dirty old box full of consumer crap. Think about it—you probably wouldn’t pave over an orchard to build a driveway, so why choose the pavement over the trees just because it’s there now?
Grow Food in the Existing Landscape
You don’t have to turn over a big area or even disrupt existing plantings to integrate some food plants. We once rode bikes around town with a big bag of zucchini seeds, planting them wherever we saw a gap in the landscaping. Later we saw big plants in some of the spots and harvested some delicious zucchini! I have also planted fruit trees into existing beds in front of local businesses or at the edge of a park.
This strategy works well, because the city or property owner maintains the landscape, and your plants get watered—sometimes even weeded and fertilized—right along with the plants that were already there! The downfall is that whoever is in charge of the site may notice your plant and pull it out or may spray it with toxins. Still, this is a good option for generating more food around town, and it can be great fun.
Also look for good spots in alleyways, along back fences. Often there is a garden on the other side of the fence, and you can plant small beds along the outside that benefit from the surplus water and fertility.
Start a Garden in a Vacant Lot
You can do this with or without permission. Sometimes property owners will let you plant vegetables and fruit trees in a sunny, underused corner. Others may say no if you ask but won’t notice for a long while if you just do it without telling them.
When the Food Not Lawns collective started our first garden, in an overgrown section of the park, the city didn’t know we were there for almost a year. We got the combination to the gate from a neighbor, cleared out all the trash and debris, and started gardening. By the time folks from the city came along to ask questions, we had a beautiful garden established, and they let us continue to use the space. They even sent park workers to drop off chip mulch once in a while!
There are countless examples like this, where people took over an area, grew food, and maintained access for many years. Some of these squatted gardens eventually gained ownership of the land. Sadly, there are just as many examples of gardens that were eventually bulldozed and paved over. In my opinion it is usually worth a try, and you will probably get at least a season’s reward for your audacity. This and the previous option are often called guerrilla gardening—see chapter 9 for more tips along these lines.
As you look for places to grow, ask yourself some important, practical questions: Will you actually go there to garden? Will you be inspired by the surrounding space? Will the plants have an opportunity to reach maturity? Will you want to eat the produce? Grow what you love, what you eat, and what you want to look at, in a space that makes you feel healthy and empowered.