Photo credit: Ben Hider
Urban agriculture comes in many shapes and sizes: raised beds, a windowsill, stoops, and even rooftops are all possible venues. Improving each of these set-ups is site-specific though, and we have some resources to help.
At New York Restoration Project, we own and help operate over 50 community gardens throughout the five boroughs. We’ve also helped build over 300 gardens for local partners at schools, nursing homes, harm reduction centers, and elsewhere as part of our Gardens for the City program. Designing and operating thriving gardens in unique urban environments—lawns, balconies, decks, courtyards, you name it—is one of our specialties.
Below are some resources we use on a regular basis. Some are New York City-specific, but in general, many of the following ideas are still relevant no matter where you live or your set-up. Here’s what our in-house experts Jason Sheets, Director of Horticulture and Citywide Greening Projects, and Simon Skinner, Senior Director of Operations, recommend:
- Comprehensive how-to guides: It’s always good to have an all-purpose, region-specific manual for detailed questions. These guides usually provide a starting point for further exploration and can help growers get a sense of the bigger picture of how different garden elements—light, water, seeds, soil, temperature, and so on—work together. We recommend Cornell Small Farms Program, GrowNYC, and The New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman.
- Community partners and grants: If you haven’t already, get to know the organizations in your area that specialize in urban ag, whether with education and outreach, or sometimes even with funding. For those interested in urban agriculture in NYC, we recommend our own Gardens for the City program, GrowNYC, NYC Parks GreenThumb, and Brooklyn Queens Land Trust.
- Clean Soil Bank: One of the best resources we have in New York City is the Clean Soil Bank. A service of the City’s Office of Environmental Remediation, and in their own words, the soil bank “recycles clean native soil from deep excavations at construction sites to other NYC construction sites, both public and private, that need it. The soil is free except for the cost of trucking it between sites.” For our gardens, we use a 1:1 Clean Soil Bank soil-to-compost ratio for our raised beds and get great results. Learn more here.
- Free compost: Speaking of compost, if you’re not making your own, then there are several organizations in New York City that give it away for free. COVID-19 policies may have affected some of these services, but in general we recommend checking out East New York Farms!, Gowanus Canal Conservancy, Lower East Side Ecology Center, and GrowNYC for starters.
- Soil testing: It’s always important to know what’s in your soil, and especially in an urban environment. Basic nutrient tests are available at most gardening centers but for heavy metals like lead, you’ll need to send a soil sample to a lab. In New York, consider Brooklyn College or the Cornell Agriculture Extension.
- Crop planning: This is more of just a general tip, but remember to plan your plantings in advance to optimize space, varieties, seasonality, irrigation needs, and your growing season in general. This is where that all-purpose manual could come in handy again!
- Integrated pest management: Another important part of urban ag is getting to know your pests. Integrated pest management is a holistic design approach that helps protect crops against these critters without using harmful chemicals or other intensive means. For New York, we recommend Cornell’s resources. Not finding the answer to the exact question you’re asking? You can always email them, too.