Summer Guide 2009: The Scene's food critic gets a taste of urban agriculture 

If you'd asked us last week, we'd have said our summer plans in Nashville were likely to involve hip waders, full-body mosquito netting and perhaps an ark. The mosquitoes are here to stay, alas—but the skies have cleared, the last chill of dogwood winter has migrated north, and it's time to bust out the bathing suits, the bicycle helmets and the backyard torches.

That means it's also time for the Scene's annual Summer Guide. This summer, with the economy bobbing just above the storm drain, we take solace and strength from the joys of fresh air, homegrown food and the feel of dirt beneath our nails—with, yeah, the extra (and in Davidson County, extra-legal) attraction of bombs bursting in air. And for a bigger bang still, we gathered a blazing group of swimsuit models that includes some of the city's hottest artists, athletes and scene-makers.

Nashville, your summer just officially started. Read on.

Warm weather always draws me into the yard, trowel in hand, with hopes of cultivating a few perennials, beautifying the yard and enjoying the sunshine along the way. This year, for several reasons—including a feeling of helplessness during last fall's gas crisis—I traded the trowel for shovel and pitchfork and set about transforming my less-than-a-quarter-acre property into a farmlet. The goal: Grow as much food as possible on my urban property. The challenges: Shortage of arable land, shortage of sunlight and—well, my husband, who is happy enough to embody only one half of the Jeffersonian ideal of gentleman farmer. Here's how the project is going—so far.

Chapter 1: The Site Evaluation It is late March in my practically non-existent backyard, where precious little sun pierces the canopy of my neighbors' trees, where the soil can best be described as construction fill, and where I am determined to grow food. After last year's failed attempt to nurture produce on my shady quarter-acre, I decided to call in professionals.

Enter Marcus Kerske and Peter Anderson of Gardens of Babylon and the Personal Farmer. I explain to Marcus and Peter that, first and foremost, I want to teach my kids that vegetables come from the earth. I'd like to grow food to cook and share with neighbors and possibly even save a little money along the way.

Off the top of their heads, Peter and Marcus suggest we start with a "pizza garden," with onions, garlic, chives and scallions and a patch of salad greens in the shadier beds. We consider blueberry bushes and herbs in the lone sunny patch, and we discuss composting, a hoop house and raised beds. Marcus hints at chickens. Clearly, Marcus has not met my husband.

The most intriguing part of the plan to turn my property into an urban farmlet is the Great Wall of Corn—a proposed cornfield in the sunny planting strip between the sidewalk and the street. I don't know how my neighbors are going to like it, much less my husband. A friend advises me that "corn is for the back 80." Unfortunately, my back 80 is in the middle of I-440.

Chapter 2: Baby Steps and Blueberries
>Step one of the Fox Farm project is to plant three Rabbiteye blueberry bushes of the Climax cultivar ($17 each), which require full sun and will grow up to 8 feet high and 6 feet wide. Right now, they're very spindly and barely thigh-high on a short person. I read that a mature Rabbiteye can yield 15 pounds. I'll believe that when I see it. In the meantime, my children have named them. Mr. Berry is the largest.

Blueberries currently trade at the store for about $15 a pound. If Mr. Berry and friends eventually deliver even a small fraction of the maximum yield, they'll more than earn their keep.

Chapter 3: Preparing for the Salad Days
I first encountered arugula about 15 years ago, while sharing living quarters with a Cordon Bleu-trained chef whose idea of culinary heaven was roasted chicken and salad of arugula tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and a scant shaving of Parmesan. Served al fresco with a cheap bottle of ice-cold white, it was summertime perfection. As a Londoner, she referred to arugula as "rocket," and she swore it was mildly addictive and would make our boobs grow. We ate a lot of arugula.

I can't say the endless salad made me any more buxom, but I can vouch for arugula's being addictive. I've been hooked on its mustardy tang ever since.

I put out the arugula seeds in mid-April, along with a medley of salad greens and some basil and cilantro. After a few generous days of rain, the tiniest of heart-shaped leaves are popping out of the ground in crooked rows. I like to think they are scouting for roast chicken and $6 chardonnay.

It remains to be seen whether I will win my bid to build a chicken coop in the backyard, but there's no shortage of cheap wine in the Fox farmhouse fridge. When the arugula's ready in a couple of weeks, I'll be standing by.

Chapter 4: Too-Green Grass
Before I get too far along with my farmlet, I thought I'd better check with my lawn service to find out just how toxic the soil is after they've pumped two years' worth of fertilizer, pre-emergent and weed-killer into my yard.

(At this point, you might be wondering, "Fox, if you're so gung-ho about eking out every square inch of arable land, what the hell are you doing growing grass in the first place?" And herein lies a core challenge of my Urban Farming endeavor: I live in a neighborhood of manicured lawns, with kids who need a soccer field and a husband who would just as soon roll a green shag rug out there if it would look tidy all year long. Plus I'm not willing to euthanize or otherwise dispose of my beloved perennials. No, I'm not launching a radical lawn-less revolution. I just want to grow some food around my house. But I digress.)

