Five years ago, my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I partnered with another couple, friends, to lease two small garden plots in the midst of Clifton Park Golf Course as part of Baltimore’s City Farms program. To date, we’ve grown potatoes, tomatoes, okra, peas, corn, strawberries, watermelon, garlic, Swiss chard, arugula, multiple lettuces, green beans, eggplant, green peppers and other veggies and fruits that I’ve temporarily forgotten—some (beets) wholesale successes, others (broccoli) miserable failures.
We added a third garden plot two seasons ago, and the gardening hierarchy has evolved (or devolved) into our industrious friend Jowita as visionary/architect/ planter/mulcher/all-around doer; her husband, Chad, as early-season heavy-duty laborer/builder; and me as Jowita’s majordomo, mostly watering and weeding. (My wife, Betsy, overwhelmed with non-garden-variety work, so to speak, serves as our taste tester.)
A complete gardening neophyte when we started this endeavor, I’m only marginally smarter about its whys and wherefores now, but to my utter surprise, my lifelong disinterest in any form of “earth” work has been supplanted by a genuine appreciation for growing things, especially tasty things that you can put in a salad or stir-fry mere hours after harvesting them. More surprisingly, I actually have experienced the mythical Zen of gardening—or, in my case, urban farming—that ineffable sensation of standing or squatting in the late-afternoon/early-evening light as I water or weed, letting the outside world’s mayhem melt away.
If we ever decide to expand our modest operation and grow on a commercial level, we know who to tap as a guide: Curtis Stone, who, over the past seven years, has turned less than a half acre of leased land in the small city of Kelowna, British Columbia, into a $75K field of dreams-come-true. Along the way, he made tons of mistakes, learned from them and has distilled the entire process into The Urban Farmer: Growing Food for Profit on Leased and Borrowed Land (New Society Publishers).
The book leaves—forgive me—no stone or spadeful of earth unturned in this highly readable manifesto, which details everything pertinent to urban farming: finding the right site, choosing the most saleable crops (kale, carrots, radishes, tomatoes), establishing a market stream (nearby farm-to-table restaurants, farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture), planting, harvesting, promotion, labor (suggestion: trade veggies for friends’ assistance), tools, and on and on and on.
Not surprisingly, Stone farms organically, champions environmentalism and places his activities in a socially conscious context: The urban farming brigade can rescue/repurpose millions of acres of unused land. Mercifully, he does not proselytize. Sure, he wants you to eat your vegetables, but he wants you to sell them, too. Ultimately, he hopes to show you “a better way to farm,” as he terms it, “where you can achieve a lifestyle that is personally sustainable and economically profitable.”
While the tomatoes in our wee garden grow bountifully—and tastily—each August and September, no one would describe them as, hmmm, epic. Craig LeHoullier probably would consider this a tragic shortcoming. LeHoullier cherishes tomatoes. Treasures them. Especially heirloom tomatoes. A Raleigh, N.C.-based tomato advisor for the nonprofit group Seed Savers Exchange (which collects, grows and shares heirloom seeds and plants), LeHoullier has “trialed” (garden-speak for testing and evaluating) in excess of 1,200 varieties of tomatoes and helped midwife into the greater tomato universe 100-plus forgotten or previously obscure varieties, notably Cherokee Purple and Anna Russian.
In his lavishly illustrated Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time (Storey Publishing)—bursting with coffee-table beautiful photography and design—LeHoullier traces the origins of the contemporary tomato; dispenses useful planning, planting, growing, maintaining, caring, breeding and, not least, harvesting tips; rhapsodizes over his 10 “tastiest” (Polish, Nepal, Mexico Midget, among others); and recommends 250 sundry varieties that come in a dizzying array of flavors, sizes, shapes and colors.
His original interest in tomatoes has become a true-believer’s obsession, one he imparts to others “so that everyone who has the desire to grow and taste a tomato can do so … to demonstrate what a culinary marvel a tomato can be.”