This book is a practical guide to growing food for city residents with small spaces. It provides you with the knowledge and skills necessary to produce food from your own fresh vegetables and fruits, mushrooms, sprouts, fermented foods, and small livestock. Even if you have no yard and very little free space, you can produce a variety of fresh food. Using the information in this book, I believe that anyone living in a typical city apartment, condominium, townhouse, or single-family home could apply just two or three of the strategies mentioned in this book and grow up to 10 to 20 percent of their own fresh food. This may sound impossible, but it’s very achievable by using a combination of traditional methods and innovative, space-saving techniques. At the end of the day, you may even have enough eggs, spinach, blueberries, or gourmet mushrooms to share or trade the excess with neighbors. In short, this book is about using every square inch of your available space to create a fresher and more sustainable lifestyle.
I know firsthand of the need for this book, because I have been searching for it for many years. Having lived in small urban apartments and condos, I did not have the luxury of space that most gardening books describe. When I looked for a guide to raising food in the city, all I found were glossy coffee-table books with beautiful pictures of flowers and herbs growing in containers on somebody’s porch. A handful of others discussed what to do with a large backyard, but what if you have no backyard? So I turned to rural sustainability guides and organic gardening manuals, I improvised, and I learned from others who were practicing techniques that could be applied in small spaces. I have now practiced, or observed firsthand, each of the food-producing techniques in this book. By trying, failing, and sometimes succeeding, I have learned how to produce a sizeable percentage of my family’s own fresh food from a small urban living space. And I decided that others could use this information too, so I wrote the book I had been trying to find.
There is another important rationale for this book, at this time. The world is changing quickly and we need to adapt. For the last few generations, our entire economy and way of life, in addition to our food supply, have been built on a steady supply of cheap energy. We have not needed to worry much about where our food comes from or how far we need to drive to work. But in the coming years this foundation of cheap energy is likely to disappear, and our lives will change dramatically as a result. In the words of Kenneth Deffeyes, a former Shell petroleum geologist and current Princeton University professor, “Global oil production will probably reach a peak sometime this decade. After the peak, the world’s production of crude will fall, never to rise again. If the predictions are correct, there will be an enormous effect on the world economy.”1 While there is still oil left in the ground, the world’s largest oil and gas wells are beginning their natural production declines just as energy demand is greatly increasing from industrializing countries like China and India.2 Once an oil well’s production peaks, it is much more expensive to pump out what remains, not to mention the rapid decline in overall production, which is the situation we face today with the world’s biggest oil wells. Everything we buy and use, from clothes to food to electronics to lumber, is made using these fossil fuels for production, manufacturing, shipping, and more. When the price of oil and gas goes up, everything else follows. The increases we have seen so far are only the beginning.
Mainstream companies now understand that cheap oil is disappearing, and that it will cost much more to obtain, refine, and transport the oil that remains. According to an ad from Volvo, “global oil production will probably peak within the decade, and the time of cheap and abundant crude oil will be over.” Even Chevron Corporation has put out the word that the world is using much more oil than we are able to discover.3 Wall Street investment advisor Stephen Leeb, in his book The Coming Economic Collapse, explains the problem this way: “The trends in place for the last thirty years show declining returns from oil exploration, peaking or declining oil production everywhere but in a few OPEC nations, and increasing demand for energy.”4
Unfortunately, our society has not invested properly in alternative sources of energy, so people like you and me will need to bide our time as public and private entities work to find and develop affordable energy solutions from among the candidate sources we know: solar, wind, wave, nuclear, hydrogen, liquid ammonia, algae, liquefied coal, or most likely some combination of these and other possibilities. Unfortunately, we may be waiting for a while, since none of these alternatives is presently capable of meeting our energy needs for transportation, electricity, or industry. To replace our current oil use with any alternative fuel will take at least a decade of infrastructure transitions and development.5 So it seems likely that we are entering a period of time where the price of oil, gas, heating oil, and agricultural fertilizers (among other products) will be much higher on a regular basis. Humankind will need to adapt.
Meanwhile, our insatiable demand for energy has led some to consider ethanol as an alternative fuel, giving a new relevance to the large tracts of farmland in the American heartland. Unfortunately, this appears to be more a political than a practical solution to our energy crisis: it takes a lot of water, chemical fertilizer, and energy to grow these crops, while greater demand in poorer countries is accelerating deforestation.6 As the demand for agricultural fuel stocks like corn and palm oil is rising worldwide, the available farmland for growing food is decreasing, and food prices will continue to increase.7 This is happening at the same time as global climate change has begun wreaking havoc with natural growing patterns, causing alternate parts of the world to suffer from prolonged droughts, raging fires, and devastating floods. These climate changes are impacting global agriculture, making food supplies more costly and unpredictable.
All of this is fine and dandy if we can import what we need from someplace else. Unfortunately, as energy costs continue to rise, we won’t be able to afford to buy mangos (or even apples) that are shipped for 3,000 miles to our grocery store shelves. Long-distance transportation, as well as modern agricultural practices, will no longer be cost-effective. In order to have nutritious food year-round, you will need to grow your own or obtain it locally. And, at least until local agricultural systems get reestablished, there will be plenty of competition for locally grown food.
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.8 9 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.
- Deffeyes, Kenneth S., Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 1.
- Simmons, Matthew, Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005), 343.
- Baker, David R., “Chevron campaign tries to balance need for oil with global warming,” San Francisco Chronicle (September 28, 2007): C1.
- Leeb, Stephen, The Coming Economic Collapse: How You Can Thrive When Oil Costs $200 a Barrel (New York: Warner Business Books, 2006), 2.
- Deffeyes (see note 1), 1.
- “Biofuels may threaten environment, UN warns,” CNN (January 23, 2008). Article available online at www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/science/01/23/biofuels.fears.ap/index.html (visited January 26, 2008).
- Johnson, Robbin S., and C. Ford Runge, “Ethanol: Train Wreck Ahead?” Issues in Science and Technology 24:1 (September 22, 2006): 25–26.
- U.S. Census Bureau. Population Trends in Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas: 1999–2003. Population Estimates and Projections (September 2005).
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service. Trends in U.S. Agriculture. Available online at www.usda.gov/nass/pubs/trends/index.htm (visited January 21, 2008).