FIELD NOTES: Growing veggies in the city

Community dispatches from the Common Roots Urban Farm

Common Roots Urban farmer Sara Burgess - NICOLA PARKER
Nicola Parker
Common Roots Urban farmer Sara Burgess

As spring bursts forth from winter, does it make you want to garden? Or is it rising food prices and growing local food trends? Either way, it’s time to get dirty, and there are loads of local resources to support your emerging or entrenched gardening habits.

Tonight (Tuesday, May 3) at 5pm, urban farmer Sara Burgess will host a workshop at the Common Roots Urban Farm on growing good veggies. Sara has been working at Common Roots Urban Farm, the community farm on the corner of Bell and Robie, for four years. Sara runs the market garden, growing thousands of pounds of food annually for donation to the Parker Street Food Bank, wholesale and retail.

At this workshop, she’ll share her failures and successes growing veggies in the city. The key take-home treasures of the workshop include timing and spacing of plants for optimal productivity. She’ll talk about how to plant successions to grow multiple generations of plants to maximize time, and how to grow vertically to maximize space.

Here is one example that Sara wants to share: lettuce grows well below tomato plants, allowing two crops in the same place— plus the tomatoes shade the lettuce, which lettuce likes, and the lettuce shades the soil, protecting the roots of the tomatoes, so both are more productive.

When asked what is the most exciting thing about gardening, Sara says, “Producing food for people. When I was first growing food for myself I was doing it in flower boxes. The few times I got to bring salads to friends’ for a barbecue was exciting, but it got really satisfying when I started farming and started producing a really large quantity of food – like enough for whole families for weeks at a time.”

She adds that the most challenging thing about gardening is the watering. "In the Common Roots Market Garden we don’t have a proper irrigation system right now and watering is manual and very time consuming. Because of this, last year, I really learned that a crop can look like it is doing fine, but without adequate water it doesn’t really grow. We were watering, but not the amount needed for the veggies to thrive.”

Before farming at Common Roots Urban Farm, Sara farmed with Jody Nelson at LocalMotive Farm, when it was still in Stewiacke. “Small scale farming is possible and productive," she says of what she learned from that experience. "Jody was farming 1.5 acres, and had an 80 member CSA plus sold at a weekly market. She was able to feed so many people with such a small area, a few tools, and a little help. ”

“When gardening, you’re just not in control of everything, no matter how much you want to be. It’s a good life lesson," says Sara. "Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, blight destroys all of your tomatoes. On the other hand, sometimes you get hundreds of pounds of beans out of a small space, with minimal effort. The nice thing about gardening with an urban farm is that we get to see our so many other gardens and gardeners. It helps to understand what is in our control, and what is just happening."

If you have questions about growing veggies in your home garden, Sara is willing to field them at Common Roots' workshops, or the farm's Facebook page.

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