Friday, May 29, 2009

from lawns to Edible Estates

How many times have we seen this sign around our neighborhood? And what does it signify?

For the artist Fritz Haeg, it means that the lawn is something different from the typical green feature of our suburban terrain. "The lawn as we know it today... we should think of as an industrial landscape," he says in this compelling video. "It is an industrial environment that depends on cheap oil, on water, and on pesticides that suppress all sort of other organisms and plants that grow there. Essentially, you have a pretty significant amount of the land that we have occupied rendered unusable and, for that matter, toxic."

Haeg is the creator of Edible Estates, a movement to dig up front lawns in suburban settings and replace them with vegetable gardens. It seems like a simple idea, but it would surely unsettle some people to see the grass go, to be replaced by beans, tomatoes, and broccoli. The lawn is a barrier, a "moat" of the modern home, said one Los Angeles man who participated in the Edible Estates project. "It makes you very aware of how the lawn acts as a buffer between public and private space," he said.

Haeg has ripped up front lawns in six cities, including Baltimore. And his rationale is as much environmental as aesthetic, as cited in statistics and facts presented in a mini-documentary about the first project in Salina, Kansas:

  • Of the 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 13 are probable carcinogens, 14 are linked to birth defects, 18 impact reproductive systems, and 20 are neurotoxins; 17 of those pesticides have been found in groundwater.
  • Homeowners use up to 10 times more pesticides on their lawns than farmers do on their fields.
  • Americans use 64 million pounds of 2,4-D, a herbicide that shares ingredients with Agent Orange and that is common in weed-and-feed lawn products. Dogs whose owners use 2,4-D products are twice as likely to develop canine malignant lymphoma.

We won't go on. You get the point. The lawn is frequently not as green as it's supposed to be. But, as Haeg points out, it's the default setting in any neighborhood. You don't even think about it: You buy a house, and you have a lawn. Period. Haeg's says that with Edible Estates, he wants to jar people into a new way of thinking. "The ultimate goal is to have everyone that comes into contact with the project to reconsider whatever way they occupy the land," he says.

In a neighborhood like ours, with lots of kids, grass is actually a great play surface, so we're not advocating the abolishment of lawns. (However, it would be nice if we didn't have to put warning signs on our grass.) But the Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative wants to encourage people to engage the dirt in an active way. Rip up some part of your lawn, and we'll help you grow things there -- vegetables that your kids can take part in growing. Just ask us for help. This is a community effort.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

mint: action hero or movie monster?

Mint is one tenacious plant. Dig it up and throw it out, and its hidden roots sprout new plants soon after. And it spreads like wildfire. Oh, sure, it's green and pretty -- but it's really more like Bruce Willis in Die Hard or, if you have a less favorable view of the herb, Jason from Friday the 13th. You think you've done it in, but it just comes back for more.

You don't want to plant a creature like this in your tidy herb garden, or soon you'll have nothing but mint. (Which is not entirely bad, since mint is useful; see below.) The trick is finding ways to control it. You can plant it in a pot on the porch. Or, if you prefer to have it in the ground next to your other herbs, try this:

Find a deep, disposable plastic pot, the sort of container a shrub might come in. (Contact us at the Forge Farm Initiative if you need one; we have extras hanging around.) Line the bottom, where the holes are, with plastic or thick cloth and stones to block the mint's roots; mints are rhizome plants, meaning they spread through the roots. Then bury that pot in your garden, leaving perhaps an inch above ground.

Mints come in all different kinds. Everyone knows the familiar spearmint and peppermint, of course, but there is also apple mint, pineapple mint, ginger mint, chocolate mint, mountain mint, and on and on. Catnip is a mint, as is lemon balm. You can get a number of these plants at the Baltimore farmers' markets. (If you want mountain mint, which is somewhat rare, write us at the Forge Farm Initiative. We would be happy to get rid of... er, give some to you.)

People associate mints with toothpaste and gum, but they can be used in all sorts of culinary delights. Mint is frequently used with lamb recipes. Mint tea is said to be good for digestion.

Here's a recipe for a vinaigrette that uses mint. Hey, if you're going to tear it out of your garden, find ways to use it.

1 cup olive oil
2 T. chopped mint
2 T. chopped parsley
6 T. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 T. Dijon mustard
1 t. sugar
salt and pepper to taste

Whisk together. Use as a salad dressing or sauce for fish, chicken, and vegetables.

day in The Sun for Forge Farmers

The Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative got press today in a Baltimore Sun story about community gardens and local food. (You'll have to scroll down a bit to see the reference to the RFFI.)

The story mainly focuses on Mark Smallwood, a "forager" (or fresh-food buyer) for Whole Foods who has aspirations to get his food from just up the street.

