Spring on an Urban Farm
By Brian Barth
On rooftops and in backyards, in city parks and vacant lots, in ghettoes and suburban neighborhoods across North America and the world, a new rationale of urban land use has taken root. The oldest of reasons for land development is returning in the most modern context. Agricultural productivity is slowly but surely becoming a measure of urban progress. The movement of urban farming is buzzing like a garden in Spring.
In many cities, it is increasingly difficult to find a neighborhood that doesn’t have some sort of community garden. In Washington, DC one family is setting the trend in their neighborhood and beyond. At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Obamas are leading the country towards greater food sovereignty in a strange way for capitol hill – by example.
In Spring of 2009, Michelle Obama and friends broke ground on an 1100 square foot vegetable garden because she wanted her family to have access to fresh produce, as well as the experience of producing it. The existing lawn was tilled in. Rows were delineated and a planting scheme carefully laid out to insure there would always be something in season. Bees were brought in to pollinate the crops and a nearby apple tree bore fruit for the first time 25 years, thanks to their diligent work in pursuit of nectar. The Obama family and their guests now dine from the garden on a daily basis and, five years later, the movement of urban food production is sweeping the country like wildfire.
When City of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed announced plans to build an urban farm center directly across the street from his office in downtown Atlanta in 2011, he joined the ranks of urban leaders across the country who have been swept up in the feeling that food production will have an important role to play in the healing and future prosperity of our cities. “We are very excited about the opportunity to create a sustainable and accessible greenspace in the heart of downtown,” Mayor Reed proclaimed during a press conference to announce the project. Atlanta has well over 300 community gardens in its metro area and new market farms are cropping up within city limits every spring.
The concept of using existing green space for food production is a win-win for residents, city planners, developers, and urban ecosystems. As much as our urban landscapes are paved over and built on, they still contain lots of little green splotches, like backyards and street trees – and some big ones, like city parks and golf courses – that have both intrinsic and economic value. If some of these, where appropriate, are transformed into food-producing landscapes, that value will only be increased. With the addition food production, these landscapes can continue to provide recreation opportunities, give refuge to wildlife, and create the beautiful views that drive up property values. Yet, they will also contribute two other valuable amenities to our lives: access to fresh food and participating in the experience of growing it.
Urban agriculture may not yet be a mandate at the national level, but it may not be long given the sentiment of the First Lady, the leaders of many of our largest urban centers, and a growing tide of citizens everywhere. It is Spring once again, and the old-fashioned art of agriculture has emerged from the cracks in the pavement of our modern metropolis.
The easiest way to learn the difference is to study them according to the common plant families to which most annual vegetables belong.
Solanaceae – known as the nightshade family, includes many popular warm season crops, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes.
Leguminosae – the bean family is split between warm and cool season vegetables. All types of green beans (including there yellow and purple cousins) and field peas (everything from lima beans to black-eyed peas) are warm season crops, while fava beans and all types of sweet peas (snow peas, English peas, sugar snap peas) produce best in cool weather. Peanuts are also warm season legumes.
Curcurbitaceae – the squash family is full of heat-lovers, like cucumbers, melons, zucchini, pumpkins, and of course squashes.
Brassicaceae – this includes a long list of cool season crops, like broccoli, kale, collards, mustard, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, cauliflower, radishes, turnips, and rutabagas, plus tatsoi, bok choi, and most other Asian greens.
Chenopodiaceae – spinach, beets, and Swiss chard are all cool season vegetables in the goosefoot family
Asteraceae – the aster family includes many cool season crops, including all lettuces, chicory, endive, and artichokes
Apiaceae – carrots, celery, dill, cilantro, parsley, and parsnip are all cool season vegetables
Alliaceae – cool season vegetables including garlic, onions, shallots, chives, and leeks.
Miscellaneous – corn is a warm season crop in the Poaceae (grass) family; okra is a warm season crop in the Malvaceae (mallow) family; basil is an annual warm season herb in the Lamiaceae (mint) family.
*A list of average first and last frost dates for select American cities can be found at:
For a more detailed list, see: