May 27, 2009 | General

Teach Them And They Will Come

BioCycle May 2009, Vol. 50, No. 5, p. 45
Climate Change Connections
Sally Brown

URBAN gardening is all the rage. Community gardens, pea patches, eating fresh foods, gardens in schools, local farmers markets – you can read about this in the newspaper just about everyday. Our First Family is even doing this. The most emailed article in the New York Times for several days recently was about the new vegetable garden at the White House. The First Lady is planting a range of vegetables to set an example and to teach her kids how things grow. She let everyone know that she isn’t the only one who will be pulling weeds out there. Our president will be getting some dirt under his nails.
This interest is not just limited to the White House. I have two graduate students who are discovering a greenish tinge to their thumbs. One had her first successful zucchini plant and the other is deciding what potato cultivars to plant. The big trend in Seattle is parking strip gardens. I try not to steal raspberries when I walk the dog, and never let her pee on the lettuce.
Growing local is not a new idea, just a forgotten one. Victory Gardens in World War II supplied about 40 percent of our nation’s fruits and vegetables. My mother remembers going out at night in Brooklyn with her mom to collect horse manure from the street for the garden. In a previous column, I listed all the things that we used to grow. What I didn’t mention was that in later years, my mom started burying her food waste. This was after I had started grad school and learned about soils and organics. This gave her excellent soil as well as a whole surprise crop of cherry tomatoes every summer.
Growing your own or eating locally offers a wide range of benefits. Better nutrition, lower transportation costs, and even reduced carbon emissions for local rather than industrial agriculture. But since my mom went out to collect manure, a lot of basic knowledge about how to grow things and the importance of soil health in growing things has been lost.

Our traditional source of information on soils has been the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and County Extension Agents. The NRCS was formed after the dustbowl to teach farmers how to farm and conserve soils. The Extension Service was developed as part of the land grant system of universities, and has been used as a model to understand how to communicate information. The problem with the Extension Service is that its efforts have largely been focused on large-scale farming and most urban gardeners don’t even know what it is. There is a good possibility that most urban residents couldn’t really tell you what soil is – not to mention why you can’t grow lemons in New York City.
This leaves a vacuum as well as an opportunity. Those soils in urban areas are nutrient poor, highly compacted and low in organic matter. What is the answer? Compost or other organic soil amendments. How can you make those? Using residuals generated in the very cities that need them. How can you sell them? By teaching people what an enormous difference organics make for growing plants. Not how they are safe (though you can mention that as well) but about what they do for soil tilth, how they can build a healthy soil so quickly and how important healthy soil is to growing food. And while you are talking, you could mention the fact that research is showing between 0.5 to 1.5 tons of CO2 is sequestered for each ton of compost used.
If compost purveyors seize this opportunity and provide the educational materials, the demonstration gardens and the first bag free, it will be very easy to build a customer base. Filling a vacuum is another way to describe this process. And once you teach a few and get them to start using the composts, their neighbors will start to ask where they can get some of that stuff. My grad student Kristen – whose goal in life is to get everyone to grow their own food – has now arranged two deliveries of Tagro, the Class A biosolids soil product from the City of Tacoma, Washington, to professors on her committee who live in Seattle. They saw her garden pictures, heard her talk. One got 3 yards and the other got 6 (his second delivery).
But I am forgetting a really important step. First you have to collect the organics to make the compost. (Not everyone will have a backyard garden to bury their own food scraps or have a Class A soil product.) Food waste collection is one of the big last hurdles to overcome to make this all work. Food waste bins (as I assured one of my neighbors the other night) are not rat magnets. If you get compostable plastic bags, you can even just tie up that bag of food waste and throw it right in the yard waste bin here in Seattle. People in Seattle pride themselves in being a little ahead. But other cities are doing this too, and surviving. Rats are not invading Alameda County in California, or Portland, Oregon. The sky is not falling in. We even had a sunny day here today.
Teaching people takes time but people are ready to learn. People are ready to learn about soil and growing their own. With the proper instructions, they are even ready to learn about putting food waste in the yard waste bin. Not every one will get it right the first try or the first collection. But if municipalities fill some vacuums for soil education and organics diversion, there will start being a lot of very delicious tomatoes around.
Sally Brown – Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – is a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board, and authors this regular column on the connections of composting, organics recycling and renewable energy to climate change. Email Dr. Brown at

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