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Urban gardening: You can grow anything, anywhere

Lorraine Johnson, author of the new book City Farmer, and Nog, one of three chickens she has in her backyard in downtown Toronto.

ashley hutcheson The Globe and Mail

Concerns about where our food comes from has city-dwellers everywhere interested in tending their own vegetable plots. But how do you actually go about doing it?

Lorraine Johnson, Toronto author of the new book City Farmer, offers suggestions on how to plant food almost everywhere, drawing on the experiences and visions of urban farmers across Canada and the United States.

Growing your own tomatoes isn't just a quaint hobby, she says. It's a move toward redefining the urban environment as a place that can sustain its inhabitants' basic food needs. Her message: Grow something. Anything. Anywhere.

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In your book, you discuss the history of urban farming, and you mention that it actually used to be encouraged.

Yes, especially during the two world wars and during the Depression, governments at every level encouraged and facilitated it through policies to make it easier for people to garden in vacant lots, for example. Municipalities would encourage people to adopt orphan spaces.

What changed?

I think there were a whole bunch of factors that led to the loss of the idea and the imagination for growing food in a really committed way in the city. I think some of it had to do with aesthetics, the idea that our gardens were for ornament rather than for function - and, of course, they can be both.

I think it was also connected with how we conceived of prosperity after the Second World War, kind of getting rid of all signs of need. And a fruit garden in the front yard would be a sure sign of need, whereas we had the luxury of "wasting space."

I suspect there were even some ideas about race that were involved; that growing food was a sign of "otherness."

Your book mentions how urban farming can bring communities together. How can it help decrease crime?

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There's a lot of scholarly research and a lot of anecdotal experiences that support the idea that the more eyes on the street, the safer an area is. So if you have groups of people showing up at a park every day to water their tomatoes, chances are there's less likely to be nefarious activity in that park.

You also argue that gardening can help solve our childhood-obesity problem.

I think there's no doubt that the way to get kids interested in vegetables is to grow vegetables with them. What kid wouldn't delight in a carrot that they planted from a seed and they watered and they watched grow and they pulled it out of the ground, they washed it and they ate it?

One of the reasons I started writing this book is my nephew didn't recognize fresh peas in the shell. He came over and I was shelling fresh peas, and he said, "What's that?" That was so shocking. You hear that sort of thing, like kids think apples come in a plastic bag from the store. I thought that was a cliché. Well, my 10-year-old nephew proved the point.

I think the more you have kids involved in natural cycles and hands-on gardening, the better it will be for their health in so many ways, not only in their nutrition, but also exercise, being outside, being away from a computer, actually doing something hands-on, something real.

One of the hurdles about growing food in the city, especially among apartment dwellers, is the notion that there's not enough space. What is the smallest space you've seen used to grow food?

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My recent favourite is the back of a bicycle. Someone had just hooked up with bungee cords a small container and planted it with rosemary and basil and parsley and had put in a little bit of soil. That was pretty well the smallest garden I had seen in a while, and it was flourishing.

But you know, one big pot and a tomato plant, and you can get a couple pounds of tomatoes.

[Another common reaction]I hear from people when I talk about growing food in the city is this concern about air and soil pollution. And I always respond with, "Well, okay, it is a good idea to be concerned and to take steps to ensure that the soil you grow your food in is safe, but just think about how little we know about the pollution problems in the places where most of our food comes from."

We don't think twice about buying our apples from China, our asparagus from Argentina, our raspberries from Mexico, and yet I would guess most of us don't have a clue about pesticide regulation in other countries, or whether or not there's lead in the gasoline in other countries.

I would say when we're growing our own food in our city, we have a lot more control over the state of the soil than we do over most of the food that we buy and eat.

How many gardens do you grow?

I've always been a bit of garden colonizer, so I'm always looking for opportunities, space that other people aren't using and I never have enough room. So let's see ... at the moment, I have a community garden plot, my own garden at home, a shelf at a community greenhouse, and then I have gardens that I've made in various places that other people now maintain.

Tell me about your home tomato garden. What makes it "the world's lowest-maintenance rooftop tomato mini-farm?"

Like a lot of urban gardeners, my yard is shady, especially since I've planted so many trees. I was looking for a sunny spot to plant tomatoes, and I realized that the roof at the back of the house was perfect. It was the sunniest spot in the yard and it wasn't too high up - I mean, I could get up there with a stepladder - so I just decided to get some bags of topsoil, put slits in the bags and plant tomatoes in there and stick the bags on top of the roof and see what happened. I had an amazing harvest of all kinds of heritage tomatoes - purple cherry tomatoes, yellow cherry tomatoes, striped tomatoes. It was quite easy to do.

How do the things you grow compare in taste?

Along with everything else, I'm in it for the flavour. There is nothing like homegrown food from the backyard, fresh. There's just no taste comparison.

I think it's clear that commercial agriculture has quite a few priorities that are ahead of consumer satisfaction with the taste, and some of those priorities are ease of shipping, uniformity and time of ripening, highest yield for lowest inputs.

I think the food we can grow in our cities, the food we can tease from the soil, all of that takes us outside of the dominant industrial agricultural system that is broken. The more we can say, "I don't want to participate in that system" or "I want to do it in a more sustainable, more flavourful way," the better.

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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