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Out with the lawn, in with edibles
Urban growers bringing their own produce to the table

April 9, 2007

Gesturing to a patch of dirt lined by rocks and driftwood, Megan Haas proclaims that basil will spring forth from the soon-to-be "pesto section" of her petite front yard.

Where a lawn once greeted visitors to Haas' modest Central District house, hardy oregano, thyme and rosemary already are thriving. Lettuces and chard are sending out tender leaves that unfortunately invite a party of slugs.

She hopes another squarish bed will sprout one day with Popeye-pleasing volumes of spinach.

But how do vegetables go from dirt to dinner plate?

"If you have the will but not the knowledge, there are so many questions, like, 'Is this thing dead?' " Haas said.



Paul Joseph Brown / P-I


Colin McCrate, owner of Seattle Urban Farm Co., helps Megan Haas get a kitchen garden started in front of her Central District home Thursday.

Haas, a 36-year-old entrepreneur and consultant, is not alone in her produce ponderings.

There's a growing interest in turning lawns and landscapes into pesticide-free, food-yielding gardens. More urban residents are seeing the potential for growing their own fruit and vegetables, but many don't know how to dig in.

"We've seen that growth (in gardening interest) and added so many more programs recently," said Kathy Dang, a teacher at Seattle Tilth, an organic gardening non-profit group founded in 1978.

In 2001, Seattle Tilth began teaching a comprehensive organic gardening course once a year. Demand has increased that to three times a year since 2006. A February class on growing vegetables from seeds filled up and a second one was added for March. It sold out, too.

Seattle's P-patch program has about 70 community garden patches citywide. But even with enough plots for 6,000 gardeners to plant, weed and harvest, there are more than 700 people on the waiting list. Some P-patches have a three-year wait.

Earlier this year, at least two Seattle businesses were launched that will help novice gardeners navigate the garden rows of their own backyards.

Colin McCrate, owner of Seattle Urban Farm Co., set up a booth at the Ballard Farmers Market selling small vegetable plants called starts.

People would come look at the starts and say to him, "I'd like to be doing this, but I have no idea what I'm doing, and I don't know where to start," he said.

Haas was one of those people.

Now McCrate is advising her on what, when and where to plant the vegetables and herbs she wants for an urban garden to satisfy her cooking needs. His company offers a range of services -- even building and planting your garden beds and maintaining your plants.

"It'll save me a ton of money," Haas said. "Not having to buy herbs alone will save me money."

Organic food connection

The reasons for urbanites' growing interest in edible gardens are as numerous as the varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

In one regard, it follows a natural progression. City dwellers became devout consumers of organic fruit and vegetables, getting hooked on such grocers as PCC and Whole Foods. For some, their devotion soured when the market shifted toward mass-produced organic foods.

Then they became loyal farmers-market shoppers. They appreciated the energy that's saved and global warming that's prevented when an apple is shipped from Wenatchee instead of New Zealand. They got to know the sellers. It helped begin the reconnection with where food comes from and shopping for items that are in season.

Outbreaks of bacterial contamination in spinach and cantaloupe made people question their food sources.

Now the city slickers are grabbing a trowel and seed packets and growing zucchini along their front walks and parking strips. Porches are home to peppers in pots.

"We're talking about food that's traveling on average about 100 feet" from garden to table, said Craig Cogger, a soil scientist with Washington State University's Puyallup branch. "It's fresh, and you know how it was grown, and it's really a way to participate in the food system.

"You go back to the turn of the 20th century, we were still a nation of farmers at that point. There was a connection to the land," he said. "We lost some of our humility as people, and we've lost our connection to the humus."

During World Wars I and II, vegetable gardening was even an act of patriotism and a means of boosting morale. U.S. "victory gardens" provided about 40 percent of the produce consumed in the nation during World War II. With citizens growing their own produce, more and cheaper commercially produced food was available to send to the troops. That left more money for fighting the war.

In the postwar period, a shift began toward landscaping and lawns -- particularly emerald green and weed-free lawns.

In many places, the vegetables were gone. The flow of gardening wisdom that had passed from one generation to the next dried up.

A new look in landscaping

The love of flawless lawns seems to be withering in the Northwest as people become more concerned about pesticides and conserving water -- and more open to the idea of gardens. Lettuce beds and pea vines are cropping up where grass once ruled supreme. Fruit trees are interspersed with the rhododendrons and Japanese maples.

Since 2005, Fritz Haeg, a Los Angeles-based artist and architect, has been creating "edible estates" -- tearing out traditional yards and converting them to food gardens. "It just started off as this one-off little art project in Salina, Kansas," he said. "It touched some sort of nerve."

