Friday, September 28, 2012

Photo Friday - Denver Learning Cube

This is an old one, but new to me (& I hope to you). A student design-build project by a University of Colorado Denver architecture studio, the urban farm structure is built of recycled shipping pallets and gabion walls of recycled concrete. The structure serves as a gathering space, iconic entry way, and milking barn for FEED Denver, a non-profit educational urban farm. The transformation of reclaimed utilitarian building materials into a floating modern pavilion is remarkable without being overwrought, and an object lesson in revaluing throw-away materials. The students' goal was to "generate public awareness about design and architecture by constructing unique and functional places" - one I would say they have met. You can read more about the studio and see drawings here.

photo credits (top to bottom): uncredited via; Nathan Jenkins via; uncredited via; Nathan Jenkins via, 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Learning from the Harvest - at The Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems

[View across the farm fields to the ocean at CASFS]
Nothing beats experience for learning a thing. In this case I mean 'hands-in-the-soil, dirt-on-my-knees, sun-on-my-head, filling-up-wheelbarrows' experience. I've visited dozens of working farms, rural and urban, interviewing farmers, touring the grounds, taking notes. But working the harvest for a morning at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) at U.C. Santa Cruz brought it all home in a way I hadn't gotten before. 

One of the biggest challenges in being involved with an ag-design project is all the unknown program elements - what will the growers need (besides the fields) to get a harvest to market? Or plant a harvest? By going through the process of a harvest with the farmers and student farmers I more clearly understood what the parts are, what they are used for, how long it takes, how many people are needed. Below I share in pictures the harvest process. 

CASFS is located on two facilities on the U.C. Santa Cruz campus: a 25-acre farm that uses both hand and machine-growing methods, houses students, hosts a CSA, propagates starts, and runs several children's camps and after-school programs; and the 3-acre Chadwick Garden, a riotous mix of orchard trees, flowering perennials and native plants. A year-long apprentice program trains student farmers in the theory and practice of sustainable farming, and graduates can be found at Pie Ranch, The Garden Project and Live Earth Farm among many other great places. Students rotate between the hand-garden, the farm, the greenhouse and the Chadwick Garden during their year. 

On Friday mornings, the farm harvests produce and flowers for their CSA members and the farm stand. After gathering for an all-hands meeting in which the quantities and types of items to be harvested were reviewed, we washed our hands and headed to the fields. First up for me was strawberries, which we picked warm and bright and placed directly into berry baskets already loaded in cardboard flats. Once a flat was full it was brought to the shade and I headed back out with empty baskets. Next up was beets, which gave easily from the rich earth, shedding their dusty cover. Five or six were bunched together with the greens, tied and loaded in a wheelbarrow. As we picked we pulled weeds and talked, the work moving in a pleasant rhythm under a warm sun. The CASFS farm sits on a ridge with a view to the ocean, and breezes stir the air, so even though it was mid-July the heat was not oppressive. When we had picked as many bunches as were needed, we returned the wheelbarrows to the shed, where a crew was dedicated to washing produce. Last stop for the morning was blueberries. Ducking under the netting into an array of different species of bushes, I began to pick. And pick. And pick. Certainly the most time-consuming of my tasks, each berry had to be checked for ripeness, and berries were slow to fill my small bucket. After a couple hours we had enough for the CSA and market stand, and after washing and sorting ourselves, we measured the fruit into paper baskets and brought them back to the shed. 

The shed had transformed with the work of the morning and now boxes of produce and bouquets of flowers stood stacked ready to go to the market stand, and CSA boxes waited to be moved to the distribution site. Harvest was over, and the crew of students, farmers and me moved to the dining room to share a communal meal of flatbread, hummus, beet salad and orzo with kale that had been prepared by a student kitchen crew.   Talking with the students over lunch I met people from a range of backgrounds - environmental science, biology, architecture - with a range of goals - from establishing urban agriculture projects to farming for themselves. 

And now we are lucky to have a recent graduate of the program contributing to Grow City - check out our About page for more on Dan Tran.

[The packing shed, with tables for sorting, and storage for crates, flats and baskets. At the far end are walk-in coolers for highly perishable items, and behind me is a shed with more supplies and a wash station.]

