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Fresh Food From Small Spaces: A Beginner's Guide to Urban Farming

You don't need a red barn and rolling wheat fields. Urbanites, too, can grow their own food indoors, in cramped spaces, and without access to land! For real.

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Depending on the variety of seed, you may need to “pot up” (transfer it to a larger pot) after the plant gets its first true leaves and starts to outgrow its old home. You should put your seedling pots on a tray that catches water runoff and it is important not to over-water seedlings (which is tempting to do). Over-watering will increase the likelihood of disease, so keep the soil just barely moist between waterings. As the plants grow, you need to harden them off by gradually exposing them to the outside sunlight, wind, and temperature changes. Pick a nice, mild day and put them outside for half an hour in bright shade, then an hour the next day, and then some more time in the sun, and you get the picture. Then they will be ready to succeed in the garden.

Q.Is fruit from trees grown in lead contaminated soil safe for human consumption? If not, what about birds and animals eating berries?

A. I have not dealt with this personally and do not know much about it. The soil may need some remediation before being used to grow food crops. I would not advise anyone to eat food grown on contaminated soil. There are ways to remediate the soil using certain deep-rooted plants like sunflowers and comfrey, but then the plant matter needs to be disposed of as toxic waste. It is a multi-year procedure which requires some crop rotations and regular soil testing. Anyone interested in this would have to research it more and follow proper procedures.

Q.This might sound weird, but, what about dog poop? Is it toxic?

A. Animal poop CAN contain pathogens and parasites, so it is important to keep this away from food crops. Generally, fresh manure of any sort should not be applied directly to plants, since it can burn them (though there some safe exceptions, like rabbit manure). However, aged and composted manure is an excellent source of plant fertilizer, and the composting process can kill both bad organisms and break down the manure into a compost that is safe and nutritious for plants. Compost of any sort also improves the soil structure by adding more organic matter.

It may sound gross, but both pet poop and human waste (humanure) can be composted for use in gardens as well. You would need to follow proper “hot composting” procedures to kill any potential pathogens or parasites. Because small-scale compost piles and composting bins rarely get hot enough to achieve this, I would discourage small-scale gardeners from composting pet waste. Manure from non-carnivorous animals (e.g., cows, chickens, rabbits, sheep, goats) is a lot safer and makes a great addition to a compost pile.

Q.What types of food work well grown in the “off-season”?

A. A diverse array of salad greens can be grown in cooler seasons in many climates. In the coldest climates, they may need some protection from a small greenhouse, row cover, cloche, or other type of covering. Spinach, arugula, mache, and kale are some examples, along with a bounty of Oriental greens such as Chinese cabbage and mizuna. You could try green onions (scallions) as well. Or plant some root crops earlier (such as beets or carrots) for winter or early spring harvest. Indoors, you can grow sprouts, microgreens, and mushrooms.

Also, if the indoor temperatures do not drop too low, and if you have a sunny spot under a window, you could try growing dwarf citrus trees in containers. They can live outside in warmer seasons and come indoors in winter. Lemons, and some limes and mandarins, do not need as much heat to ripen as oranges and grapefruit do. Most citrus bear during the “off-season” months and do not need pollinators to set fruit. For that matter, if you had a sunny room that did not get particularly cold in the wintertime, you could experiment with a parthenocarpic variety (no pollination needed) of just about anything, from greens beans to cucumbers to tomatoes. Some of these may not ripen with the shorter day length, but there are some amazingly prolific varieties of veggies being developed for “off-season” greenhouse cultivation; the only way to know is to experiment and see what works!

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