Posts Tagged ‘urban farming’

Hello, Greenie Beanies,

I recently got an email from another satisfied customer.  That is, someone who read and liked my regular column on Urban Homesteading, which runs in every issue of MaryJanesFarm Magazine.  Her name is Linda, and she wanted to pick my brain about urban homesteading.

Linda has been living in a rural home in California, and 2 years ago she moved into a city apartment with her adult daughter.  Linda is not used to cramped city apartments.  Linda does not like to feel cramped.

Oh, we can feel that pain, can’t we, sugar dumplings?

In any case, she’s having a hard time adjusting, and she’s finally looking for some ways to bring out her inner farmgirl.  But how to do it in the city?

Oh, sugar pies, YOU JUST KNOW she came to the right place!

Since I get questions like Linda’s fairly often via email or text message or Facebook nudge or secret message (seriously, people, if you have a question, ain’t no shame in postin’ it for all the guacamole-lovin’ world to see!  We won’t tease you!  And I kick jerks off my comments board, which makes “The Alchemist” the fun-lovin’, free spirited, totally tolerant, non-judgmental, warm and fuzzy, rolicking good time encouragin’, dictatorial palace of blogs.  Or something like that.).  Okay, I forgot what I was saying.

Oh, right.  Since I get questions like Linda’s fairy often, I’m going to print a piece of my response to her here.  Benefit from it, add to it, improvise, my sweet pets!

…It sounds like you’ve had to undergo quite the adjustment, you poor dear!  I was born and raised in Chicago, but have lived elsewhere–always in major cities, including Honolulu and New York.  So the crunch for space and land has always been an issue for me, and boy, do I sympathize.  I think one huge perk about city-living and small spaces is that they make you creative.  It is, of course, far easier to homestead on forty acres than it is in a 600 square foot apartment.  So you get plucky.  You get creative.  You become less wasteful and more ingenious.  You will, too!  Embrace it, and give it time, Linda.  But maybe I can help you to hurry things along….

Most of what I grow is in containers.  People have no. Idea. How. Easy. This. Is.  Really, I’m astounded at all the naysayers who will tell you vegetables can’t be grown in pots.  [Readers: remember when I showed you how easy it is?] Listen, you can grow colonnade apple trees in pots!  Almost any plant, given the proper space, soil, water, and nutrition, can be container-friendly.  A great beginner’s book I’d recommend is McGee & Stuckey’s The Bountiful Container. I’m not sure what kind of balcony space you have, but I say, load it up, girl!  A big part of urban homesteading is seeing what you can get away with.  The answer, in my experience:

a whole lot.

Think lettuce in window boxes that hang over your balcony railings.  Patio tomatoes in pots.  Strawberries in hanging baskets.  Peppers and eggplants are extremely container-friendly–mine are very productive in a mere 8-inch pot.  Zucchini are notorious for a reason–they are practically reproductive machines.  Though I’m a big fan of heirlooms, you might try the Raven Zucchini hybrid–it’s container-friendly and produces loads of fruit very quickly.  Tea gardens are a great offshoot of the herb gardening thing, and mint and chamomile do very well in confined spaces.  Make use of vertical space, too, with plants that climb.  Just be sure that your landlord is okay with all this, and that you’re following the necessary safety precautions for balcony weight limits and such.

The great thing is, I think city neighbors, while they may not know much about what you’re trying to do, are usually pretty receptive and curious.  You may have been no big deal to your far-off rural neighbors, but you’ll probably be a sensation when you cut pumpkins from a vine twirling around your fire escape.  Try to make friends with your new neighbors, if you haven’t already, and let your garden be the icebreaker if need be.  Share your produce, try not to drip water onto your neighbors below (I said “try”…it won’t always be possible), and if you make friends with people who don’t really use their space, go ahead and ask if you can put a box or two on their railing.

Remember, mushrooms are a great edible crop that you can grow indoors in low light–why not try a mushroom kit?  Several issues ago, I wrote about the process in my “Urban Homesteading” column in MaryJanesFarm Mag.  In another piece titled “Bunnies in ‘da Hood,” I wrote about raising indoor angora rabbits for their knitting fiber (they shed it naturally).  My very first article for that column was about community gardens and yard shares.  If your ambitions outstrip your land, you might try to find for-rent gardening plots nearby.  You’re likely to meet new neighbors who share your farm fantasies.  Try to cultivate online relationships, too–I like to do a little seed swapping on the forum at www.gardenweb.com.

Homesteading for me goes beyond gardening.  I cook, I bake, I sew, I knit, I ferment, I pickle (I’ll be teaching pickling and fermenting workshops during MaryJanesFarm Day at this event in St. Paul in September–why not attend?!), I bake my own bread, brew beer and wine, make cheese, and am generally engaged in any nonsense I can lay hands upon.  Now The Boy and I are getting into roasting coffee.  We also subscribe to a local CSA or farm share box, which connects us to great local produce that we can’t or don’t grow ourselves (try www.localharvest.com to find one near you).  It helps to make us feel like part of a community.  We satisfy this urge by visiting our local farmers markets, too.  Perhaps you could start a weekly farmers market habit and hobnob with farmers and foodie neighbors?  These little things can help to put you in touch with a local, land-loving community that you didn’t even know existed.

