Why Grow Food at Home?

By Helen Zuman (member, Safe Food Squad’s Brooklyn Backyard Brigade)

As a Park Slope Food Coop member, you already have access to an abundance of succulent local produce. Maybe you supplement Coop purchases at your local farmers’ market, or belong to a CSA. Great! You still have lots to gain from growing food at home. Read on for the top five benefits of turning your yard, roof, patio, or windowsill into a farm.

1. Increase vitality and variety in your diet. The two greatest determinants of what foods are available for purchase in a store (or even, to a lesser extent, at a farmers’ market) are how well they hold up to being transported and how broadly they’ve been integrated into the Standard American Diet (SAD, for short). This means that of the thousands of edible varieties capable of thriving in our climate, only a few dozen ever show up on the shelves. To eat Dragon’s Egg cucumbers, or Crisp Mint lettuce, or Cream Sausage tomatoes, you might just have to grow them yourself.

Part of eating better is eating fresher. Sullivan County farmer John Gorzynski (of Gorzynski’s Ornery Farm) says that greens (for example) lose 40% of their nutrients within three days of harvest. Even as a Coop member, benefiting from our quick turnover, you’d have to shop every day to get those veggies in your mouth within that three-day window. Why not skip the crowds and checkout lines, and plant your own produce aisle at home?

2. Get to know our allies in the plant kingdom. When you buy food, you glimpse one part of the plant (the edible part) at one stage of its development. When you grow food, you witness every stage of the plant’s life cycle: seed, sprout, seedling, mature producer, seed bearer, mulch. Despite its reputation for inducing boredom, you might actually find it fascinating to watch plants grow.

Earth Island Journal Editor Jason Mark, speaking at the 2008 Chicago Green Festival, used a short slide show to illustrate one widespread side effect of detachment from food-growing: First, he flashed images of three corporate logos; then, he showed the foliage of three common food plants – including the potato – growing on a farm. Everyone in the audience could identify the logos; only a few could identify the food plants. Which body of knowledge is more vital to our health and survival?

3. Experience our food system as a web of relationships. Shopping at the Coop, you sometimes know what farm your produce is coming from; shopping at a farmers’ market, you always do. That’s a start on linking what you eat with the living network that brings it into being. Still, much remains invisible: the soil the food’s grown in, the farm ecosystem, the work of farming, the choices and forces driving how and with what materials that work is done.

Growing food at home offers a hands-on intro to the world of the farmer, in microcosm. As you tend your crops, you’ll notice how your site and its flows – of sun, wind, water, pets, insects, wildlife, people, vehicles, pollution – influence your plants’ health and productivity. When seeking materials such as mulch, soil, and fertilizer, you’ll get a feel for the market’s tilt towards “cheap” inputs made possible by “cheap” oil. You’ll need to form a strategy for relating to “weeds” and other “pests.” Chemicals? Compromise? Cooperation? Best of all – and especially if you compost – you’ll witness the activity, and learn the quirks, of the countless creatures who build the soil your plants call home.

4. Gain essential competence. Not so long ago, we were a nation of farmers. Along with the three Rs, most children learned the basics of food-growing. Only in the past few generations, as the gush of oil into agriculture has crested, have we come to assume that we’ll be able to eat without understanding how food gets to us, or participating in the process.

This assumption – like the oil age – is an anomaly. We’ll be far more confident in our ability to thrive amidst the propportunities (problems recast as opportunities) accompanying “peak everything” once we take the vital step of reclaiming our agricultural heritage.

5. Save money. How much it costs to start growing food at home depends on how much you already know about food-growing, how much your friends and family know, how creative you are at repurposing materials from the waste stream, and how much time and energy you’re willing to invest (see Dave Hamilton’s Grow Your Food for Free (Well Almost) for an extreme DIY perspective). Your home-farm installation could cost anywhere from zero to thousands of dollars.

Once you’re up and running, you’ll find it’s even easier to keep costs low, especially if you’re able to mine the waste stream for fertility (e.g., make your own soil out of food waste and fallen leaves). You may need to buy only seeds – and you can eliminate even that cost by saving your own or swapping with neighbors. (For seed-swapping in Park Slope, attend the April 21st Seed Celebration at the Old Stone House; visit permaculture-exchange.org for more info.)