"He has hatched a plan to vastly expand the number of city residents who know how to grow fruits and vegetables -- as well as how to cook, preserve and sell them. He's negotiating with the city for a site, likely in northern Baltimore, large enough for gardening classes and some individual plots. And he's applying for grants to cover some of the costs. 'There's no reason why you can't grow your own food in the city,' said Smallwood, an organic farmer who points to his own planted Woodberry yard as evidence. 'This is a years-long project that aims to get a lot of people involved.'"

Friday, May 22, 2009

balitmore herb festival

The Baltimore Herb Festival will gather herb growers Saturday, May 23, in Leakin Park. The festival runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with lectures from various experts on how to grow and use herbs. Vendors will be selling herb plants and herb products.

If you miss the herb festival, you can also pick up a range of herbs at Baltimore's farmers' markets, particularly the Waverly market on Saturdays and the downtown market, located beneath I-83 on Sundays.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Forge Foodshed

Here's a new concept for analyzing food supplies in a given area: the notion of a "foodshed."

A foodshed is modeled after the idea of a watershed. A watershed includes all of the sources, paths, and destinations of water in a region. Studies of watersheds look at how water travels through a given area and how that water is used by a local community.

Replace the word "water" with the word "food," and you have the idea of a foodshed. Foodsheds, then, look at all of the ways that food is produced, transported, and used in a given community. Seeing the entire lifecycle of food helps to illuminate strengths and weaknesses in a community's food supply.

For instance, we in the Forge have numerous local shops in which to buy groceries. That aspect of our food supply is local. Local sources of food distribution are a strength in that they don't require a lot of energy to get access to them -- we could easily walk to them from our community.

However, most food in this country travels hundreds, even thousands, of miles to get to a shelf at Giant Food on York Road or Eddie's on Charles Street. That long supply line is dependent on many variables, including economic stability (in both our country and other countries), safety of foreign production, price of fuel, and trade agreements, just to name a few. A breakdown in one of these variables can easily cause disruption of food supply or price hikes. This long supply chain, then, is a weakness in our foodshed.

Part of the point of the whole yards-to-gardens movement is to add some resilience to our foodshed.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

neighbors helping neighbors farm

Posted on Facebook tonight: "The coolest thing to happen to [us] since moving to Baltimore was having neighbors Scott and Joe charge into our backyard unannounced and work our fledgling vegetable garden and compost bin!! Thanks, guys! You are inspiring."

Do you want help with your garden? We'll do what we can. We're trying to organize a clinic with master gardeners at some point in the summer -- anyone who is part of the Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative will be invited. There will be information about growing common vegetables and about composting. Let us know if you need help.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

what is a traditional yard?

Here's a picture of Dumbarton in the early 20th century -- the site of a vegetable garden. The notion of using one's land to grow grass and shrubs is an anomaly in history. Land has always been used to sustain people, and it will be used that way again.

Here's a family in their vegetable garden in Catonsville around 1920. And here's what you see in roughly the same spot in Catonsville today:

View Larger Map

Thanks to the Baltimore County Public Library for helping me dig up these historical pictures.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

toasting slugs

With all the rain we've had lately, some of you Forge Farmers might have noticed little holes in your salad greens. That would be the mark of the garden slug. Slugs play a useful role in the garden -- they chew up dead plant material, making it available to smaller decomposers, which eventually turn the material into soil. Slugs become pests, however, when they start chewing on your lettuce.

There are ready-made pesticides for slugs, like iron phosphate. But you can easily and safely deal with slugs with a couple of tools that are otherwise used together only when you're looking for trouble: a flashlight and a bottle of beer.

Slugs dehydrate easily -- it's one of the disadvantages of not having a shell. (Their snail cousins seal themselves into their shell when weather gets too dry.) So slugs roam above ground at night, when they are less likely to get dried out by the sun. Go out at night with your flashlight and look for them on your greens. Pick them off and squash them. Kids can get into slug hunting, too.

Slugs are party animals. They like beer. Take a shallow dish and put some beer in it, then place the dish near your afflicted plants. In the morning, you'll find a number of dead slugs floating in the suds. Toss them out and repeat until your slug problem is gone.

essential reading for beginners

Now and then on this blog we'll post hints and recommendations for people who are transforming yards to gardens, and this post will cover a few books for beginners that we find helpful.

We are unapologetic advocates of organic methods. For all the work that goes into clearing land, getting good dirt, pulling weeds, nurturing seedlings, and seeing the whole process through to harvest, it makes little sense to grow the same herbicide- and pesticide-coated vegetables that you can buy in any supermarket. It's just not good for you. And it's not necessary. So the books we're recommending in this post outline the foundations of organic gardening.

