The Olkowskis inspired City Farmer 34 years ago

New Stories From ‘Urban Agriculture Notes’

Linked by Michael Levenston

The Olkowskis inspired City Farmer 34 years ago

Photo of Bill in his backyard in Acton St, Berkeley, California around 1975. In March 1975 the Olkowskis published “The City People’s Book of Raising Food”.


And we’ve just heard from Bill and Helga Olkowski!

From Bill’s email:

You may remember us as the authors of the “City Peoples Book of Raising Food” back in the 1970′s.  We gave a talk in Seattle for the Pea Patch Group then encouraging people to set up community and backyard gardens.  I remember this talk as one of the high points of our life because it went like this:

We were giving a rousing talk about how important urban agriculture is and could be for the following reasons:

1) it can save money,
2) it can save gasoline normally spent going to the market and traveling for fun,
3) it produces clean food without pesticides,
4) it’s good for the ecosystem since it uses compost from food wastes, and
5) it reduces the amounts of waste vegetable matter thus saving space in dumps.

At the end we asked for questions and the great question arose: “Who is going to do all this?”

Helga replied [Now here I must insert something for people who were not there because it is needed.  The room we were in was a large dance studio with a mirror down one side – a big mirror.]

So Helga says back to the questioner: Why you are! and points to the right and everyone turns to look in that direction and they see themselves in the mirror- well the reaction was tremendous — I felt like we could have marched the whole crowd down to city hall to demand more Urban Gardens.  I will never forget that time and the great people we met on our visit to your area. [… in Vancouver BC. City Farmer invited the Olkowskis to Vancouver twice in the late 1970’s. They spoke on national radio, to municipal leaders and at workshops. Mike]

I am happy to see you have continued the good work.  We have had gardens now for almost 40 years and I feel the same way. Now I also like some flowers to feed the beneficial insects, bees and hummingbirds.

[Helga’s now 80, Bill is 70.]

Introduction to “The City People’s Book of Raising Food” – March 1975, Rodale Press

By Helga Olkowski

I have always wanted to live on a farm. But I have always lived in the city. In this country, most people live in cities. In fact, all over the world, with a few exceptions, the trend is towards urbanization.

City people are a funny lot. They don’t spend much time thinking about what keeps them alive — their life-support systems. There was a time when I didn’t think about it much either. Oh, of course, I knew people need air to breathe, water to drink, and food to eat. But fresh air was obviously free and available and I didn’t worry about the water that came through the pipes to my house, or the food that I bought at the store. If the vegetables and meats looked attractive, if they were a reasonable price, if they didn’t look too hard to prepare, I bought them, took them home, prepared and ate them.

Well, we’re all a bit more sophisticated now. We’ve heard about pesticide residues on foods, fertilizers contaminating water, lead in the air we breathe, the energy crisis, and other environmental disasters. If you are like me, you may have reached a point where the list is too long and upsetting to confront. You don’t want to hear about another problem unless at the same time someone suggests what you can do about it. This is such a book — about the problem of producing food for city people and what you can do about it.

Consider the tomato. It takes large amounts of energy to produce the synthetic fertilizers used by the tomato farmer. Fossil fuels are heavily involved in modern agricultural technology and in the production of pesticides that such farming methods may seem to demand. Fossil fuel energy is also necessary to bring the tomato to the store where it is sold. How many of us walked home with our groceries this week? No doubt most used a car to bring the tomato to the kitchen, thus doing our bit directly toward energy consumption and air pollution, too.

And at the end of all that environmentally disastrous activity, what have we got? A tomato that hasn’t seen the farm in many a day, a variety with a skin tough enough to withstand lots of mechanical handling, hopefully with pesticide residues below the FDA allowable tolerances. Nothing exactly to cheer about.

So what’s a city person to do? Grow some of your own. I think that one can grow a good deal of food in the city, and have fun doing it. It was done during World War II — they were called Victory Gardens. The apartment dweller can grow tomatoes and cucumbers inside in a sunny window, citrus and bell peppers too. A window box salad, of loose-leaf lettuce, radishes, green onions, cress, baby carrots, and turnips, is a real possibility.

