Sunday, May 9, 2010

Urban Farming Model for Brooklyn's Brownstowns?

The lush Before photo shown above is deceiving. All that greenery belies the challenges that we are attempting to overcome on this site in Crown Heights. The good news: all that overgrowth proves the site gets plenty of sunlight. So here are the challenges a backyard farmer faces in Brooklyn:

  1. The lead in the soil (parts per million) is above our comfort zone for growing fresh veggies.
  2. The 'soil' in the back portion is mainly clay, the 'soil' in the front portion is mainly pebbles and bricks.
  3. This is an enclosed site, meaning that the only access to the yard is through the homeowner's house with gleaming-clean floors and walls. Usually, people bring in soil for raised beds to fix the lead issue, but getting 20 cubic yards of soil through this house would be a feat even I am not prepared to tackle. We do a lot of hard work as farmers, but we also work smart.
  4. This particular site has only two steps between the street entrance and the backyard, so we consider ourselves very lucky. Oftentimes, there are steep staircases through the basement.
  5. The weeds are extremely tenacious, matched only by the vicious poison ivy. Unused lots to the north of us mean tons and tons of unchecked weeds.
  6. A pile of bricks (1687 bricks is my best guess) that I really, really don't want to move, and don't even want to attempt to bring them through the house to the curb.
  7. Rats have been seen in the neighboring lots.
  8. A 10-year old son who really, really loves to play basketball in this yard and has no other place to practice.
Truth be told, I love a challenge...or eight. This site is so typical of Brooklyn, that I HAD to do this project as an experiment. How much of the site can I keep and put to good use, and how little can I bring into the site? It's a whole different process designing from a pile of given materials versus designing from scratch.

So here's the strategy:
  • re-use all the wood we find on-site to build a compost bin (the bin is under the stair, and not shown in these pictures)
  • re mediate the soil in the back using sunflowers
  • as we create compost, we will sheet mulch the back for re-mediation as well
  • re-use all the bricks as pavers and weed block (not yet done in the photo)
  • gather up all the weeds and let them decompose over the winter to be used as mulch in pathways (not to be put back into the soil that we are trying to re-mediate!)
  • build raised floating raft hydroponic beds with wood that we can later transition to soil beds using the compost we make
  • use an old bathtub from the site for a new soil planting bed
  • pray that the 10-year-old will get better with his aim!

I wish that construction was as easy as Photoshop: cut the bricks over here, paste them over there. In reality, there is some heavy lifting involved, and no Undo command. In the end, I had to bring a couple things through the house, but not much: mulch, hardware cloth, rigid insulation, and plastic sheeting.

Soon, the site will be lush again, but cultivated. We will be growing greens in the floating raft hydroponic beds: Tatsoi, Mei Qing Choi, Butterhead Lettuces, Chicory, Endive, Ridicchio, Swiss Chard, open-head cabbage, and Arugula. We are growing larger, heavier plants in the soil beds: Sun Gold Tomatoes, Orient Express Eggplant, and hot peppers.

While I have a preference for soil growing, I like to see hydroponics as another tool in my belt that is sometimes useful in urban growing. Instead of spending two years creating enough compost to safely grow veggies, we can have some veggies this year, and I love that non-existent watering schedule for floating raft hydroponics! The reduction in trucking top soil around cities seems like a huge bonus to me as well. Our top soil is yet another natural resource that we are depleting at a scary rate.

Some useful links to think about your urban soil:
Soil Contamination and Urban Agriculture - A Practical Guide
Urban Soils Potential Contaminants and Remediation Techniques
Abstracts of articles about urban soils and lead
Fellow New York Grower and his soil situation as reported by New York Times