Of course, all the above benefits accrue to those who grow food in a community or school garden, as well as to those who grow food at home. Do both! Let the two pursuits support each other. Enjoy both the sociability of farming with others and the intimacy of daily interaction with your live-in plants.

Are you a Park Slope Food Coop member who’s already growing food in the city? Are you eager to teach others? You might enjoy working with the Safe Food Squad’s Brooklyn Backyard Brigade. Email brooklynbackyard@gmail.com. FTOP credit available. For more on urban food-growing, visit brooklynbackyard.wordpress.com.


Spring brings a wealth of wild edibles to Brooklyn. Master gardener and native plants expert Sara Stopek let me take some pictures of what’s growing in her  Clinton Hill garden this week.

Blue Aster

Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) has delicious, tender greens in Spring. They have a mild flavor and a texture similar to young arugula. The plants pictured here enjoy growing underneath tall shrubs on the sunny side of the garden, but will thrive in deep shade too. Blue aster will bloom well into the fall when most other plants have quit for the season.

Fiddlehead Fern

Fiddlehead Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are sometimes compared to asparagus with their ephemeral harvest and unique, pleasant flavor. I like them sautéed with ramps (see below) alongside a hearty omelette. The plants pictured here enjoy the wetter and shadier part of the yard, and have self-propagated from a handful of starter plants to cover a 16 square foot patch in just a couple of years.


Ramps (Allium tricoccum) taste and smell much like leeks. I have found large patches of ramps thriving under the thick deciduous forests in the Catskills, but the plants pictured here seem just as happy to grow in a container beside strawberries.

Amelanchier, aka “Juneberry”

Juneberries (Amelanchier) have a uniquely delicious flavor I can only describe as subtle cherry crossed with magic. Gorgeous white Spring blossoms (pictured here) are followed by bundles of red berries in early Summer. Juneberry trees come in a range of sizes so you can choose the a variety that best fits your garden.

Blueberry blossoms

Blueberries (Vaccinium) bear fruit in mid-late Summer, but I couldn’t resist photographing these beautiful Spring blossoms. There are so many different kinds of blueberries available from native plants nurseries, and it is recommended to grow several varieties of blueberry in your garden for best fruiting. While often grown in full sun, the plants pictured here are thriving in containers on a front stoop with only partial sun.

container-grown Blueberry


Tender and succulent with a mild sweet flavor.

Harvests in 5-6 days. Yields 16×1, i.e. one quarter cup of seeds yields 4 cups of sprouts.
Growing Tip: Rinse at least 4 times daily, and remove hulls and slowly sprouting seeds on day four.
Serving Idea: Serve chilled on top of salty tortilla chips and follow with lemonade.
Miscellany: After eating fenugreek sprouts my underarms smelled like maple syrup for three weeks.

This is a delicious sprout that’s easy to grow. I have only two negative reviews. First, about a third of the seeds either didn’t sprout or were so slow to sprout that they weren’t ready to eat on day 6. Second, the fenugreek-induced maple syrup aroma from my underarms was a little weird, but gave me an idea for what to feed my buddies the next time we go camping.

Whole fenugreek seeds from the Park Slope Food Coop. This little bag measured in at 1/4 cup. Image

Pour into a dry bowl to check for errant debris … all clear.Image

Put them up to soak overnight in a half gallon mason jar fitted with a fine screen-top lid.Image

Rinse and drain repeatedly for five to six days. !/4 cup seeds yields 4 cups sprouts.Image

My 4 year old liked them on salty tortilla chips served with lemonade.Image


What is compost?

Compost is simply new soil made from decomposed organic material such as leaves, grass clippings, vegetable scraps, fruit cores or peels, coffee grounds, and more. Composting transforms these unwanted yard and kitchen scraps into a fertile medium for growing and nourishing plants, and saves resources and landfill space in the process. Composting in your yard or a local community garden can help you replenish your soil with the fresh nutrients necessary to create vital backyard, windowsill, or container gardens.

How to compost

Composting is remarkably simple, takes up little space and energy, and can be done in a variety of ways. The basic ingredients for successful compost are a good mix of kitchen and yard scraps, a source of air, and enough moisture to keep your compost as wet as a wrung-out sponge. For many, these conditions will lead to a very hot compost pile that quickly decomposes waste. Even if the pile does not become hot, rest assured that it will still compost, just less quickly. It is possible that your compost will go dormant in the winter because of below-freezing temperatures, but in the spring it will return to the work of making fresh soil. Here are two good strategies for backyard composting in Brooklyn:

Leaf pile. If you are just composting leaves and yard waste that won’t interest hungry rats and raccoons, the easiest thing may be to just make a leaf pile in the corner. “Leave” it alone and it will shrink in size over time, slowly composting without any help. You will have quicker results if you:
* mix in fresh, green grass clippings thoroughly with the leaves.
* turn/fluff the leaf pile often to let it breathe.
* wet the leaf pile until moist when turning/fluffing (if the pile is dry inside).

