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Green City Diaries: March is for scheming

late winter greenery
late winter greenery
It’s almost growing season in Detroit. 

Across the city, hundreds of farmers and gardeners who grow food in their backyard, community, market, or porch gardens are collecting seeds, turning and adding compost to their soil, and getting together to talk about what they’re planning to plant, and how, in all their varied plots. 

For this month’s diary, we’ve been skimming the deep well of wisdom that exists in Detroit’s gardening and farming communities to learn more about their work. These interconnected communities have grown here for decades, and their numbers continue to multiply as more and more city dwellers come to understand and embrace the transformative power and practical value of participating in a sustainable local urban food system. 
 
The benefits of growing one’s own food are legion. To name a few:  In a country where most food travels between 1500 to 2000 miles to reach our plate, choosing to grow fruits and vegetables can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions resulting from industrial agricultural practices and long-distance transportation. Fresh produce is more nutritious, and it tastes better. And community gardening, more and more, is being understood as a powerful generator of social capital. 

We talked to a small but diverse handful of gardeners and farmers to learn the reasons why they do what they do, their insights into the local resources available to support new growers, and the specific preparations they’re making for the season. 

As one local gardener put it, when it comes to planting, "March is for scheming." We hope that the schemes and insights collected below will inform and encourage Detroiters to participate in a movement that is, at its root, about individual well-being, community health and connectedness, and the cultivation of deeper connections to the Earth, all pressing concerns in post-industrialization’s poster city.

Let’s start with balcony (or porch) gardening, since Detroit is full of apartment-dwellers without backyards for whom growing food might, at first, seem a little far-fetched. Christina Gibbs (pictured left), who works at the Detroit Institute of Arts and describes herself as having grown up in a time and place "where peppers came on Styrofoam plates wrapped in plastic," started gardening on her balcony as a student at Eastern Michigan University. She taught herself to grow peppers and tomatoes in order to make hot sauce. Even after helping build the North Cass Community Garden and continuing to cultivate a plot there, she maintains her Midtown porch garden, growing tomatoes, salad greens, and strawberries.

Gibbs encourages porch growers to think vertically to maximize their limited space, emphasizing the value of trellises and hanging planters. Since multiple plants will usually be grown in close proximity on a balcony, she also recommends companion planting, a practice by which plants that benefit each other (through processes like nutrient uptake and pest control) are planted in shared soil. (Here’s a list of companion crops from Wikipedia to get you started.)

To extend the growing season on a balcony, Gibbs recommends using a cold frame, a kind of mini-greenhouse that growers could use this early in the season to start their seedlings. Gibbs constructed hers in a way that maximizes water consumption, with a reservoir on the bottom that her plants' roots reach into. Cold frames are frequent home construction projects, but if you’re not the crafty kind, they’re also readily available to buy. 

"Even if you start with just one pot and one vegetable," Gibbs encouraged prospective porch gardeners, "You’ll feel a responsibility, a synergy between you and that plant, and therefore between you and nature."

For insight into home gardening, I talked to Lucy Ament, a Grosse Pointer who gardens extensively at her boyfriend’s Indian Village home. (Ament is also the Executive Director of LocalMotionGreen, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of and reducing exposure to toxic chemicals in everyday products.)  Ament’s most emphatic advice: get your soil tested. "It’s simply the best thing you can do if you want good results for your garden," she said, explaining that for a nominal fee, a soil test will provide you with a description of soil imbalances and nutrient deficiencies that would likely impact the quality of your yield, as well as advice on what materials to add to compensate. 

Ament recommended the basic, $20 soil test kit from Rutgers University to start. At the Green Garage, we’ve used (and can enthusiastically recommend) Michigan State University Extension’s test kit (also $20). Ryan Anderson, a new urban farmer in the city, has recommended UMASS Amhert’s kit to us, the best buy at $10. 

Ament also said that now’s the ideal time to start aerating your soil. Weeds thrive in compacted soil, so one of the best and earliest methods to start eliminating them is a thorough aeration. And while you’re at it, start spreading some compost; that, incidentally, is what I found Greg Willerer of Brother Nature Produce doing when I visited his one-acre farm in Corktown.

