The Quintessential Black Farmer: Preparing the garden

Weeding the urban garden plot

by Kirtrina Baxter

Today I decided to prep the garden for my spring planting. This will be my first official private food garden. I have grown lots of food in many places over the years, but never have I had the sole responsibility of growing food myself. Last year in I built an herb spiral in my backyard in Ithaca that grew well and I was able to harvest from, and I’ve grown herbs in the past on my own. I also put in a raised bed last year, but was too busy working on other projects to actually grow anything. Over the past 14 years I have participated with neighbors on community gardens, grown veggies at a few friend’s houses and helped grow produce and flowers at farms. However, this is my first very own food garden and I am totally excited. It is ironic that I lived in the country for 8 years and had to come back to the city to grow food, but I am up for the challenge and really excited to be urban gardening again.

While looking for a house in Philadelphia I had 3 priorities: lots of windows and sunlight; large closets; and a kitchen with lots of counter space. But I attached to this list a desire to have a small place to grow food. I figured, it was the city, and I didn’t want to expect too much. Well, I got everything I asked for and more. Not only do I have lots of light, closet and kitchen space, but my little backyard is actually a nice-sized garden plot. AWESOME!! I don’t need a bunch of trees and grass, although that is nice, as long as I can place my hands in some dirt and come up green!

The realtor who showed me the place said that it was set up as a garden, though no other tenant had used it as such. At first look, it seemed my 2 adjacent neighbors, who have the same lot as mine, could be gardeners as well. One had what seemed to be a rock garden, and the other had filled her space with rock mulch. To my surprise, when I met my neighbor with the rock garden (or so I thought) she told me that the women who lived here before me grew lots of veggies the last two seasons and that she too was planning on growing some this year. She had a bad case of moles two years previous and decided to do an overhaul of her space, hence the covered backyard and the large rounded rocks that were just placed there to keep the covering down.

My neighborhood, Brewerytown, has a rich African American history and actually hosts the former home of the late great John Coltrane. As one of the city’s most promising revitalization projects, it claims to be the next “up & coming” neighborhood in the city with new restaurants, condos and a vibrant community garden not too far from my home at a recreation center. However, as anyone who knows Philadelphia will tell you, it is the not the neighborhood that defines a great place to live, but the block. And by far I have a wonderful block. Houses are nicely kept, we have a small community center at one end of the block where community meetings are held, and there is a children’s playground and basketball court at the other end. We even boast an active block association.

Materials for a soil acidity test

So as I ponder what to grow and the layout of my garden, I have been utilizing some of the wonderful websites that I have found geared towards urban gardeners. There is a wonderful gardener and teacher out of Atlanta, who has a host of information on his website. He has podcasts and demonstrative Youtube videos for the beginner to the experienced gardener. Listening to one of his podcasts, I was instructed in a little known secret of how to test the acidity levels in soil with uncomplicated home utensils: soil, vinegar and a teacup. He also had a great home application for doing a soil fractional analysis. Both of these I tried out today and found that I have a pretty balanced alkaline/acid level in my soil and it is more sandy than clay. Did I mention that I have also decided to do some basement vericomposting? Well, this gardener has a video of how to start basement vermiculture with instructions so easy anyone could do it. Look forward to hearing more about that soon, too, as I will share with you pictures on the progress of my garden project.

Til next time,