…Lotsa hugs,

Well, whaddya think, my little custard tarts?  Did I just about cover it?  Did I give you any fresh inspiration?  Can you add anything to help Linda’s transition go a little more smoothly?

Duh, you totally can!  Do so in





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Oh, there you are.  I think it’s time I shared a few things with you.  This is important.

See, I told you a while back that I was growing a fruit and veggie garden on my city steps.  In containers.  And grow I have.

Now, some of you may have been discouraged by things you’ve read online.  Perhaps some naysayers in an online chatroom told you it was nearly impossible to grow vegetables in containers.  Perhaps someone with the screen name @negativenancy told you if you didn’t have ten acres and a dairy cow, growing food for your family was impossible.  Maybe some square told you that you weren’t wholesome enough or ankle-length-skirty enough or straight enough or come-to-Jesus enough to homestead.  Well.  You know how I feel about all that. 

Perhaps the doubt came from inside you.  Maybe that little voice in the back of your head said, “Grow vegetables?  When I don’t even have a yard?  Chya!  Like that’ll happen!”

But friends.



It’s time to silence those voices once and for all.  Because here…

right here…

right now…

we are going to have a spiritual experience…

Look, this is as close as Bad Mama Genny gets to religion, so soak it up, misfits.

To all those who said I couldn’t grow bell peppers in a measly pot…

I did!

To those who say you can’t grow squash in a box on some city steps?

You can!

To those who say eggplant should be left to those with a garden plot…

Hellz bellz, no!

To those who say there’s no way you can grow HEIRLOOM FUCKING BRANDYWINE TOMATOES, the undisputed flavor king of tomatoes, in a garbage can on a stoop?

Oh, yeah…I went there…

Oh, yes.  Yes, yes, yes, YOU CAN!

To those who think the only kind of tomato to grow in a container is a cherry tomato, to those who say you can’t grow a  super-productive, full-size tomato variety in a pot…

Think again!

Starting to feel better about your gardening future?  Baby, I’m just getting started!

To those who think that a planter on a stairway is no place for lemon cucumbers…

Or prolific white cucumbers, or pickling cucumbers…

Wrong again!

Can I get an AMEN?!


I said, can I get an AMEN?!


Because Bad Mama Genny has SEEN the mountaintop!  Er, I mean, the top of the stairwell!  And it looks pretty nice!

To those who say you cannot grow good carrots, beets, chard, and kale in ordinary flowerpots…

I beg to differ!

And they’re just so gosh darn cute right now!

Hey, those of you who think you can’t grow an ORANGE TREE in a pot in a city known for 3 foot snowfalls and 20 below windchills…

What what!

And hey, while we’re busy defying the logic of the naysayers, how about a BANANA tree?

To those who say I’m crazy and have a problem that most likely requires medication…

Well, they’re probably right about that one.

And guys?  This isn’t even everything I’m growing.

Don’t let the naysayers tell you what you can and can’t do.  Don’t let anyone convince you that vegetable gardening belongs in a proper yard or in the ground.  And geez-friggin–louise, don’t believe people who say you can’t have a garden.  Most of you probably can.

If you have a stairwell…

a rooftop…

a fire escape…

a balcony…

a measly window…

a railing…

a generous landlord…

a local community garden…

a countertop to make sprouts…

a dark cabinet for a mushroom log…

You can garden!  Plants want to grow.  They want to live.  They want to make fruit.  They’re not working against you.  (The squirrels are.)

And if you can find a way to give them the basic things they need, they’ll thrive.  And so will you.

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If you’ve been following me on Twitter, or are damned cursed lucky enough to be a Facebook friend, you know that my “Confirm Order” finger gets a little itchy, oh, forty times per week.  And while I sometimes scratch that itch with a mammoth Barnes & Noble order or, say, the ever-elusive non-sexual Queen of Hearts costume, more often than not, if it’s between December and April, I’m buying seeds.  Oh, Lord, am I ever buying seeds.

Last year, Bad Mama Genny’s garden was good.  Modest.  Manageable.  Sane.  In other words, so not my style.  Well, this year I’ve decided to take action, and the 2010 garden plans are looking…

Utterly ridiculous.  

They are over-the-top.  They are sick.  They are twisted.  They take up six Excel worksheet pages.  They are perfect.

