R. J. Ruppenthal: Back to the (Tiny Plot of) Land


The economic crisis has put the squeeze on a lot of working families and individuals, and economists agree that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Happily, many are looking at this time of crisis as a time of opportunity. Rather than moaning and sticking their heads in the sand, people are getting creative: using the car less and biking more, cutting back on unnecessary expenditures, and looking for ways to reduce, reuse, recycle, and repair, as well as growing a portion of their own food. They are discovering that even without a plot of land in the country, they can grow a good portion of healthy, organic food for themselves and their families. All you need is the motivation and the know-how.

That’s where R. J. Ruppenthal comes in. His book, Fresh Food from Small Spaces: The Square Inch Gardener’s Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting, shows you creative and exciting ways to use your small space to get the maximum yield of edibles. In this essay, R. J. explains why he felt the need to write this book at this pivotal moment.

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.

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Fresh Food from Small Spaces

The Square-Inch Gardener's Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting


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