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Natural Awakenings

Unconventional Gardens: No Space? No Problem.

Feb 08, 2012 04:02PM ● By Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko

For everyone that feels surrounded by a concrete jungle occasionally relieved by a pocket park, green strip or landscaped median, the concept of finding a place to grow their own food may seem like a fantasy. Fortunately, backyard, rooftop and community gardens are good ideas that are coming on strong. Around the country, productive green spaces are replacing paved lots and lawns with edible perennials and seasonal crops that enable folks to eat better and fresher, while reducing the family food bill.

“Food plants can be grown anywhere, including on a high-rise balcony, miles from the nearest farm,” says David Tracey, author of Urban Agriculture: Ideas and Designs for the New Food Revolution. “You just need to meet the plant’s basic requirements for sunlight, water and a few nutrients. Cities are great places to grow specific kinds of food; they tend to have plenty of niche areas such as empty lots, rooftops and the ends of streets that new urban gardeners are using for growing fresh crops like salad greens and tomatoes.”

Rooftop Raised-Beds

Urban farmers in the United States are now transforming an increasingly significant portion of the country’s millions of acres of flat rooftops. Launched in 2010, New York’s Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm operation (, totaling nearly an acre atop a mid-rise warehouse, is among the largest of its kind. Sometimes called “vertigo farming”, because the farmers overlook an urban skyline, these enterprises re-green the landscape, wisely manage rainwater and rebuild affordable local fresh food systems.

The Grange grows produce in seven-inch-deep beds using a growing medium made from compost and small, porous stones and annually produces 40 cultivars of organic tomatoes, salad greens, peppers, Swiss chard, beets and carrots. Food is sometimes transported to market via bicycles.

Window Gardens

Windowfarm co-founders Rebecca Bray and Britta Riley ( help homeowners grow some of their own food in window spaces year-round. Their research-and-develop-it-yourself hydroponic system project facilitates plant cultivation without soil, using nutrient-infused water pumped through a series of growing containers. To date, more than 20,000 people have downloaded plans for their own Windowfarm.

Alleyway Wonders

In the East Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, flowers, ferns and ivy gardens have replaced concrete alleyways thanks to Podmajersky, a local real estate development firm. The lush gardens provide a tranquil sanctuary from city bustle and an aesthetically pleasing and inspiring surrounding for the Chicago Arts District, home to 1,500 artists and other creative entrepreneurs.

In Monroe, Wisconsin, one resident turned a humble downtown alley into a welcoming nature-scape. Taking advantage of the “heat-island effect” generated in paved urban areas from hard-surface buildings and a nearby parking lot, as well as a southern exposure, his Midwest gardens even include cacti.

Go Fish

Aquaponics is a well-organized way to sustainably raise fish and fresh produce together. “It mimics natural recirculation of resources in wetlands in a constructed dual-use ecosystem; the only inputs are fish feed and a small amount of power,” explains Sylvia Bernstein, author of Aquaponic Gardening and founder of “Because an aquaponic system can be set up anywhere, including warehouses, parking lots and exhausted fields, it is ideally suited to help localize food production and provide an alternative to clearing more land to feed our future.”

Patio Paradise

“When your space is limited, you start to think creatively about how to best use it,” notes Tracey. “Consider all three dimensions of a balcony or other narrow areas to maximize growing potential. Climbing vines such as grapes and berries, hanging pots with tomatoes and nasturtium, and fruit trees in half-barrels are great ways to grow more food in a small space. The crops don’t know they’re in a pot.” lists some 2,500 community gardens in its database, as does the American Community Gardening Association (

Herbs also love containers. Some plants, like tomatoes, can even be grown upside-down to more efficiently use limited space.

Vacant Lots

“Community gardens are an excellent solution for those with the garden itch and no good land to scratch,” advises Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International (, a nonprofit community of 20,000 members that has been cultivating change since 2008. Community gardens have taken over empty city lots, church lawns and schoolyards that are collectively farmed for food, relaxation or social camaraderie. Co-gardening a neighbor’s lot and sharing the harvest is another option.