In the spirit of full-disclosure, here’s what I’m planting this year (NOTE, THESE PLANS ARE SUBJECT TO COULD POSSIBLY, OH HELL, THEY WILL 100% FOR SURE CHANGE IN THE NEXT 24 HOURS):

  • Red Russian Kale
  • Buttercrunch Lettuce
  • Rainbow Baby Greens
  • Red Sails Lettuce
  • Green Ice Lettuce
  • Chard
  • Chioggia Beets
  • Um, regular? beets
  • Blue Lake Stringless Green Beans
  • French Breakfast Radishes
  • Miss Pickler Cucumbers
  • Lemon Cucumbers
  • Miniature White Cucumbers
  • Dwarf Tophat Blueberries
  • Dwarf Northsky Blueberries
  • Mirai Corn
  • Yellow Straightneck Squash
  • Fairytale Eggplants
  • Cinderella Pumpkins
  • Garlic
  • Sugar Sprint Snap Peas
  • Chives
  • Scarlet Nantes Carrots
  • Heirloom Fingerling Potatoes
  • Early Butternut Squash
  • Celebrity Tomatoes
  • Heirloom Brandywine Tomatoes
  • Edible Nasturtiums
  • Dwarf Cavendish Bananas
  • Pineapples
  • Early Thickset Bell Peppers
  • Cascade Hops (for The Boy’s homebrews)
  • Willamette Hops (oh, the things I do for love)
  • Heirloom King of the Garden Lima Beans
  • Rosemary
  • Oregano
  • Basil
  • Alpine Mignonette Strawberries
  • Dwarf Cara Cara Blood Orange Tree

But you know, like I said, that’s just so far.  I could add plants at any time.  With zero warning.  And even less of a sense of accountability.

Did I mention these will be almost exclusively container plants?  And with any luck, my landlady will not have a cow.  Now, it’s still a little early for serious planting in Chicago (HELLOOOO, Friday picnic followed by Saturday snowfall), but my baby misfit garden is already in the works. 

While gardening is often a test of patience, squash are infinitely satisfying to watch.  These pictures were taken within the 24 hour window between yesterday afternoon and today:

You can do it, little squashling!

My, my, that looks uncomfortable.

Being born is messy.

Welcome to the brave, new world that is my apartment, little squash!  Rent is due on the 1st.

He’s lean, he’s green, and he’s HUNGRY!

Now let’s watch the snap peas!

Come ooooon, snap peas!


All right, so we may have to wait a little on those.  Let’s turn our attention to the green pepper and eggplant seeds I started over a week ago:


Sadly, the squash has ruined me for any seed that takes longer than four days to germinate. 

Thankfully, sneaking up from behind and watering The Boy still entertains me to no end.

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Now that I’m outta there, I could fill volumes with thoughts on New York living.  But I won’t.  For now.  Be grateful.  All that matters at the moment is a story about how I came to appreciate sunshine more.

The Boy and I lived in a small studio in New York City for a while.  At first, I didn’t even notice how little sunlight I was getting from the two small windows we had–both of which faced brick walls.  In fact, it probably took about six months for the reality of our dark existence to hit me, when I decided it might be nice to have a few plants to supplement our other unmet need–FUCKING OXYGEN.

Before long I came to realize that I couldn’t support as much plant life as I like to (which, granted, is a METRIC SHIT TON), and then I had to wonder if The Boy and I would one day crumple up  in disappointing heaps just like so many seedlings.  Dramatic, I know, but you’ve come to expect that from me by this point.  I’d hope.

Well anyhow, when we moved into our new place in Chicago–an apartment with real windows and air that doesn’t feel like a biohazard–I just couldn’t wait to get back to growing serious amounts of my own food.  Have a look at this year’s results so far…


The other day I had to wonder if I was getting out of hand (“Oh, hee hee, haha OH HONEY THAT SHIP HAS SAILED.”) As I was passing by the windows, I spun to face The Boy and oozed, “You’re so cute–I love you!”  He thanked me but then turned pink and said, “Wait…were you talking to me or the plants?”

Okay, so occasionally we talk.  I mean, I talk to them.

When they’ve done something cool, I fluff their leaves like I’m ruffling up the messy head of a mischievous five-year-old.  When one of them looks worse for the wear, I drop everything, apply organic fertilizer, and organize a pagan vigil.  And when I feed them, I’ve been known to ask, “Which of my wittle misfit plant babies wants some bat guano and earthworm castings todaaaay?  Hmmmmm?”

But really, it’s not the plants that I love so much–it’s what gardening represents.  Self-sufficiency.  Diligence.  Give-and-take.  Efforts that actually pay off.  Working with nature for spectacular results.  When I garden, I feel like I’m privy to a special form of mysticism.  Exotic knowledge.  I feel powerful.  But more often than not, I feel humbled.

When I stand before something I’ve planted that’s approaching my height (and which will probably eclipse me entirely in one sunny week’s time), I have a sense of smallness that makes me feel, of all things, safe.  We think we have so much control–and we do, to an extent.  But really, we just help things along, manipulate them a bit to our liking–the potential for greatness has always been there.  It will show itself whether or not we make a move.  And even if we act against it, cut it down, it will come back.  Not to defy us–just to be itself, as we all should be.  Its only purpose is life.

Except maybe for the tomato plant–its other purpose might be destruction.  But that’s another post.

So I guess we would’ve been okay even if we’d stayed in that New York apartment.  Significantly paler, more cramped, and perhaps a little worse for the wear, but we would’ve made it.  Still, I’m glad to be here.  Glad to be able to stretch out.  Glad to be able to take a deep, clean breath.  And glad to look over at the windowsill with pride and say,


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