Urban gardens take root in unconventional places

In urban gardens from Chicago to San Francisco, enthusiastic growers make do with whatever space is available, no matter how unconventional. Carrots grown on a paved basketball court, anyone?

Courtesy of Christopher Weber
Community residents install vegetable beds along a railroad track in Chicago. They're part of a nationwide community gardens movement that's growing vegetables in unconventional places.

As far as we know, Jesus wasn’t a gardener, but in the Bible, he sure talks like one. If taken literally, his famous Parable of the Sower could be subtitled “Gardening 101”: Cast your seed in the good soil, not on stony ground.

I bring up this biblical story because an increasing number of gardeners are rebelling against this seemingly faultless garden logic. Namely, they’re sowing seeds in the rockiest, least hospitable ground available.

Gardens spring up in surprising places

In Chicago, there are gardens built on land formerly occupied by a burned-out tavern, an illegal chop-shop for dissecting stolen cars, a truck depot (still paved, by that way), a basketball court (ditto), and more than a few well-salted road shoulders.

Such sites are obviously far from pristine. They’re the desert in “food deserts” — fallow, forbidden ground that would not be touched were interest in gardening not stratospherically high.

These reclamation projects offer a heartening counterweight to the Great Recession’s foreclosure epidemic. What greater underdog story can you find than a gardener trying to coax carrots from asphalt?

With many hollowed-out urban neighborhoods light years from redevelopment, why not put down a few roots? Doing so literally brings hopeful new life to the ‘hood.

In fact, there are even nonprofit organizations that exist for the purpose of creating reclaimed gardens. One in Chicago is called NeighborSpace. It helps would-be gardeners secure the title for empty lots and installs water spigots on their behalf.

Just as important, it helps arrange for proper soil testing — a must for any urban garden that will produce edibles, as most gardeners prefer their lettuce unleaded. The former tavern and chop shop mentioned above are NeighborSpace projects.

Mulch islands in the middle of cities

All that is commendable enough. But here’s what boggles my mind: The sheer amount of soil being created for these sites. Nationwide, gardeners are burying old, compacted, contaminated city soil beneath a dark, wormy stratum of mulch, creating islands in the pavement sea.

In all the gardens I’ve described, a thick blanket of mulch was laid down to serve as a primary growing medium. As that layer subsides, gardeners rake additional ones into place. You would think that all the piling-on would raise the gardens several feet in altitude, but the constant decay of the mulch keeps them more or less level.

Compared to today’s outsized farms, these urban gardens are relatively small. The largest is the aforementioned truck depot, which comes in at seven acres. Still, one has to be encouraged by the volume of organic materials being recycled within city limits.

Hayes Valley Farm in San Francisco, for instance, sits on land once occupied by a freeway ramp. According to the farm’s website, volunteers laid down four feet of mulch over the farm’s 2.2 acres.

By my math, the job required more than 14,000 cubic yards of mulch. To provide a sense of scale, consider that a standard dump truck can carry only 10 or 12 yards of material.

Dan Cody of Hayes Valley Farm summed the operation this way: "It takes a forest hundreds of years to make an inch of topsoil. [We] will make two feet of topsoil in less than five years."

Multiply that amount times the thousands of urban gardens across the nation, and you’ll see the potential environmental benefits.

It’s still debatable whether urban gardens can actually produce enough food to feed city residents in any significant amounts. But it does indeed seem that these operations can still make a real dent in a city’s waste stream.

In the comments section below, I'd appreciate it if you would please leave details about other unconventional gardens in your communities. (Or you can e-mail me through my website.)


Christopher Weber is a journalist and work-at-home dad in Chicago. He has written about gardening for the Chicago Tribune and taught it at a local school. His current favorite vegetable to grow is Brussels sprouts. You can find more information about him, including articles and blogs, at To read more by Christopher at Diggin' It, click here.

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