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.


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