Container composting. If you’re composting anything from the kitchen, it is best to use a container, or “bin,” to discourage rodents. A variety of containers/bins are available on the market that are suitable for even the smallest of Brooklyn gardens. For example, Brooklyn Compost Project (info below) sells the black, rectangular “Garden Gourmet” compost bin, with a 2′ x 2′ footprint, for $60. The compact “Envirocycle” circular tumbling bin is available from various online retailers for around $130. Community gardens often use custom-built wood frames that take up more space but handle greater volume. Whichever container you choose, it should:
* keep rodents out. It may be necessary to reinforce/line the bottom and edges with 1/4” steel cloth.
* let air in from the sides and bottom. You may want to place your container on a wooden pallet or similar structure to let air in from below.
* be easy to access with shovels and other tools for mixing/turning.

Tips for composting success

* Mix in more dry “browns” than wet “greens.” For every bucket of kitchen scraps or green grass clippings, you should aim for two buckets of dry leaves, organic sawdust, straw/hay, or other high-carbon material.
* Smaller pieces compost faster. Prepare kitchen scraps for the compost pile by putting them into a big bucket and chopping them thoroughly with a flat-bottomed shovel.
* Mix/turn/fluff the pile often. The “compost crank” is a great tool for this and is available at a discounted rate through the NYC Compost Project (see below).
* Is your compost stinky? Add more dry browns, fluff it up, and shelter your pile from the rain.
* Is your pile dry and not decomposing? Add water or more wet kitchen scraps until it is moist and fluff it up.

What not to compost

When creating and maintaining a compost pile, there are several things you will want to avoid adding because they are toxic, can spread diseases to people and plants, can attract pests, or can cause weed troubles for you. Here are some guidelines:

* No chemically treated wood. While wood chips and sawdust can be great for compost, make sure they do not come from chemically treated wood products such as pressure-treated wood, which can contain arsenic, chromium, or copper.
* No human/animal poop. While gardeners universally love herbivore manure, neither human nor carnivorous pet waste should be included in garden compost because it can carry diseases that make people very sick.
* No diseased or contaminated plants. Composting diseased plants can contaminate the garden, reinfecting next year’s crops. While in theory, complete composting at high temperatures will kill garden pathogens, it is difficult to ensure complete composting of diseased materials, so avoid this situation altogether by disposing of infected plants elsewhere. Similarly, greens grown in contaminated soil can contain high levels of lead or other heavy metals and should not be composted.
* No meat, bones, or fat. Animal fats, bone, meat, and fatty fried foods decompose very slowly, are more likely to stink, and attract rodents.
* No weed seed. When adding weeds to the compost, make sure they haven’t flowered and gone to seed yet or you will nurture weeds in your garden. Some pernicious weeds can resprout from their roots while in your compost bin and multiply. Letting unwanted plants thoroughly dry in the sun (perhaps for a couple weeks) will ensure that they are dead and won’t grow in your compost.

Resources for composting in Brooklyn

The NYC Compost Project, established by the NYC Department of Sanitation in 1993, provides compost outreach and education for city residents and businesses. The project provides invaluable information, training sessions, and demonstrations, and also sells discounted compost bins and tools to local residents. Check out the Web site at www.nyccompost.org.

In Brooklyn, the Compost Project is run through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The garden operates a compost help line, at (718) 623-7290, and can be contacted via the Web at www.bbg.org.

Additionally, dozens of community gardens accept compost, both from gardening members and from neighbors who need a place for their kitchen waste. For a list of community gardens in Brooklyn, go to www.cenyc.org/openspace/gardens/bk. One great way to get your compost to a community garden, if going there directly is not an option, is to bring your compost to the Greenmarket. There are nearly a dozen Greenmarkets in Brooklyn, some year-round and some seasonal, and many of them accept compost in partnerships with community gardens. For locations near you, check the listings here: www.cenyc.org/ourmarkets.