There may be room for a planter box of food plants on the roof or in a courtyard, and even room to raise meat rabbits. You may be able to share a backyard or patio with a friend who has some outdoor space, or join forces with your neighbors in working on an empty lot, unused city-owned land; or you might talk your local parks and recreation people into letting you use a portion of a city park. Other city people have found a way. You can too.

Of course, not every city dweller wants to raise his own food. Even if you want to, you would have a hard time trying to raise all of it. But you can raise quite a lot. I know, because for the past four years my family has raised all of its own meat and vegetables in the middle of the city. We have taught hundreds of others to do the same. You can do it too. This book is to tell you how.

This is a record of some of our personal experiences and some of the “book learning” we found essential to our success. We hope it will be useful to you.

P.S.: We’ve had a lot of help and encouragement from many friends and acquaintances, students, other teachers, and associates. To all these people whom we cannot thank individually we dedicate this book, but particularly to Drs. E. Williams, James Vlamis, and Bob Raabe, who helped us develop the Urban Garden Ecosystem class at the University of California; Tom Javits, who helped carry on the class and spread the word about city food growing; and all future urban gardeners.

You can get used copies on Amazon


Our Birth of Urban Agriculture

by Wm Olkowski, PhD

The birth of urban agriculture for us was when we had little money as I had taken a job to finish my PhD at the division of Biological Control at UC, Berkeley under the famous anti-pesticide pundit Robert van den Bosch, but that’s another story, or two.  Graduate stipends back then were $2500 per year.  And we both had other part time jobs.  I had previously left graduate school sick of academia, but back then van had a big impact on me as I could see spending a lifetime fighting the big pesticide companies and the stupidities they propagated.

So like Helga wrote in the City People’s Book when things get dicey “Bill thinks about his stomach”.  That’s still true, but now at age 70 I think back to those days in the early 70s and it might be fun for others to know what some of our early experiences were related to food producing in Berkeley, California.

We Started with What we Had and Started Small

First you must know that our garden was very small, with full sun at most from 9 am ish to about 12 noon when the sun would pass behind the house.  Yet, when we started it was amazing to see how much food we could produce in a small space, maybe 20-30 feet square – so 600 sq feet.  I had to cut down two small trees at the start, which I hated to do, but there would have been no produce otherwise.  I promised myself I would make up for that ecodebt somehow.

It really was Helga who led the charge as her father had a garden most of his life and she knew about starting seeds, etc., from him.  I was the heavy lifter and lead the charge on making compost, that’s another story too.  She developed a system of starting seedlings indoors, which we then used for many years.  We made a flier describing that system and maybe it could be useful to others – if I can find it now.

Starting Seedlings Indoors

It’s a simple idea, which almost anyone could use.  First we collected paper milk cartoons and mixed up some good soil with no rocks, and added 1/3rd compost and 1/3rd sand.  The Berkeley soils were heavy in clay, which, although great for holding cations (i.e., Calcium, Potassium, Magnesium, etc. the positively charge elements) it was sticky and hard to work.  We cut the ½ gallon milk cartons in half and used it as a tray to hold two smaller quart sized milk cartons with no bottoms and tops.  We put the soil in these smaller containers and placed them into the larger trays.  This way the assemblage could fit on a window sill where they could be checked regularly.  We still do this down here in Santa Barbara but have to move the tray to different windows to get enough sun, as the house is oddly position in relation to the sun.

There’s another detail of importance.  We pressed 5 depressions in each carton, one in the middle a little deeper than the four others, one in each corner.  The corner depressions we put at least 2 seeds in and covered them with a little sand, not much, just enough to hold them in place when we watered.  Each day we would check the soil moisture with a finger and if needed, added more water into the center depression flooding the surface enough to reach the sandy seeds.  We would get excited as the seedlings popped up through the sand, then we would wait until the first true leaves showed up and cut off all but one seedling in each corner leaving the most vigorous seedlings.  After a week or more we would then take the tray into the garden and select a location, push back the compost mulch and divide the seedlings into four transplants.  We used this system for decades and taught all our students to use it.  It fits into a busy urban lifestyle.

