Malcolm McDowell Woods

The rise of the new urban agrarian

By - May 26th, 2010 04:00 am
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Children from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, D.C. help first lady Michelle Obama plant the White House vegetable garden, April 9, 2009. Many of us are following suit. Official White House photo by Samantha Appleton.

By Natalie Wysong

The first lady tears up a section of the White House lawn to plant a vegetable garden. The garden becomes the object of both praise and criticism, and inspires a home gardening movement that sweeps the nation.

Sound familiar? The first time this happened the first lady was, of course, Eleanor Roosevelt and the year was 1943. The Victory Garden movement, which started in England during World War I and spread to the US during World War II, inspired Americans to tend more than 20 million home gardens, which produced 40 percent of the fruit, vegetables and herbs eaten in the United States. During the war, a shortage of agricultural workers led to a tight food supply and high food prices. Encouraging home gardeners to grow their own food relieved these pressures, ensuring that more resources could go toward the war effort.

Today, food activists such as Michael Pollan and foodie Mark Bittman warn that our current agricultural and food delivery systems are not sustainable because of their heavy petroleum use. They raise concerns about the chemicals used in growing crops and the way our food is transported across the country and across national borders.

Researchers believe that much of our nation’s ill health is linked to a lack of sound nutrition, along with a lack of exercise. Consumers are concerned about how their food is grown and harvested and want to be more connected to the process.

Political and economic concerns, however, are not the only reasons that people garden. You don’t have to be an activist to prefer the taste and texture of a homegrown tomato. More and more, Milwaukee home owners and renters are taking a look around their yards and throughout their communities for small, sunny spots to grow vegetables, many of them for the first time.

Milwaukee-area resident Nora Lahl is one of the people convinced that home gardening is the right thing for herself and for the planet, but admits she needs a little guidance. She and her husband bought a house last summer, and quickly put in a few tomato plants. Inspired by her sister-in-law, who has an urban garden in Chicago, Lahl is making a bigger commitment this year. “I saw how much enjoyment it gave her,” says Lahl, “and wanted that myself.”

Lahl is taking a 10-week class offered by Bay View Hide House Community Garden and plans to install a single raised bed for tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, zucchini and broccoli this year. “The class makes it so much less overwhelming,” says Lahl, who is also concerned with finding enough time to get into the garden.

A self-proclaimed green thumb, Scott Belanger of Milwaukee is renting a community garden plot in Bay View. He has some experience growing vegetables, although the 4×8′ area he is planting is bigger than his previous gardens. Belanger uses the “square foot gardening” method, which allows a small, well defined and intensively planted area to yield a variety of produce.

The key to successful gardening, says Belanger, is to “plant what you eat, and what grows where you live.” This season, he will be growing cucumbers and two varieties of tomatoes, which he will work up a trellis at the back of the garden, leaving room for other crops, including potatoes and bush beans. One of Belanger’s favorite resources is the UW-Extension website, which he says is “unbelievably valuable! It’s loaded with excellent information.” He has referred to the site to get information on all the vegetables he’s growing this year, using it to find planting and cultivar information that is specific to Wisconsin.


Expert advice
Turning a lawn or other unused space into a productive vegetable bed is daunting. Gretchen Mead of the Victory Garden Initiative is a veteran of the garden scene in Shorewood, and suggests that new gardeners start small.

“Getting started is overwhelming, but it becomes much more intuitive. I see people over-planning. They are overwhelmed by too much information, like rotating crops. Just think of the foods you like to eat and plant them. Once you start watching the plants grow, you can buy the books.”

For a home garden, Mead recommends beginning with a 4×8′ raised bed and delivery of one cubic yard of soil. If that commitment seems too large, Mead advises adding compost to existing flowerbeds and simply tucking in edibles, like tomatoes and basil, among the plants.

Since most urban gardeners have a limited area for growing food, Sharon Morrisey of the UW-Extension Master Gardener program, offers several tips for getting the most garden out of a tight space, including choosing vegetables that can be harvested more than once, such as broccoli and pole beans.

To make the most efficient use of small space, gardeners should familiarize themselves with the planting date and days-to-maturity of the vegetable they’re planting. “Knowing what to plant when is the crux of vegetable gardening,” she says.

Spring planting is determined by the average frost-free date, which is the first week of May in metro Milwaukee. To maximize space, Morrisey recommends interplanting vegetables that get large and mature later, like broccoli or cabbage, with more quickly maturing crops, like lettuce or radishes. “The broccoli is going to get big, but it grows slowly. In the meantime, grow other things between the plants. By the time the broccoli is big, the lettuce will be finished,” says Morrisey. Another way to efficiently use space is to grow two different crops, one after the other, in the same space.

Like many first time gardeners, Lahl is still a little nervous about her new role, whereas Belanger, who has done this before, is less worried about failure. “It’s trial and error,” he says. “I plant what I like and give that a shot.”

When she needs advice, Lahl turns to the people at her local community garden for help and advises beginners to find a similar group for support. She also takes pride in being part of an important trend: “It helps to know you’re part of a movement, you’re being part of sustainable agriculture.”

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0 thoughts on “The rise of the new urban agrarian”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The move to utilizing the wisdom of our more agrarian roots has been spurred by a many people that understand it will be a necessity in the near future. This (White House garden) was simply a political appeal reacting to a movement already in full swing, not an act that spurred a movement. I wonder how much gardening Mrs. Obama has done other than ensuring paid landscapers are managing the look of the garden.

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