I called the lawn service and explained that I was about to put some edible plants in my garden beds, so I wanted to cancel the maintenance in the backyard. No problem, the rep said. He then quoted the new lower price to maintain the front. (So far, this discount represents the first savings from my attempt to provide my own food.)

I asked if I should worry about any residual toxins, and he assured me that nothing in the nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium cocktail was harmful. Something about EPA standards, he said. Wouldn't hurt a fly.

When I explained that my real concern was if I were to put chickens on the grass, he said he usually just keeps his puppy inside for the first 30 minutes after his own lawn gets treated. (Unless he has the world's first grass-powered puppy, that's hardly a relevant comparison, since my hypothetical brood would actually feed on the grass.) In any case, he said, the residuals should be gone after five or six weeks, which means—given the recent rains—that my lawn is almost already clean.

Before I hung up, I asked if there was any sort of organic lawn care he could offer me. "Yes," he said, with a tone that implied, "but you're not gonna like it." For twice as much money, I could have the lawn fertilized with chicken manure. Then he added, "But you'll have plenty of that."

Chapter 5: Meet the Crop Swappers
After all my big talk about raising blueberries, lettuce and chickens, there is still nothing to eat on my less-than-a-quarter-acre property that could be characterized as anything but "garnish." In the dirt patch where I sowed mesclun, it looks as if I am trying to grow mint-flavored dental floss. At best, I could decorate a plate of store-bought food with a pinch of homegrown arugula sprouts.

But no matter what crops ultimately thrive on my farmlet, I think I can already identify the most valuable product of my agricultural efforts. I figured it out when I was perusing Mambu owner Anita Hartel's heirloom tomato starts that she was selling at Marché in East Nashville. That was right after a reader emailed to offer me some chives from her own garden. And right before I went to Bites blogger Nicki Wood's house to inspect her sprawling vegetable beds and scavenge her leftover seedlings of cucumbers, okra and squash.

An unexpected outcome of my Urban Farming project has been my interaction with other growers. Growers—urban and otherwise—apparently like to share. Furthermore, I've had a nice excuse to chat with my neighbors about the proposed Fox Henhouse and the Great Wall of Corn.

With this in mind, I might try to assemble a growers' group next spring. Unlike a garden club, which, best as I can tell, is an excuse to eat chicken salad and swap gossip, we will each pick a crop to sow indoors from seed and then swap starts when it's time to plant. We'll call ourselves The Crop Swappers.

Chapter 6: The Sky's the Limit
Looking around my tightly bound and nearly sunless property for places to grow food, I suddenly know how the architects of New York City must have felt when they tilted their heads back and saw all that real estate up in the sky. As limited as the sunny patches of ground on my urban farm may be, they reach infinitely high, so I've begun planting in three dimensions.

My first step was to replace the petunias in my hanging baskets with strawberries. Migrating from decorative to edible plants means that I need ready access to the baskets for harvesting, so I bought longer chains to lower them to eye level. So far, this strategy has had several benefits:

1. I can inspect my lush fruit plants every time I enter or exit the back door.

2. The red berries are finally out of slugs' way.

3. I am no longer saddled with the chore of dead-heading petunias, which now seems like an inane time-suck and one that I can't believe I bought into previously. Life is too short to dead-head petunias.

I'm now scouring the property for other opportunities to go vertical: window boxes, trellises, Topsy Turveys and more baskets.

Chapter 7: The Great (Unrealized) Wall of Corn
While recently discussing the need to thin my arugula sprouts to about 3 inches on center, Personal Farmer Peter Anderson segued into something that had been eating at him: I wussed out on the Great Wall of Corn. When he and I first spoke, the Great Wall was the centerpiece of my campaign to transform my urban lot into a farm, but no sooner had he drafted a plan to make it happen than I chickened out. I still think it would be an elegant earthwork of Christo-esque proportion, which would poke at the modern custom of banishing agriculture beyond the urban core. Plus, it would look cool, and my neighbors could share in the harvest as they strolled past and picked a few ears. But while there is no one who supports the Great Wall of Corn more than I do, there is no one who opposes it more than my husband, and since I'm conserving my spousal capital for the inevitable battle over raising chickens behind the garage, I've decided to roll over on this issue.

Meanwhile, Peter and Marcus are ready to roll forward with the plan, so I'm trying to help them find someone who's game. If you know anyone who's ready to make a lush and verdant gesture of Urban Farming, please send them my way.

To follow the ongoing saga of Urban Farming, tune into the Scene's food blog, Bites.

Gardens of Babylon and the Personal Farmer offer site evaluations for $35, which is deducted from the cost of services and products purchased. To schedule a site evaluation, call 244-8949.

Email, or call 615-844-9408.


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