As a kid, I held the very strong opinion that the boy in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree was one of the biggest bullies in literature. “The nerve!” I would insist each time he took apples, shade, and limbs from his loyal friend, the tree, without giving anything back in return. 25 years later, I sit and type in my stump of shame, acknowledging that I have had the audacity to take far too much from my surroundings without returning the favour. What’s more disheartening is that this plot is being played out by billions of other fellow tree traitors, stump sitters, whatever you want to call us. Mother Earth continues to support our endless cycle of consumption – but as resilient as she is, the centuries of sacrifice are wearing her down. It’s time to give her all the loving she deserves.
Over in Toronto, Marc and Arlene Green have been inspiring their community to reverse the damage done to the environment through the Backyard Urban Farm Company. By offering gardening products, planning, and coaching, they are propelling a movement that lowers our carbon footprint and encourages a sustainable, natural, independent and local lifestyle. Learn how a documentary prompted Marc and Arlene to shift their careers in the film to a full-time dedication to BUFCO and gather invaluable urban farming tips (that are “brown thumb” proof) in our interview below.
I understand that the film The End of Suburbia inspired your dedication to the urban farming movement – what were some of the key messages from that film that struck a chord with you?
I think the most striking message was that we can no longer wait to see what happens if the oil runs out on our planet. This isn’t a problem that is going to affect us in the future. Once the future gets here, it will likely be too late to make a difference. So we took this as a clear message that change for the better has to start now. There is no “later”, there is no “they” who will fix things for us. We have to act and change now and become part of the solution. Of course, the other message, a pretty indirect one, was “Quit your day job, start a vegetable gardening business and call it The Backyard Urban Farm Company!”
Have you seen that “aha” moment happen with some of your clients too?
The “aha” moment we got, we’re seeing in people all over from a very wide variety of sources. Not just our clients, but people who were previously completely unaware of the environmental problems we face as a global population. When we watched The End of Suburbia, we decided to change our lives, to stop taking, and to try to find a way to stop the environmental bleeding – at least the part we were contributing to.
Now, almost 10 years after watching that film, there are so many more sources of information that tell us about the Monsantos and Dow Chemicals and Syngenta's of the world. Even if you’re not actively involved in the green economy, it’s likely that at least a few of your Facebook friends, or Instagram, Twitter, or Linkedin peeps are plugged in, so almost everyone is becoming at least a little aware of the problems we face.
We had a friend call us the other day after she watched Cowspiracy, a documentary about the massive environmental impact of the cattle industry, telling us that she was so frightened and simultaneously inspired, that she had decided to go vegetarian. So yes, we’re seeing more and more people connecting with the idea of taking less and leaving more. Even though we still need many more people to be involved in the solution, the growing awareness does give us hope.
I think many of us can relate to your feeling in the past about losing control over our environment and being a part of a losing battle. How has your view of the world changed since investing in urban agriculture?
Well, on the selfish front, we can die a little more calmly knowing that we have done what we can. We feel very lucky. A neighbor told us we were saving the world, not one yard at a time, but hundreds of yards at a time! What a great compliment! But more importantly, we feel good about what we do. We feel lucky to have the opportunity to inspire people to grow food in their own yard, to take fewer trips to the grocery store, to realize how gratifying putting your hands in the soil is, and how awesome it is to watch nature do what she does, just outside the windows of your home.
Suddenly, a ladybug is fascinating, watching how quickly things come up in the spring, or witnessing a droopy, thirsty tomato plant bounce back 20 minutes after being watered – it’s wondrous. And when we see so many other people joining us, eating organic, fighting against Big Ag, it really does give us hope that maybe we can turn the clock back and save this polluted environment of ours. Ten years ago, when we first started to become aware of the dangers we face, there was a lot of hopelessness. I think we’re feeling a lot more hopeful now. Maybe that’s just a way to protect ourselves emotionally from the sadness and fear that comes along with the doomsday scenarios of environmental catastrophe, but it works just the same.
Do you find that first-time urban farmers have an irrational fear that they’ve got the “brown thumb?” What are some low maintenance crops that they can get started on?
Yes, lots of people claim to have a brown thumb. We don’t believe there is such a thing. There are five essentials to a successful garden –good sun, good soil, strong, organic seed and seedling, good watering practices and love. If anyone of these are significantly lacking, then the garden’s chances of success will be diminished. Not enough sun won’t allow plants to grow. Inconsistent watering techniques, such as watering very briefly or infrequently (or too frequently for that matter) can hugely stress a plant. Starting with a weak seed or seedlings can make plants susceptible to infections and infestations. And a lack of love really just means not paying attention. Love is the caring, connected, observational part of gardening, and it’s just as important as any of the other elements.
Spending just a few minutes a day observing your garden can tell you so much. The plants, soil, and insects tell you everything you need to know about what your garden needs. But if you’re not there to witness it, to let your garden talk to you, then how can you help it flourish? That’s what we try to teach when we work with clients in their yards, whether it’s a homeowner, a group of kids at a daycare or school, or workers at a factory who take their breaks in their corporate community garden.
There are loads of things that are easy to grow. Radishes almost take care of themselves. Garlic, too. In fact, garlic is one of the easiest plants to grow – planted in October, covered with straw, watered only weekly, and naturally insect resistant. Lettuce, beans, peas, cucumbers – so many things are easy to grow. Tomatoes are one of the harder plants to grow, but once you know the basic principles, it gets easier pretty quickly. Gardening is like multiplication tables. There are tons to learn, but none of them is particularly difficult. 7 x 8. 56. See? You just grew bush beans!
Heading into Spring and Summer, what should we start planting?
Early spring plants are cold hardy plants. We’ve already started peas, radishes, chard, kale, lettuce, spinach, mustard greens, Asian greens. All these plants can be started in mid to late April in zone 6a (Toronto). We keep shade cloth handy, which is a very lightweight, white spun material that we use at this time of year if we see there is a hard frost coming, or a late-season snowfall. Then, in hotter weather, it reduces the intensity of the sun on these cool-loving plants, so it prevents them from producing flowers and keeps them tastier.
In the heat of the summer, from the May 24 weekend, it’s time to plant heat lovers – tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, eggplant, ground cherries, melons, cucumbers, beans, zucchini. These plants need hot weather to flourish, and really shouldn’t be planted when there is any chance of a frost, which will almost assuredly kill them off.
For apartment dwellers without access to a garden or a plot of land, what are some ways to get involved in urban farming?
For apartment and condo dwellers, and especially those who have good sun exposure on their balcony or through a window, we say go for it! Just a few potted plants on a balcony, or a windowsill herb garden, can be enormously gratifying. We even developed a bed specifically for high-rise living called the Raised Raised Bed – a modest-sized garden bed on top of a pedestal with doors for storage of gardening tools and soil amendments and the like. So it’s nice and tidy and compact, but very fruitful.
There are other ways too, to plug into the urban ag world. Community and allotment gardens are getting more and more popular. If you’re in or near Toronto, join Toronto Urban Growers, a collection of active and concerned citizens working to increase access to urban growing spaces, increase awareness and work for greater food access and equality throughout the population. If you’re really aching to find a proper yard to garden in, there are websites that connect people who garden but don’t have a yard with people who have a yard and either want a gardening companion or would be happy to have someone tend it for them. Where there’s a will, there’s away!