Nourishing Cities with Urban Micro Gardens
We all know that fresh, local produce is good for us. But it’s expensive to buy and hard to grow yourself – especially in cities. Whether it’s picking the right plants and seeds or matching it with the right spacing and planting times, gardening involves a lot of guesswork. Mistakes can prevent new or inexperienced gardeners from getting the results they want.
Americans are interested in eating local, fresh, organic food—so how can we reduce these barriers and get healthy produce into the hands of regular city-dwellers?
While a small produce garden might not provide a family with all of its produce, The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has presented research showing that a well-tended micro-garden of 11 square feet can produce as much as 200 tomatoes a year, 36 heads of lettuce every 60 days, 10 cabbages every 90 days, and 100 onions every 120 days. If people in urban areas who currently have an outdoor space – even a tiny one! – grew edibles, we would be able to kick start some serious, local, homegrown agriculture networks.
But you can’t just expect everyone to know how to grow. Not only do people need an affordable solution, but they also need education and resources as well.
Earth Starter—an urban agriculture startup
Urban agriculture is ripe for disruption. There are so many opportunities for entrepreneurs to step in and solve some of these challenges. My co-founder, John and I, are on a mission to empower city dwellers to become producers by giving them easy tools grow healthy fresh food. We have designed two products – a 4’ x 6’ Nourishmat and a 2’ x 6’ Herbmat – with the goal of turning consumers into producers.
The mat comes with non-GMO seedballs (seeds mixed with clay and worm castings to enrich the soil, and chili powder to keep pests away). To plant, you simply lay out the mat on top of a bed of soil, then stick the seedballs for the 19 different vegetables and herbs in their respective holes. The mat also doubles as a weed barrier and holds in water. The Nourishmat includes an optional built-in irrigation so users with an available water source can easily tend to the plants.
The Nourishmat is a market-based approach to growing healthy food with limited resources. In order to get the product off the ground, we performed a 22-state beta test over the last year and a half. We chose plants that would grow in all USDA hardiness zones. The combination of cool and warm weather crops with a mix of herbs for the summer allows for more successful yields. Bio-diversity promotes more pollinators and the seedballs help protect seeds against harsh environments and pests.
Schoolyards, food deserts and empty lots
Our plan is to focus on schools and encourage municipalities to create edible schoolyards. We hope to put a Nourishmat in every school and make growing food part of a student’s curriculum.
Furthermore, empty spaces in cities are community opportunity zones to us. We aim to tag areas in need of nourishment and present action plans to city governments whereby we can help create edible neighborhoods using the Nourishmat.
There is more space than entrepreneurs realize to innovate and collaborate in grow-local urban industry. At Earth Starter, we hope to be leaders in organizing this space and are already exploring partnerships with companies like EcoScraps, which converts food scraps into organic soil.
We need more gardens in the world, so I’d strongly encourage you to start thinking about what you can plant in your outdoor space. And check out our Kickstarter page if you’d like to be part of the Nourish Movement.
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I spoke last week to Adrian Benepe, former commissioner for the NYC Parks Department and currently the Senior Vice President and Director of National Programs at The Trust for Public Land.
We discussed a lot of things – the increased use of parks in the era of COVID-19, the role parks have historically played – and currently play – in citizens’ first amendment right to free speech and protests, access & equity for underserved communities, the coming budget shortfalls and how they might play out in park systems.
I wanted to pull out the discussion we had about funding for parks and share Adrian’s thoughts with all of you, as I think it will be most timely and valuable as we move forward with new budgets and new realities.