Transplanting is Best

Transplanting saves space in small gardens, speeds up growth rates by being indoors where seedlings are protected from wind and grow faster because it is warmer, and it conserves seeds.  With this system a packet of seeds would last us a year or more.  Also, one can gage the number of transplants to whatever time and space is available.  Further, this is a great pest control tool as the greatest mortality (actually for all species) occurs in the early baby stages.  We were fighting cut worms and snails and slugs at the time.  After dumping a seed packet into small burrows and coming back after they emerged to find every seedling laying down on the soil surface or completely missing we started this transplanting system and never looked back.

Some Early Experiences

The limiting factor in the early stages was getting enough carbon so Helga and I would head out to the city streets when the leaves would start to fall with shovels, rakes and plastic barrels.  So here we are collecting leaves in the gutter and people would ask us what we were doing.  We would give them the rap about urban ag and the need to have enough carbon – as usual we tried to convert people.  They would walk away – I know what they were thinking – “some more Berzerkly ecofreaks”.  We would choose back streets to avoid the lead deposits we knew were falling out from the leaded gasoline back then.  We just loved shocking people.  When we got lazy we would joke that we were training for civil service.

A Cabbage Compost

Also at other times of the year when the leaves were not falling I would go to the back of supermarkets and get the waste vegetables.  This was amazing as there was so, so much waste food.  One time I will never forget was when I found a whole barrel of cabbages, most of which looked good.  So I loaded them up and went home chopped them, ate some, and started a pile in our aerobic compost bin system.  I was really into compost as having a mulch was a key to conserving water, improving the soil and making weeding easier.

But, but when I came back a few days later I could smell the pile yards away and was dismayed by the stench and the liquid pouring out of the front slates of the bins.  The liquid became infested with these great big fat fly larvae (family syrphidae) called “rat-tailed maggots” in the Ento-literature.  I liked the flies but the whole mess was too much as we were trying to fit our systems into a dense urban location where people would object to any bad smells.  So I learned to be selective when picking up waste from markets.  Watch out for too much cabbages and other “brassicas”.

Was that a Rooster I Heard?

Later we put in chickens to have enough nitrogen as it became the limiting factor in making compost after having enough carbon – the ideal being ca. 25 or 30 parts of carbon to one part nitrogen.  Making compost with this ratio along with adequate moisture would produce temperatures up to, and even over 160 DF.  This would be evident from finding ashed, whitest, portions in the pile as we turned it.  I was modeling our closed aerobic compost system on Dr. Goleck, a mycologist at UC, Berkeley who had tried to decompose pesticides with a three bin system of which two piles could be processed each day by turning with a pitchfork.  (The chlorinated hydrocarbons would not decompose).  His method was aerobic, and based on 14 days of turning the materials from one bin to another.  This would finish the decomposition process so the product could be placed on the surface between seedlings.  We almost never disturbed the soil surface but just put the compost on top so the living things, mites, worms, etc., would take the good stuff down into the root zone.  This would crate natural pores thereby aerating the root zones and improving production.

So after this preliminary info what comes next would be understandable.  We added chickens in order to have enough chicken shit to make great composts.  And we had beautiful stuff after learning how to manage the manure without creating a fly problem (another story).  So our pattern was to take the one rooster we had into the house at dusk when we closed up the hens, as he would go off during the night – again threatening to alert the neighbors to what we were doing.  So during the night we kept him in a big dark plastic barrel in the front room by the door where we also had a desk where we would answer the phone (no cell phones in those days).

Consequently some calls would go like this: bla, bla, bla, stop, long wait, and then “Was that a Rooster I heard?”  So we would explain that the police came by and told us the neighbors complained about the noise.  The cop actually had the detail of trying to keep peace, was an old farm boy who was sent out on the chicken detail.  He told us something valuable.  He said, “the real law was don’t offend your neighbors.  It’s got nothing to do with any law that’s on the books.”

So that’s the story from Santa Barbara, where all the chickens are good looking…etc, etc.