Now he's setting up a demonstration garden in nine growing regions nationwide.

"I'm looking for areas where they'll really cause a stir," Haeg said. He creates fruit- and vegetable-bearing landscapes that are "aggressively beautiful." He's challenging ideas that food-producing plants are ugly.

Urban farming that was once an act of patriotism is in some cases now an act of rebellion. Gardeners are asserting their independence from the commercial food industry. They're breaking the bonds of landscape conventions.

Haas, the beginning gardener in the Central District, hopes urban farming becomes a peaceful, community-building revolution. She'd love to see gardening taught to schoolchildren.

"This is really about changing people's perceptions," she said. "Everyone wants to eat the best, freshest food, and people don't think they can create a cornucopia for themselves.

"This is a way to bring nature into people's lives."


Seattle Urban Farm Co.: seattleurbanfarmco.com
P-Patch Community Gardens: seattle.gov/neighborhoods/ppatch
WSU King County Extension: king.wsu.edu/gardening
P-I garden experts: seattlepi.com/nwgardens
Fritz Haeg's Edible Estates: fritzhaeg.com

Green thumbs out there will help you grow your own urban garden


Grandma Bernice used to grow jewellike strawberries in her garden. It amazed me. My parents went for more of the Japanese-garden aesthetic with little that flowered and nothing you could eat.

But that message from grandma remained: Plain old ordinary people can grow food.

So how do you do it? Start slowly, and when in doubt, get some expert advice. If I can do it, anybody can do it.

When my husband and I bought our house in North Seattle, I knew I wanted to try. I knew raspberries were hearty and began there. I branched out into cherry tomatoes grown in pots, from good-size plants.

Last year I got bolder. I wanted raised gardening beds like the tough kids had. But I remained a bit timid, so I filled the two 4-by-8-foot beds with more berries -- this time boysenberries -- and herbs, plus the odd artichoke and kiwis.

Given this quirky selection, my thumb clearly was more of a wan shade of iceberg lettuce than deep kale green.

Enter Seattle Urban Farm Co. and Colin McCrate. A seasoned organic farmer, McCrate helps homeowners create their own garden patches. He'll provide consultations, help design your garden plantings or go further to build, plant and take care of your backyard minifarm.

Consolingly, he agreed that farming -- even a wee urban garden patch -- is tough.

"It's a very labor-intensive business," he said. "You have to be constantly paying attention to it."

His prices vary widely. To install a couple of cedar beds, filled with soil and outfitted with a drip irrigation system would cost -- very roughly -- about $500. Satisfied with my beds, I went with an hour-long consultation costing $50.

On a sunny afternoon last week, McCrate -- looking every bit an organic farmer in his worn blue flannel and full dark beard -- stopped by to check out my veggie beds.

He was pleased by their location along the driveway, where they receive sunlight nearly all day long. He was happy, too, with the soil that came from our half-baked effort to compost yard and food waste, which meant that until recently, it smelled a little funky.

The compliments stopped there.

"If it was me, I'd pull all this stuff out," McCrate said, surveying the beds. The pervasive herbs -- thyme, mint, sage and oregano -- were hardy enough to transplant into less sunny, less well-watered spots. He gave a pardon to the berries and a big rhubarb.

A tad harsh, but considering the ad hoc, uneducated manner in which I'd approached gardening, I felt as if I hadn't come off too badly.

I was instructed to draw up a new plan and label what was going into the beds and the date the seeds were planted.

Right now was a good time to plant various kinds of lettuces and spinach. In three more weeks, I should plant more so they're not all ready to harvest at once, a strategy called succession planting.

Broccoli, kale and beet seeds also can be sown now. The great thing about broccoli, McCrate said, was that after you lop off the first big head, it keeps making baby broccolis.

He advised planting sugar snap peas along the bed's back edge where wiring was strung across it for our berries. All I needed to do was hang twine down to the soil to give the tendrils a leg up.

By mid-April -- after the risk of frost is past -- I can plant summer squash, such as zucchini, pattypan and crookneck. McCrate suggested putting the squashes at the corners of the beds, where they could trail over the edge, saving space inside.

He advised keeping the plants well-watered, watching for insect pests and fertilizing during the spring and summer, perhaps with a bit of "tea" made from worm casings or waste.

I could successfully grow fruits and vegetables, he said, so long as I took care of them.

"They're just really delicate plants," McCrate said. "They have special needs."


Follow the progress of Lisa Stiffler's garden in the Seattle P-I and seattlepi.com. She'll be filing periodic updates through September, sharing her experience as well as tips and emotional support for beginners.

P-I reporter Lisa Stiffler can be reached at 206-448-8042 or lisastiffler@seattlepi.com.