[The day's plan - in types and quantities needed - is laid out on a blackboard. Items are checked off when done.]  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Farm Metrics: Strawberry (Fragraria)

In honor of the summer's end, this post considers one of the jewels of summer fruit: the strawberry. Pablito of Terra Firma Farm describes how modern and traditional strawberry growing practices compare below. I'll just add that this summer I worked the harvest one morning at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) farm in Santa Cruz, and one of our first tasks was the strawberry rows. I didn't count at the time but my memory is that about eight of us worked for an hour to fill 120 of those cute little green baskets to the brim with warm, bright, red fruit. That was one of my favorite hours ever. I'll write more about CASFS next week. 


Like most berries, strawberries growing in the wild are perennials -- plants that grow in the same place year after year.  And for centuries, farmers and gardeners who grew strawberries treated them this way.  They were planted and grown for a year and a half before bearing any fruit, then harvested for two or three years.   At any given time, a berry grower might have had two strawberry fields on their farm at the same time -- one that was producing and another that hadn't started yet.  Strawberries make this fairly easy for farmers by producing "daughter plants" on runners that need to be removed in order to improve fruit production.  In the old days, growers would simply cut the daughters off and then plant them in a new field.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Urban Agriculture - ASLA Awards 2012

The recently announced design and planning awards by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) for 2012 honor a spectrum of work, as varied as the field itself. Included among the civic plazas, backyard gardens and campus long-term plans are a handful of urban agriculture projects. 

In the General Design Category an Honor Award went to Lafayette Greens in Detroit, by the office of Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture. Almost a 1/2 acre, the community garden is a corporate sponsored greening of downtown, and by all accounts, a welcomed public space. Orderly rows of raised, steel planting beds are bisected with playful diagonals, and colorful site furniture and imaginative tool sheds add to the sophistication of design. It doesn't bear much resemblance to typical ramshackle community gardens, built of available materials and volunteer labor. Which is what makes it so exciting. Clients often want to include an ag component in a project but worry it will look messy, or homemade. Projects like Lafayette Greens prove that, like any garden, the final aesthetic is up to the designer, the client - and the budget. 

The project also addresses crucial site planning and design elements of the urban landscape, such as shade and wind studies, and integrated stormwater management. Read more about it on the Award website

[Lafayette Greens, Detroit, MI - photo  and plan via]

An Honor award in the Analysis and Planning Category went to 'Nanhu: Farm Town in the Big City' by SWA Group San Francisco. This master plan for a new community in Jiaxing, China integrates farmland, parks, 'villages' and the existing canal network to create an integrated agricultural community proposal. One of the most interesting parts of the plan is the acknowledgment of multiple scales of agriculture that might operate in a comprehensive plan: organic market farms, traditional family farms, eco-tourism farms and 'garden parkland' - a mix of public community gardens, markets and orchards. 

[Image from Nanhu:Farm Town in the Big City, via]

Finally one project won an Honor Award in the Research category. 'Productive Neighborhoods' by Berger Partnership is a comprehensive review of the state of urban agriculture in Seattle. Surveying private residential gardens, public community gardens and commercial farms, the report collects valuable metrics to add designers in planning for urban agriculture at different scales. 

"As designers we understand the value of urban farming but acknowledge there are complexities not yet understood for creating a successful commercial farm and an ├╝ber local food source. In order to document and understand {the wide range of relationships between food destination, land ownership and workforce management}, we divided the case studies into three distinct typologies: residential, community and commercial. For each typology (we) researched a number of factors including the annual crops produced in pounds of food, how crops are distributed, startup cost and funding resources, total square footage of land, number of workers and the estimated time it takes to farm the site."

[Case Study diagram from 'Productive Neighborhood' - via]

In the Student Awards, three projects with agricultural program or elements were honored: 'Desert Farming Moisturizer' is a residential community plan integrated with organic agriculture and productive landscapes in arid New Mexico; 'Asylum Air Pupa' creates a vegetal shelter for low-income petitioners in Beijing, China and integrates the growing of produce as an element of the shelter; and 'Off the Reservation' re-examines current agricultural water use (among other elements) on the Fort Yuma reservation through the lens of Quechan Indian traditions. Overall a very cool collection of projects, contributing to the overall dialogue and knowledge base of landscape agriculture.