First, start with the dirt. It's the foundation of any garden, and it carries particular importance in the organic garden. Soil provides its nutrients to plants through an intricate web of minerals, dead organic materials, worms and bugs, fungi, and bacteria -- there can be billions of microorganisms in a single teaspoon of living soil. Teaming With Microbes is one of the best books out there describing soil biology to the layman. Though the descriptions of Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, the reader can see how these various creatures provide food for plants and how the wanton addition of chemicals can damage the soil food web.

Good soil needs to be renewed, and that is done through compost. The Rodale Book of Composting is a useful handbook (which is available for cheap now and then at Daedalus). The book has been around in various editions for years, and it contains lists of materials that are suitable for composting, with their N-P-K values. (It covers items as unusual as prune refuse, mussel deposits, leather dust, and cattail reeds, along with the usual clover, eggshells, and grass.) It also provides various methods for building a pile. It's a great reference for a process that intimidates a lot of beginning gardeners.

Rodale also publishes an encyclopedic guide to organic gardening, but Ed Smith's book, The Vegetable Gardener's Bible, seems more user-friendly. Lots of bright, colorful pictures here, along with very clear descriptions for growing the most common vegetables (along with some less common ones). It covers every step, from clearing ground to vegetable storage. Other books are more comprehensive -- we'll discuss those in later posts -- but this is a great one to start with.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Farm Update pt. 2

By the time I was done writing the update post, another garden had joined the Farm!

That makes 9.

Farm Map Update

The first weekend produced alot of interest in the Farm Initiative. Thank you! We now have 8 gardens on the Farm Map!

With so many friends from the surrounding neighborhoods connected through the Forge Flyer, Facebook, and, well, friendship, it shouldn't be a surprise that our "Forge" Farm has already expanded beyond the Forge's boundaries. We'll keep the name as it is, but declare the map open to all. So for those of you that joined from outside the Forge proper, don't hesitate to share the site with your neighbors. Who knows? Maybe the "Greater Towson Farm Initiative" is somewhere on the horizon.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

michael pollan on yards to gardens

From "Beyond Wilderness and Lawn," in Nature, Landscape, and Building for Sustainability (University of Minnesota Press):

"Even if an age of environmentalism does not attack the lawn head on, it would still bode well for the garden in America. The decline of the lawn may be gradual and piecemeal and even inadvertent, as gardens gradually expand into the territory of the lawn, one square foot at a time. To put this another way: to think environmentally is to find reasons to garden. Growing one's food is the best way to assure its purity. Composting, which should be numbered among the acts of gardening, is an excellent way to lighten a household's burden on the local landfill. And gardens can reduce our dependence on distant sources not only of food but also of energy, technology, and even entertainment. If Americans still require a moral and utilitarian rationale to put hoe to ground, the next several years are certain to supply plenty of unassailable, even righteous ones."

Monday, May 4, 2009

why grow your own in The Forge?

Agriculture in the United States (and around the world) will face a number of challenges in the future, like rising energy costs, soil erosion and degradation, and simply a greater demand for food, because of a growing population.

In the "green" movement of the past several years, food has been a central subject of interest, thanks to the popularity of work by people like Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan. In the past year, following a spike in gas prices and a crippling recession, we've seen a renewed interest in small-scale agriculture and growing one's own food. Local magazines have written about this. The MacArthur Foundation gave Will Allen, an urban farmer, its prestigious "genius grant" for his work on a two-acre plot in Milwaukee. The New York Times has its own neophyte gardener -- a freelance writer in Minnesota who wants to get more productivity out of a vacant lot near his house and is marking his progress on a blog. Heck, even the White House is getting into the spirit, with its own kitchen garden.

We believe that this is a trend for the future. People will be using their yards to grow food, not just for pleasure, but out of necessity. After all, the whole notion of using so much land to grow grass -- a mostly useless horticultural product -- is a historical anomaly. Many of us here in the Forge have big, sunny yards. By giving over some part of our yards to grow tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, onions, herbs, and other foods we use in the kitchen every day, we're emulating people of the past (and, in many other countries, the present) who have used their land to support their living.

We have been here before: There was a great movement in yard gardens during another time of crisis -- World War II. The Victory Gardens, through which Americans supported the war effort and extended their rations, were a symbol of patriotism and American can-do. We can look back to that effort to find a way forward. Will you join us?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Grow It, Eat It

The Maryland Master Gardener program and Maryland Cooperative Extension's Home and Garden Information Center have recently started a campaign urging Maryland residents to grow more of their own food. Called Grow it, Eat it, the campaign seeks to create 1 million home vegetable gardens in the state of Maryland. Please consider registering with them to have your garden counted!

The Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative is a good vehicle to help achieve the goals of Grow it Eat it. We would love to report to the Home and Garden Information Center that Rodgers Forge has a high participation rate.

Please register your garden with the MCE and with us!