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Hamilton local foods get HUGS from urban garden enthusiasts

Ohio Correspondent

HAMILTON, Ohio — Everyone should have access to nutritional and gardening information, fresh produce and the opportunity to grow their own food. That’s behind why Alfred Hall and Patty Burbacher, at the time an integrative studies senior at Miami University, co-founded Hamilton Urban Garden Systems (HUGS) three years ago.
“We are a conduit to try to build a sustainable local food system – that is, from growing, processing, distributing, helping small cottage home-based food businesses and participating in and running farmers’ markets – anything to try to teach people how to become self sustaining and build cultural and social fabric and economic opportunity,” Hall said.
HUGS evolved after Hamilton Mayor Pat Moeller noticed Hall’s and Burbacher’s garden inside the courtyard of a factory. The mayor asked them to start community gardens.
“I had no idea or inclination to start a business, profit or nonprofit, around it,” Hall said. “It just evolved to that. Somebody saw my community garden and wanted a garden at home. Somebody knew I worked with food, they asked me about the farmers’ market and it just deluged.”
Because space is at a premium for urban gardeners, Hall became a certified Square Foot Gardening (SFG) technique instructor. SFG was begun by Mel Bartholomew, author and host of the PBS series “Square Foot Gardening.” This raised-box method allows a gardener to grow as much as a “row and hoe” gardener in 20 percent of the space, Hall said.
“You take, normally, a 4-foot-by-4-foot box, break it into 1-foot squares,” Hall said. “Then you look at the back of your seed packet and if it says plant every 6 inches, then you can plant four in a 1-foot square. It is a way of compacting your growing into a smaller space.”
Instead of soil Hall uses a mixture of organic fertilizer to provide food for the plants, peat moss for moisture and vermiculite for aeration, and for something for the plants to hold onto. He also grows some plants vertically, up instead of out. He fits a lot of plants into a very small space.
HUGS has a booth at the Hamilton Farmers’ Market, a mobile unit delivering food to consumers, is developing a commercial kitchen and is marketing to local restaurants.
Said Tully Milders, manager of Ryan’s Tavern in Hamilton, “There is no better BLT than one with local sliced tomatoes on top. That not only supports the local farmers in the community, but it improves the quality of everything we do on our menu, whether it be the locally grown cucumbers, the sweet corn or the fried okra. Our fried green tomatoes are amazing here and it is all because of local produce.”
Speaking of Hall and Burbacher, Moeller said, “Their passion is obvious. Over the last few years, urban and school gardens have developed as result of their efforts and leadership. The concept of gardens in public places was nonexistent 10 years ago.
“Hamilton, a town of 63,000, now has gardens at each of its elementary schools. A garden is at the Miami University – Hamilton college campus. Alfred also created a garden on the roof of our downtown municipal garage. There is momentum now to turn former nuisance and blighted sites into garden areas.”