Over the Fence Urban Farm

Cooperatively farming small patches of Earth in Columbus, OH


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O-H-I-Grow!

April 11th was a crazy day around here. Dan was in Cincinnati for a Reds game, George had a Destination Imagination competition, Rosa was at a volley tournament, and Cora had her first soccer game. Still, with the help of Grandma Joyce (let’s hear it for intergenerational homesteading!), I made it to Franklin Park Conservatory for O-H-I-Grow!, a summit on urban agriculture and community gardening hosted by the Growing to Green Program.

The day started with one of the most dynamic speakers I’ve heard in awhile – Mud Baron. Mud spoke to me as both an urban farmer and educator. I loved that he spoke without a script, had a powerpoint with a few hundred beautiful images of people and plants – rather than bullet points – playing in no particular order on the screen behind him, and that he repeatedly dropped the f-bomb. How refreshing. A real person sharing his passion and experiences. He wasn’t there to teach us anything per se, but to inspire us and as far as I’m concerned he nailed it. You can get a taste of Mud’s philosophy and approach to gardening with teens in L.A. (though he’s an Ohio boy originally) by watching this video produced by one of his students at John Muir High School.

The rest of the day was filled with three panels representing urban farmers and community gardeners in the Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland areas. It was great to hear about so many projects around the state I didn’t know about (field trip anyone?!), as well as to hear more about organizations here in town whose names I knew but didn’t know much about.

Here are a few of my highlights from each panel.

Our Harvest Cooperative (Cincinnati) has three main objectives: to provide agricultural jobs that pay a living wage, all year long; to serve as a local food hub, strengthening access for consumers and restaurants; and to train new farmers. They operate on 4 acres of leased farmland with good soil and infrastructure like hoop houses and a resident farmer who serves as a mentor. In partnership with Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, they recently designed and offer a one-year Sustainable Agriculture Management certificate program.

“Garden Station (Dayton) is more about community than the garden,” reported founder Lisa Helm. A local performance art group called The Circus was the driving force behind the garden and volunteers make it happen. They host a range of community events including EarthFest at which Dayton Urban Grown sells plants and funds are raised to help pay for projects at the Station. The garden is currently being threatened by development plans; you can read and sign a petition to try to save it here.

I visited Franklinton Gardens (Columbus) a few seasons ago on an urban garden bike tour with Yay Bikes! I was impressed then and continued to follow their progress online and through a classmate in the OSU Extension Master Urban Farmer program last winter. She was an Americorps Vista working with the program, an example of how garden Nick Stanich and others are leveraging support for their work in a neighborhood where 70% of households live on less than $30,000/year. If you live in Columbus and aren’t familiar with and supporting their work, you should! You can volunteer on your own or with a group. They are radical revolutionaries doing amazing things in a part of town that time forgot.

Also here in town, if you want to learn more about aquaponics – symbiotically growing fish and produce – you don’t have to go far. St. Stephen’s Project Aquastart is located in Linden and houses six 1,200 gallon tanks capable of growing 1,200 tilapia at a time – they reached 800/tank in their first season. Henry Pittigrew runs the program and did an awesome job presenting what he’s learned (cabbage moths are evil and fish poop makes amazing fertilizer) and hopes to do in the future (want to buy some of that poop?). After some time in the Columbus City Schools, he’s found there’s more room to educate on the farm than in the schools.

Urban Farms of Central Ohio (Columbus) is an off-shoot of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, farming multiple acres of unused institutional land in and around downtown Columbus. They hope to demonstrate how urban farming can be financially viable while meeting the demand for fresh food in another part of town that is a relative food desert. In addition to providing education about and access to freshly grown produce, they are working to increase civic engagement – hosting a neighborhood leadership group, youth apprenticeships, and community events.

Lady Buggs Farm (Youngstown) was the perfect bookend to Mud Baron. After studying education at the graduate level, Sophia (Lady) Bugg realized what was missing for her from schooling was joy and she went in search of that in the garden. She joyfully farms in all kinds of containers at the house she grew up in, which she inherited from her grandmother. She’s known around her neighborhood as “the kiddie pool farmer” and she says she’s “on a journey to bring people together through food.” Sophia exuded a sense of self-confidence, patience, and passion I aspire to.

Growing to Green plans to host another O-H-I-Grow! summit in 2016. It will be interesting to see whom they find to bring to the table. Special thanks to Rachel Tayse Baillieul of Harmonious Homestead, Swainway Urban Farm and Columbus Agrarian Society, who presented on the Columbus panel, for inviting me to be her guest!

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Seedbed

This past fall we were on a tour at Swainway Urban Farm when our pal Milan, from Peace, Love, and Freedom Farm, asked Joseph Swain who inspires him. It was a great question and without hesitation, Joseph cited Eliot Coleman, the guru of Four Season Farming. I was somewhat familiar with Coleman’s work from articles he published in Mother Earth News, but we promptly checked a few of his books out from the library and haven’t looked back.

In Four Season Harvest (1999), Coleman offers advice on sowing seeds and raising seedlings in the coldframe. Knowing full well we are in for a few more weeks of very cold weather, we decided to give his method a try today as temperatures soared above 50. As promised, I picked up a soil thermometer and found the soil was fluctuating between 45-60 degrees for the past few days. Perfect for kale, beets, onions, chard…

With the coldframe already cleared of old growth and the soil smooth, we laid a 2-3 inch blanket (about 1 yard) of Happy Frog Potting Soil over all but the small section where we transplanted some seedlings earlier in the week. We set the seeds down in well marked rows and gave them a drink. And now, we wait.

It used to be if I heard the term “seedbed,” my thoughts turned to performance artist Vito Acconci’s (1972) work of that title. If you don’t know it, look it up. (Just be warned, this work is not appropriate for all readers.) I won’t go into it here except to say, that I have new understanding of the term. These seeds are warm and cozy and we’re going to do all we can to keep them that way.

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[Quick note on the transplants. They seem to be doing okay. We moved a few straw bales that were lying around to the west and southwest sides of the coldframe as a windbreak to help these next last few weeks of winter. The transplants aren’t growing as fast as the seedlings still sitting in the kitchen, but they are holding their own, gaining inner strength and waiting to flouirsh as soon as temperatures stabilize. As soon as the grow lights we got are installed, we’ll move some of the guys on the windowsill under there and then they will really start to take off. Can’t wait!]

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Check out our “true leaves!”