Willerer, whose farm supplies around ten local restaurants with a zesty salad mix, was busy spreading compost made, in part, from 4-5 year old exotic animal dung from the Detroit Zoo (!). Willerer and business partner Pashon Murray founded Detroit Dirt last August, and the zoo is one of their primary suppliers. (Another is Astro Coffee, whose grounds also go into the mix.) Farmers and gardeners alike are welcome to purchase the compost, which also contains leaves and woodchips, for about $10/yard. Spreading it over soil at this time of year will also help kill weeds, which do poorly under the elevated temperatures the compost produces.

Ryan Anderson and Hannah Clark, who recently moved to Detroit from the East Coast to start Acre, a new farm in North Corktown, have also been spreading compost, in order to kill some grass to prepare the land for cultivation. Anderson bought a weed control cloth that he’s laid on top of the compost to help hasten the grass’ demise. For the average gardener looking to kill weeds, he recommends a more DIY approach: lay down your compost, then place a few layers of damp newspaper over it. This will block out the sun and help sterilize the weeds, and in about a month’s time, you could just till the decomposed newspaper into the soil.

On the East Side, the farmers at EarthWorks are busy growing thousands of transplants that will be distributed by the Garden Resource Program to its members in a little under a month. Roxanne Moore, an assistant manager at EarthWorks who also cultivates a home garden and a community garden in Northwest Detroit, said that for her, success in community gardening is all about the wisdom, technical knowledge, and interpersonal connections that the Garden Resource Program provides. She started gardening on her own five years ago, without any experience, and with seeds she bought at Eastern Market. ("I just put them in the ground and said, 'Grow!'") It wasn’t until her third year that she had a truly successful harvest. She was so excited about it that she wanted her neighbors to experience a similar feeling of accomplishment, health, and self-sufficiency. She convinced her neighborhood association to approach the Garden Resource Program for help, and today, she and her neighbors garden together in Joe Louis Park, near a now-closed recreation center that was once a neighborhood anchor.

The Garden Resource Program is part of the Greening of Detroit, and its mission is to provide resources and expertise to support existing and developing urban gardens in Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park. (Last year, the program supported more than 1,300 individual gardens.) Charles Lisee, the program leader of SEED Wayne, which manages Wayne State’s three raised bed gardens, encourages any individuals or groups looking for help starting a garden in any of those three cities to seek out the GRP’s help. (Membership in the program is $10/year for family gardens and $20/year for school, community, or market gardens.) In addition to receiving planning/technical assistance and access to networks of other local growers, members also receive seed packets (those were distributed a few weeks ago) and seasonal transplants (cold crop distribution is coming up next month). Here’s a full list of available crops and the dates they’ll be distributed.

All the growers we talked with listed numerous and interrelated reasons why they’ve committed to this path, which, after all, involves dirty, hard work and inevitable frustrations. They mentioned the empowerment of knowing what they’re putting into their bodies, the satisfaction of providing for themselves and their friends and families, and the sense of responsibility and peace that comes from working in the soil. 

There are economic benefits, too: "If you grow nothing else," Lucy Ament insisted, "grow herbs. You’ll save a fortune at the grocery store." At Wayne State’s St. Andrew’s Allotment Garden, plots are available to students, staff, and faculty for $10. "You can literally grow hundreds of dollars worth of food in that space for $10," Lisse said. What if you grow more produce than you need and would like to profit from the surplus? Contact the Garden Resource Program about "Grown in Detroit," through which you can make your yield available at Eastern Market, the WSU Wednesday Farmer’s Market, and the Northwest Detroit Farmer’s Market.

"It’s all terribly simple," Charles Lisee said when asked to provide some words of encouragement to prospective growers. "Amazingly simple. It just takes some care." 

"There’s nothing to be afraid of," Christina Gibbs declared, adding, in characteristic Detroit fashion, "And there are so many people in the city who will help you."

Green City Diaries is a production of the Green Garage Urban Sustainability Library. For more information on anything you read here, or if you have other questions about living more sustainably in Detroit, contact the library here.

If you have ideas for a future entry in Green City Diaries, or would like to share your own experiences growing food in the city (we know there are as many interesting stories/tips as there are growers), we’d love to hear from you! Please leave a comment below or send an email here. Many thanks to Hamtown Farms, who recently reached out to tell us about their remarkable project, starting a paw-paw orchard in Hamtramck.

Matthew Piper's previous Green City Diaries piece, Consume, compost, recycle, repeat, ran in Model D last month. Read it here.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni
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