Deep Roots: A (brief) history of, and case for, urban gardening

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

My grandmother was the kind of person that had tricks for everything, especially when it came to the garden. Aphids got you down? Try a homemade garlic or hot pepper spray. African violets dying? Give them a quarter turn or move them to a more northerly facing window. Tomatoes stunted? Well, you might be on your own there. Growing the perfect tomato is simply in an Italian’s blood.

Her knowledge seemed endless to me as a child, and rather than becoming disillusioned as an adult, I have come to respect even more the breadth and depth of her wisdom. She taught my mother, who in turn taught me, that knowing how to grow plants is a blessing, a tradition, and a labor of love that is and has always been integral to the human experience and survival.

You see, for my grandma’s generation, and her mother’s before her, and so on, gardening was not just a hobby, it was a necessity. For immigrants to the US, jobs were scarce, pay was low, and food on the table was not always a guarantee. The story was the same for millions of other families all over the country. Urban gardens provided a sense of security and sustenance for those that lived not knowing what the next day might bring.

 And then the World Wars hit and food scarcity stopped being a problem just for the poor. Labor was limited and transportation systems were needed to move machinery, weapons, and other goods instead of grains. To combat these shortages, the government encouraged the planting of “victory gardens” to reduce the demand on the food supply system and support the efforts of the war. By the final years of the conflict, over 40% of all fresh food in the country was coming from household gardens, playing no small role in sustaining the health and morale of US citizens while food supplies ran low.

Seeds of Victory

But why is any of this relevant to us today?

While we may not be in a conflict with another nation or experiencing the type of poverty seen by our grandparents, we are still indeed at war: only this time, the enemies are obesity, climate change, and a burgeoning population. As many of the solutions offered by corporations and governments have clearly not solved these problems (and in many instances made them worse), I say it is time we take the path of our predecessors and give the power back to the people by putting our spades to the dirt!

Now I am not suggesting that we all quit our jobs and live out our days hoeing and weeding and struggling to make ends meet as in the days of yore. Even my grandmother who loved her garden almost as much as her grandchildren probably wouldn’t have suggested something so drastic. But planting a small-scale garden in the yard, on the roof, or in a greenhouse? Now that is another story.

Since the time of victory gardens, urban gardens have been used to encourage a sense of community, healthy eating, and purpose for those who choose to practice it. In projects all over the country, gardens have sprung up in vacant lots providing livelihoods for the unemployed and breathing life and beauty back into economically depressed cities. Gardens in school playgrounds have taught children about the miracles of the earth and the benefits of eating healthy, while community gardens have provided neighborhoods with nutritious food supplies that sustain the soul as well as the stomach.

This is not to say that urban gardens are the silver bullet for all of today’s trials and tribulations, but if they have provided families with food and even helped pave the path to victories in wars for many generations past, who’s to say they can’t have the same kinds of monumental impacts in today’s world?

Winter Gardens and Cover Crops

With winter, everything slows down. Evenings are long, and time is available for fire-gazing and musing about life. But a gardener’s awareness never turns too far from their growing goals—or the warmer seasons to come.

I moved into a new house this year, and my first priority was mapping out where the garden would go. I couldn’t quite tell where my roommate’s partner had grown some stuff in the past, so I picked the barest spot along the perimeter of the fence and got to work.

The soil had been covered in landscape fabric (ugh!) under mulch and looked grey, thick, cracked, and dead. I did a little digging but soon decided the best approach is to always work with, rather against, nature. So I planted a cover crop.

My cover crop of choice was rye, a quick growing grass that can tolerate cold Boulder winters. I tried inter-cropping some arugula and spinach, but most of those seedlings didn’t do well in the wet, clay soil. Some survived but were too tiny to eat. I’m excited about waiting until spring when the soil warms and seeing if their established roots can deliver them a boost of energy and nutrition and thus give me tasty, early-spring salads.

At the start of the spring, I’ll dig my cover crop into the earth, preventing it from re-seeding as well as allowing the decaying bits to give my soil a dose of the all-important organic matter that plants crave. Because the grass will be green when it’s worked into the earth, the nitrogen and carbon found in the leaves will slowly decompose with the aid of fungi, bacteria, and earthworms, whose presence in the soil is also beneficial. After spending countless years smothered underneath the weed-barrier fabric, the soil was probably pretty dead compared to the healthy ecosystem it’s meant to be. Now, in the dead of winter, is the time to begin the rejuvenation process.

With healthy soil comes healthy plants and healthy people who get the joy of eating those plants, and that, in the end, is our goal.

garlic shoot

I also started some garlic and transplanted some wild scallions/walking onions from another part of the yard. They just had time to send up a few green shoots before snows began to fall. Now, they’re laying dormant under a layer of mulch. These, too, will make it through winter and survive our snows to greet the sun of springtime and, eventually, the dinner table a few steps away from where they will soon sprout anew.