Articles by This Author
Fresh Food from Small Spaces
The Square-Inch Gardener’s Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting
by R. J. Ruppenthal
In the coming years, our society will need to (re)turn to traditional methods of raising food, rediscovering techniques for sustainable food production that our ancestors practiced up until the last few generations. Family subsistence farming was the norm in Europe and the United States until the industrial revolution accelerated urbanization and mass agriculture. Not everyone was a farmer, but nearly every household had a vegetable patch and a dairy cow, chicken coop, or apple tree in the backyard. You can still see original fruit trees in many suburban areas around the country; most have been chopped down to make space for manicured lawns and concrete sidewalks, but a few of these old homestead trees remain. Some still bear fruit each year without anyone harvesting it, and I have even heard property owners complain about fruit trees because they drop so much “junk” on the ground. You could almost hide a fruit tree in plain sight these days because not many people recognize it as a food source. But not so long ago, our parents or grandparents depended on those trees for their fruit, using it for fresh eating and cooking, pressing it for juice and cider, and preserving it in the form of pies, sauce, and jam.
We will need to relearn basic food production skills in a hurry if we are to survive and thrive in this new world. It is tough to garden when you have no land, but city residents CAN learn to produce more food with less space, and that is why I wrote this book. I believe that humankind’s survival depends upon our successful adaptation to a more sustainable economy and way of life; sustainability is not possible when we madly poison our farmland with pesticides and chemical fertilizers, scoop up natural resources at a voracious pace until they are gone, and finance every whim with a spiraling pool of debt. Some of us need to start relearning what is real. I believe this book will help you learn some food-raising skills on a small scale, and reap the personal rewards for yourself and your family.
The demand for organic food in the United States has more than doubled in the last few years, pushing retailers like Wal-Mart, Safeway, and Albertson’s to offer organic food to the masses. However, for better or for worse, around 80 percent of us live in cities while only about 2 percent of the U.S. population lives or works on farmland. Can city dwellers ever hope to become part of the sustainability equation? I believe that we can and must. My family and I live in an urban area, and for most of my adult life I have had no yard. Yet we have managed to raise a sizeable chunk of our own fresh food from balcony and windowsill vegetable gardens, a kitchen-based sprouting operation, yogurt and kefir fermentation, and a worm composter in the garage, which provides a rich source of fertility to feed our plants. Other urban farmers cultivate mushrooms in their garages and raise rabbits or chickens on rooftops and small lawns.
Aside from glossy coffee-table books with colorful pictures of herbs and flowers growing in pots, there are no practical guides out there for urban gardeners who are serious about growing some of their own fresh food. Consequently, many of my urban neighbors do not understand the possibilities. While numerous books cover rural homesteading and sustainable agriculture, there are no such books for city dwellers. Most rural or suburban gardeners see cities as overdeveloped wastelands with little available space or sunlight for sustainable farming. They assume that serious food production cannot take place in urban areas without energy-intensive systems like indoor lighting and hydroponics. Fresh Food from Small Spaces challenges this conventional wisdom and shows you how to produce a significant portion of your own food right at home. Free space for the city gardener may consist of no more than a cramped patio, balcony, rooftop, windowsill, hanging rafter, dark cabinet, garage, or storage area: no space is too small or too dark to raise food. You will learn how to transform your balcony and windowsill into productive vegetable gardens, your countertops and storage lockers into commercial-quality sprout and mushroom farms, and your outside nooks and crannies into whatever you can imagine, including homes for a small chicken coop, bee colony, or just enough space for a dwarf tree or berry bush that produces a month’s worth of fresh fruit for the whole family.
Because I couldn’t find a book like this, I had to learn the hard way. Finding little practical guidance on how to raise food in small urban spaces, I have explored, adapted, and improvised. After years of trying and sometimes failing, I now have a productive urban garden of my own. In the small homes where my family and I have lived, we have produced enough food to eat at least some homegrown fresh food 365 days a year. Using intensive container gardening and vertical growing techniques, our balcony and window gardens produce armloads of beans, chard, tomatoes, and fresh herbs in the summer. In cooler seasons we can harvest all the cabbage and peas my family can eat. On a sunny windowsill indoors I start vegetable seedlings, which will eventually be planted into the larger garden. On top of our kitchen refrigerator sits a commercial-quality sprouting operation that grows wheatgrass, soybean, mung bean, lentil, alfalfa, and broccoli sprouts. Every few days, we have enough sprouts to fill our sandwiches, salads, and stir-fries with fresh green sprouts that are rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and enzymes (this from just pennies’ worth of organic seed). On a nearby countertop, we turn plain milk or organic soy milk into delicious homemade yogurt, with complete proteins and beneficial microorganisms to aid digestion plus improve the immune system. We get additional protein and probiotics from the other foods we ferment in a nearby cabinet, such as kefir, ginger beer, kimchi, and sauerkraut, which provide healthy quantities of protein; vitamins A, B, and C; minerals; enzymes; and other nutrients for our diet. In our garage, worms eat our compost and produce rich fertilizer that goes back into the garden planters to nourish the vegetable plants. Using our present configuration, we could actually produce enough sprouts, fresh herbs, ginger beer, or bait worms to start a small cottage industry or barter for something else we needed.
I am not alone. I have met others who grow mushrooms in dark cabinets or in a neglected shady spot under an outdoor tree. A chicken coop or honeybee hive can fit on a sidewalk, patch of lawn, or even balcony, providing you with a dozen fresh eggs every week or 100 pounds of your own raw honey. Park your car on the street, cover your driveway with soil and straw, and use the space to grow potatoes; you can meet your family’s caloric needs for weeks or months on end. Dig up that ugly shrub next to your walkway and put in a dwarf apple tree, fig tree, or raspberry bush. If you have access to a rooftop that can safely support a garden, take some containers up there and plant all the salad greens, carrots, or tomatoes you can eat. Give some to the neighbors. Encourage them to use their own spaces productively, and you can trade or barter for the things you don’t have and want yourself.
Using this book, most urban residents can learn to grow as much as 10 to 20 percent of the fresh food their families eat from an average-sized urban condominium or apartment space. Those with a backyard or larger patio can do even better. When times get tough, not everyone will return to the land and become a survivalist hunter or rural homesteader. Yet city dwellers can farm sustainably too on a smaller scale. This will help you survive and thrive in tough times, while also doing your part to help humankind live more sustainably on the earth that we have been given. Fresh Food from Small Spaces will empower you with skills you need and lead you to the proper tools and techniques along the way.