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my new nano farm

April 28, 2013

one morning at the midwest organic farming conference this winter, i was sitting at breakfast with my friend rachel, catching up about the past season and our plans for the upcoming year. with more than 3,000 farmers passing through the dining hall to get their oatmeal and yogurt, each table is constantly gaining and losing diners, and soon a man sat down to join us. we struck up the usual conversation — where are you from? what’s your involvement with farming? — and he told us he had a “micro farm” in canada. rachel, who had just finished telling me that she and her partner were downsizing from running a several-acre vegetable csa to growing seedlings in their backyard hoophouse, asked him, “so how small is your ‘micro farm’?” and he replied, “oh, about 140 acres.”

both of us burst out laughing — the difference in our perspectives was so dramatic. but though it seems absurd that 140 acres could be considered “micro,” in the current context of agriculture in north america, his farm is actually on the small side. his would have been an average size farm around 1920, but over the past 90 years, and especially the past 40, former agriculture secretary earl butz‘ famous motto, “get big or get out,” has largely become reality. as of the latest agriculture census, the average farm in the united states is 418 acres, and in canada it’s 778. rachel’s sweet home organics, and the two farms where i’ve spent the past 3 seasons, are tiny by comparison. but this year, as i’ve transitioned to working full-time with the biodynamic association, my farming is moving to a vastly different scale: a 4 ft by 8 ft box in my local community garden. we’re certainly down to “nano” now.

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the community garden is managed by the peterson garden project, a chicago volunteer-run organization inspired by the victory gardens movement to get urbanites to grow their own food. they built the punnily named vedgewater garden (our neighborhood is called edgewater) last year, on a concrete vacant lot with a two-year lease. unless the landowner continues to see little possibility of renting or selling to a higher bidder and extends the lease, the garden will be dismantled after the end of this season, boxes and soil and tools and hoses moved to the next vacant lot sitting in purgatory. in the meantime, a host of my enthusiastic neighbors will get to partake in the joys and frustrations of coaxing vegetables out of the soil.

vedgewater plot #89 is by far the most urban gardening experience i’ve had. in my old chicago and san francisco backyards, at angelic organics learning center’s demonstration garden, and the various school and community gardens i helped to build and manage, there was always some bit of nature to start with. a tree, some shrubs, a patch of grass or weeds. we might have built raised bed boxes, but there was soil underneath the box. there was the possibility of earthworms migrating in. this garden is pure city. concrete, a brick wall, a fence, and 175 wooden boxes filled with soil and compost.

on monday afternoon, the day they emailed us the combo to the gate lock, i walked to the garden to inspect my newly assigned plot. i found that the previous tenant had mulched the bed with wood chips, not a practice i’m fond of, so my project for that visit was to rake them off, gathering them into a paper grocery bag until i find another use for them. i also brought some worm castings from my long-neglected bin (no longer housing live worms) and added them to the crusty, winter-worn soil, gently incorporating them into the surface with my fingers.

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yesterday, hearing rumors of a recent compost delivery, i returned on my bicycle with some soaked peas, a padded envelope of seed packets, and a gallon of water in my messenger bag. the city hasn’t turned on the water source yet, so it’s plant at your own risk until they do. i arrived to find one mostly empty sling sack of compost, and another full one, and set about filling a wheelbarrow to bring some to my plot. nearby, a fellow new gardener jesse was methodically stretching strings across his bed, clearly planning to use the popular square foot gardening method that the peterson garden project promotes. i admire its simplicity and easy-to-follow guidelines, but the four boards bordering my box are enough squareness for me. i’m freestyling my plot, starting with 2 rows of peas, a swath of salad mix and a band of beets.

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i took my time planting, creating a trough for the seeds, carefully spreading them evenly across the width of the bed, tamping down the soil with the palm of my hand and gently watering each row in. by the time i finished watering the beets, i had almost emptied my one gallon jug, so i packed up my seeds and headed home, saving the arugula, spinach, kale, chard and mâche seeds for another day. as i biked home, i wondered whether i could carry 2 gallons in my messenger bag. it’s almost may and i want to make full use of my 32 square feet! i hope the city finds a moment to come turn on our water soon.

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