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Urban agriculture is more than stocking refrigerator
Kentucky Correspondent

PLEASUREVILLE, Ky. — Many of us over the age of 40 remember backyard gardens our parents or grandparents raised in order to put fresh produce on the table and to share with family and neighbors.

What is now called “urban agriculture” has been around longer than most people think, and it has taken on more meaning than just stocking the refrigerator.

City gardens can relate to a multitude of different produce and plants from flower gardens in and around the house to herb gardens to the traditional and popular vegetable gardens complete with tomatoes and beans.

City gardens are so plentiful, it is estimated that 30 percent of agricultural production in the United States originates from within metropolitan areas - and up to 15 percent throughout the world, according to the Urban Agriculture Network.

For those of us in this country, it is more of a novelty; something to do as a hobby or as a supplement. For those in other countries, though, a backyard or community garden may be a sole means of food due to economic or socio-economic hardships.

Jac Smit, president of the Urban Agriculture Network and co-author of Urban Agriculture: Food, Jobs, and Sustainable Cities, said the history of urban agriculture can be traced back to the Euphrates River in 3800 B.C. in what is now Iraq, due to changes in the weather.

“It was driven by a climate change. The reliable rainfall of the previous 6,000 years (from 10,000 to 4,000 BC) came to an end. Farmers moved closer to the riverbanks and into fewer larger settlements. As the dryer times continued, the previous centuries’ irrigation was improved and - with warmer days and longer seasons - two or more crops were produced per year,” Smit wrote in an article that appeared on the City Farmer website earlier this month.

No matter the start, the evidence of city or backyard gardening’s popularity can be seen on many streets in many towns and cities across America.

One of Kentucky’s most popular gardeners is Jon Carloftis, who makes a living with and has become quite famous for his rooftop gardens in New York City. Carloftis, a native of Rockcastle County, got his inspiration from simple times as a child and from his father.

“We didn’t have a telephone until 1969, a television until 1985 and no public water until the 1990s,” he said. “Thank goodness we didn’t, that’s how I learned about plants and trees. We (he is one of six children) were always outside, and my Daddy would tell me what the trees were. Gardening became my hobby then.”

His work has been displayed in publications such as Southern Living and Martha Stewart Living.

Backyard vegetables
John Perkins of Pleasureville is another Kentucky gardener - though not nearly as famous as Carloftis. His backyard vegetable technique has provided many meals not only in harvest time but also throughout the year.

“I freeze a lot of the things I grow to have later in the year. I have fresh corn at Thanksgiving,” he said. “This year I grew asparagus, corn and tomatoes mostly. I do have a watermelon patch and blackberries too. Gardening is a hobby for me, but I grow enough that I don’t have to buy any vegetables during the summer.”

Perkins got his knowledge and love of gardening from his father as well.

“My folks always had a garden. My Dad was a Methodist minister, and we moved around a lot,” he said. “But anywhere we lived, we found someone in the congregation who let him have a place to raise a garden.”

The University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service website offers assistance to gardeners. Some of the suggestions listed there when planning a garden are:

•Plan a garden on paper before starting

•Select a good gardening site that is in full sun for at least eight hours each day, relatively level, well-drained, close to a water source, and not shaded

•Prepare the soil properly and add fertilizer and lime according to soil test recommendations

•Plan only as large a garden as you can easily maintain

•Beginning gardeners often over-plant, and then they fail because they cannot keep up with the tasks required

•Weeds and pests must be controlled, water applied when needed and harvesting done on time.

•Vegetables harvested at their peak are tasty, but when left on the plants too long, the flavor is simply not there

•Grow vegetables that will produce the maximum amount of food in the space available

•Plant during the correct season for the crop

•Choose varieties recommended for the region

•Harvest vegetables at their proper stage of maturity, and store them promptly and properly if you do not use them immediately

While it seems early to plan a new garden for next year, dedicated practitioners work year round on their gardens whether it is with fall crops or compost for next spring. Gardening is a year-round activity for many, right out their back door.

“Gardening is akin to magic, but it’s the most real thing I know,” said Perkins. “It amazes me to put a small seed in the ground and see what it produces.”

For more information on home gardening visit the UK website at

This farm news was published in the August 23, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.