The Blooming of Urban Gardening

One of the great marvels of our time is the rapid emergence of urban gardening. A casual stroll about a major city soon reveals signs that the urban jungle is morphing into a luxuriant urban Eden.

Gardens, great and small, sprout on urban rooftops, root in repurposed warehouses, climb up walls, bloom on apartment terraces, and sunbathe on fire escapes. Thriving gardens transform once-desolate city lots and help unite communities. Pansies eagerly wave to passersby from window-boxes.

Farmers’ markets across the city are abuzz with kale connoisseurs, zucchini zealots, and fennel fanciers. To my great surprise, vegetables are suddenly hip, and deservingly so. As a longtime gardening evangelist, color me thrilled.

Since the 1960s, gardening prophets have predicted the coming green explosion in the metropolis. This coming season, we seed folk told ourselves each year, urban baby boomers will morph into baby bloomers.
The transformative moment kept not arriving. The future of gardening in American cities, we japed, was a sleeping green giant no one could wake up: an urban creation myth. It was like waiting for Godot, if Godot were a garden.

Then, 10 or 15 years ago, began a small trickle: a roof garden here, a hydroponic warehouse there, some victory gardens springing up in disused lots, and neighborhood parks. We took notice.

Orders flowed in from urbanites for herbs, vegetables, fruits, and flowers, as if from decades of pent-up demand.

Why not? The garden provides a perfect antidote for urban dwelling: lighting up the city with color, fragrance, flavor, shapely buds, and fruits. In cities where it is hard to see the buildings for the real estate, the garden surprises in new ways, providing a sanctum immune to hype, spokesmodels, or clickbait. That buzz? Visiting bees. In the warp-speed city, gardening is as soothingly low-tech and slow motion as it gets.

Already dark clouds are gathering over the new urban garden, still in its first bloom. They aren’t clouds, in fact, but the shadows cast by predatory developers whose focus is the bottom line, not the bumper crop of swiss chard, who associate chlorophyll with currency, not foliage, and whose ever-higher residential towers siphon sunlight from the city’s gardens.

The jumped-up rents of our nation’s cities may tarnish urban gardening’s golden age. Urban gardening is now in a space race with luxury condos, a green David up against Goliath market forces. The money, if history is our guide, is, unfortunately, on the developers.

It is time to reconsider the urban garden. Fact is, the city is a less than ideal setting for gardens. Besides land costs, complications include logistics (where to produce compost, for instance), deficits of sunlight and water, city lots with tainted soil, and the ongoing flight of the budding upwardly mobile from city neighborhoods to suburbs.

However, for gardening education — the most strategically valuable of all garden trends — the city is sublime. Huge, eager audiences, exquisite exemplary plots at both community and city botanical gardens, and a cornucopia of well-educated horticulturalists and gardeners to teach the beginners. Indeed, nearly every urban public garden is expanding not its gardens, but its education and outreach programs.

So many non-gardeners, so much time. Perhaps the poster children of endangered urban species, such as Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago, hold promise as future models of both the reeducation and renaturalization of a true “nation of gardeners.”

Where have you gone, Aldo Leopold? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

By George Ball, chairman, W. Atlee Burpee & Company, and past president, the American Horticultural Society

This article appeared in the June 28, 2015 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

This entry was posted on Thursday, August 13th, 2015 at 11:27 am and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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