A guest blog by Georgia Pollard.
When you think of an Aussie backyard, chances are you’ll picture the iconic lawn and a BBQ, surrounded by some flower beds, a vegetable patch, a couple of fruit trees and maybe even a chook yard.
Growing food in urban environments used to be commonplace. In the past few years (after a bit of a lull), people are once again turning to their gardens to grow fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits. Some are even taking urban food production a step further, by keeping livestock such as chickens, fish or honeybees. Growing food like this in urban areas is known as urban agriculture.
How did urban agriculture start?
People have always had personal food gardens close to their home, even when living on farms. But urban agriculture came about when people began moving away from their farms, to instead live in and around cities. These people had the skills and knowledge of how they could grow, harvest, store and preserve fresh produce for themselves and their families. This meant they could supplement their food supplies. They could also sell or barter any excess. People grew their food in backyards, in rented plots of allotment gardens, or on vacant land. This kind of urban agriculture is still common in developing countries, such as in parts of Africa, where many people are transitioning from rural to urban life.
Has urban agriculture changed over time?
Although the western world has recently seen a resurgence of interest in “growing your own”, for many it has become more of a hobby than a consistent and productive food source. People are reviving their food gardens for a number of reasons. Common reasons are that people want to spend more time outside, connect with their families or culture, and teach their kids where food comes from. Others choose to grow some of their own food for health and wellbeing reasons, preferring organic food. Some people prefer locally-produced food – you certainly know from where and how far food has travelled if you produce it yourself!
A recent report by Poppy Wise (2014) found that 59% of South Australians grow some of their own food (this was the highest state proportion in Australia, apart from Tasmania). Most of us are growing this food around our homes (99%), with the other 1% growing food at community style gardens. That 1% still translates into more than 50 community gardens around South Australia! Another interesting finding of this survey was that there is no such thing as a “typical” Australian food gardener. People of all ages, education levels, political persuasions and genders are growing food.
There are also many school kitchen gardens in South Australia. Food gardens at schools are places where students can get their hands dirty, learn about where food comes from and observe the changing seasons. The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program is all about pleasurable food education. It’s the largest food and garden education program in Australia with more than one thousand schools currently involved.
What makes urban agriculture different?
There are some key differences between traditional agriculture (or horticulture) and urban agriculture. First of all, there are the environmental differences. Generally there is less space and less full sun due to the buildings, fences and street trees. The soil in urban areas can also lack nutrients and organic matter, too. It may also be compacted, be mixed with building rubble or even be polluted. Happily, most urban agriculture growing methods make clever use of space, sun and positioning to get around many of these issues.
You still have traditional in-ground garden beds, raised garden beds and pots or planters; these are the basis of most gardens. But here are a few other ideas:
- Putting wheels on the bottom of pots or planters. Wheels allow you to move them around during the day (or when the seasons change) to get the best sun.
- Growing fruit trees espaliered along a wall or fence. Walls and fences can soak up warmth during the day and help create a warmer microclimate.
- Grow dwarf fruit trees in large pots. In this photo, a dwarf Tahitian lime tree has been positioned against a wall to keep it warmer. Gladwrap has even been stretched over the top of the pot, to warm up the tree roots and encourage flower production.
- Growing food in vertical gardens on fence lines or walls. There are many kinds of hanging mesh pockets, or plastic pot systems which you can install. Some come with built in drip-irrigation.
- Planting (or building) a vegetable garden on your street verge. Check with your local council, but some councils are very supportive of this kind of garden.
- Building a wicking bed. You can turn an existing raised garden bed into a wicking bed (if you don’t mind having to dig out the bed and then re-fill it!). Or you can also purchase a pre-made one. Wicking beds have a layer of gravel at the bottom. This layer acts as a water reservoir from which the plant roots can “wick” the moisture up into the soil. To learn more here is Sophie Thomson’s wicking bed episode and Costa’s wicking bed episode.
What don’t we know about our urban food gardens?
Many people produce some of their own food, but have you ever wondered how much food your garden actually produced each year? Or how much time, money or water went into growing that food?
The social and community benefits of urban agriculture have been quite well researched. However, there is almost no scientific data available on how much food urban gardens can produce, or on how much time, money or water it takes to grow that food. This lack of data means that we don’t yet have a good understanding of the best growing methods for different types of produce in a variety of possible situations. Which methods will best help you to grow the most food, or to use less water, or save money on your food bill? We want to find out.
Interested in learning more about your food garden?
If you’re interested in learning more about your food garden, we have recently launched a new Discovery Circle project – Edible Gardens.
We are measuring the inputs and output of urban gardens, and collecting information about all sorts of associated activities, like preserving food and sharing excess food. Data collection will run from Spring 2016 to Spring 2017, and some of the data from participants is available live, online! You can get involved or find out more on the project webpage (click here).