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What does urban horticulture have to do with carrots?
When you picture carrots, you’re likely imagining their vibrant colours and the sweet taste that results from chewing. For the most part, you’re thinking of the colourful head that has been chopped and fed to your canine companion.
Most of the time, when we think about horticulture, we think about growing vegetables or flower gardens, with the primary intent being the physical appearance. However, there are some less-visible changes in our urban landscape that can alter the way we grow food, without our knowledge.
Whether you’re growing food on your rooftop, in your flower bed or on the patio of your home, urban agriculture is all about the unseen interactions between soil, microbes, plants and the environment. As urban land is converted from an industrial landscape to a more livable space, this interaction starts to take shape.
While you’re planting tomatoes or peas in your garden, those garden edibles can also be growing right on the roof of your home, creating a win-win situation. As your family grows and your plants mature, the tomato you pick in the summer is also eaten by the microorganisms that live in your soil. Over time, the soil becomes nutritionally richer, as the tomatoes provide nitrogen for the microbes.
By turning our homes into gardens, we can also help soil stay fertile, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Along with your plant food, you can save money by collecting rainwater for your plants, instead of bringing in synthetic water.
As part of our Spark City Grow series, which looks at sustainable practices in the new urban landscape, we look at the changes that are happening to our urban food supplies. (Learn about the five best places to eat your vegetables.)
What are the unseen changes happening to our soil?
From an urban horticulture perspective, soil isn’t something that you’d traditionally think of when creating a food garden. However, the soil under our feet plays a vital role in creating the food that we eat every day.
Soil is alive, and it constantly changes to accommodate the needs of our plant foods. From roots to minerals, the soil plays a role in determining what foods our plants will produce. In order for our food to grow, we need to manage the processes that are taking place underground.
One of the most important changes we’re seeing is our soil’s tendency to compact over time, reducing its fertility and ability to support our plants. Whether you’re growing your own veggies or just putting a few flowers in your yard, you need to be sure to maintain your soil’s friability.
One way to do this is to incorporate as much organic matter as possible into your soil, as this organic matter can help maintain a friable soil. More often than not, when growing crops in city environments, we tend to see too much chemical fertilizers and too few organic amendments.
While you can buy special fertilizers for growing vegetables in the city, it’s better to start with organics that your garden requires.
Aside from adding organic material, you can add organic matter into your soil via composting. The time frame for this process varies based on the type of compost and the condition of your soil. The traditional compost method is to incorporate your organic matter into your soil as it breaks down.
However, the backyard compost pile is made up of a lot of organic material that hasn’t broken down yet, so incorporating your backyard compost into your urban food garden isn’t a good idea.That doesn’t mean you can’t start composting in your backyard and harvest the compost once it’s finished. You just need to compost in a way that works for you and your yard.
Composting in your city landscape
Incorporating your backyard compost into your city food garden might not be a good idea, but you can still compost for your food. The secret to making a backyard compost is to use material that won’t harm your food.
Because urban backyards aren’t a good place to compost, we can take it outdoors. When making backyard compost, it’s important to know what material is appropriate for composting in the city.
Vegetable scraps can be composted, as long as they aren’t from your food garden. You don’t want to mix your compost with weed seeds, grass clippings, fruit rinds and any other garbage. Depending on where you live, you can compost in your back alley, in your back patio, or on the roof of your home. You might not want to make too much noise when piling up your organic materials, so you’ll want to take those precautions.
Here are some tips to make composting in your backyard or patio safer:
Collect your organic materials before you make compost in your garden.
Construct a mound of materials around a wood or metal container, so you can scoop the mixture out easily.
If possible, use a metal shovel to scoop the compost into your backyard bin.
When using a metal shovel, be careful to scoop only the organic materials and not the weeds or grasses.
Cover the ground or patio surface that you’re making compost on, to protect against the spread of garden pests.
Once your compost is finished, you can add it back into your garden, providing the new material is healthy