Eating the Lawn

“There are no beauty contests in the plant world, but, if there were, a productive, ever-changing patch of diverse vegetables would beat out a monoculture of turf grass any time,” says Doiron, smiling. Put into food production, America’s 25 million acres of lawns could go a long way toward reducing the environmental cost of transporting produce hundreds or thousands of miles.

Americans growing their own food isn’t a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. As University of California garden historian Rose Hayden-Smith confirms, “During the peak year for Victory Gardens, 1943, some government estimates indicated that up to 40 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed on the American home front were produced in school, home, community and workplace gardens.”

“One of the first steps in bringing healthy foods to the forefront of society is bringing them to the front and center of our living spaces,” concludes Doiron. “Growing food in small spaces is all about doing what you can with what you have. It’s a matter of changing our notion of potential food-producing landscapes.” It does wonders for people’s connection to nature, too.

John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist are co-authors of Farmstead Chef (, ECOpreneuring and Rural Renaissance. Their award-winning Inn Serendipity B&B ( operates completely on renewable energy.


Garden-Fresh Recipes

Lemon Balm Iced Tea

Yields 8 servings

Lemon balm grows prolifically and is ideal for a refreshing summertime iced tea. Slowly simmer the flavor out of the lemon balm in a slow cooker or simmer on the stove. Vary

Growing gardens in small spaces

proportions depending on the pot size and desired sweetness.

Big bunch of fresh lemon balm stalks with leaves
½ cup honey
¼ cup lemon juice
8 cups purified water

1. Stuff as much rinsed lemon balm into a slow cooker as will fit. Cover with approximately 8 cups of water, depending on the size of the slow cooker, and let simmer about three hours on low heat.
2. Drain the resulting liquid into a pitcher.
3. While it’s still warm, add honey and lemon juice. It is easier to add the honey while the tea is still warm, because it readily dissolves. Add more water to taste.
4. Chill before serving.

Strawberry Spinach Salad

Yields 4 servings

Foodies prefer strawberries that are red inside and out, quarter-sized and organically grown. The dressing helps accent the sweetness of the fresh strawberries and spinach, with a nutty crunch from the chopped peanuts.

Note: Mega-mutation versions of California strawberries are often sprayed with poisonous pest fumigants that harm people and the planet.

8 cups fresh spinach; wash, remove stems and tear into small pieces
3 cups fresh strawberries, sliced

For the dressing:
½ cup water
1 cup vegetable oil
½ cup salted peanuts
1/3 cup honey
3 Tbsp apple cider vinegar

1. Mix spinach and strawberries in a large salad bowl.
2. Combine all dressing ingredients in a blender. Pour to taste over salad.

Vegetarian Nori-Wrapped Sushi

Yields 6 servings

Creatively rolled layers of nori, a super-nutritious dried seaweed paper, plus fish, rice and vegetables, make an amazing visual display. This veggie sushi travels well, though it’s best eaten within the first five hours, as the rice dries out and may harden over time.

2 cups cooked sushi rice, cooled
½ cup carrots, julienned (1/8-inch-thick “matchsticks”)
½ cup sugar snap peas
½ cup lettuce, shredded
½ cup spinach, shredded
4 sheets (standard size) nori
¼ cup soy sauce (for dipping)

1. Cook rice and cool.
2. Place nori on a flat surface. Arrange approximately ½ cup rice and ½ cup vegetables on long edge of nori. Use carrots, sugar snap peas, lettuce, spinach or any preferred combination.
3. Gently roll nori, starting with the rice/veggie side.
4. Using a serrated knife, slice nori into 1-inch pieces. Slicing on a diagonal makes attractive pieces. Serve as a vegan appetizer with soy sauce on the side.

Source: Farmstead Chef, by Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko

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