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The joys of urban gardening: A porch garden in Portland produces delicious bounty

Raising your own food has many advantages. Rising gas prices are driving up the cost of food in the markets. The insidious spread of genetic engineering is reducing the safety of that food. The industrialization of agriculture funnels increasing amounts of money into corporate hands, rather than to farmers. These are economic, health-conscious, and political reasons. Less quantifiable but no less real are the emotional and spiritual rewards attained from nurturing seeds or starts into full grown plants that end up on your plate.

Urban gardening presents its own challenges - space, light, uncooperative landlords, etc. i want to share with indymedia readers a few photos and thoughts from my own attempt to grow as much food as possible on a front porch in the middle of the city.
Porch with snap peas climbing up string
Porch with snap peas climbing up string
Close-up of the bountiful peas
Close-up of the bountiful peas
The lovely, sun-dappled interior of the porch
The lovely, sun-dappled interior of the porch
Collard, mizuna, and red dandelion greens - yum!
Collard, mizuna, and red dandelion greens - yum!
These photos are of my porch garden. My landlord allows me only one small raised plot (about 4x8) in the backyard because he wants the rest for his kids and dogs. This is a compromise that i'm willing to make because my landlord actually lives in the same building, so we're sharing this space together. i have no patience, on the other hand, for absentee landlords who won't allow their renters to garden. That's ridiculous. In many other times and societies, it would be criminal to forbid someone to raise their own food. But that's a subject for a different post (or for comments to this one).

So, since that small plot isn't much space, i started a container garden on the front porch to supplement it. Over the course of several months, i collected 5 gallon plastic buckets from a co-op. I drilled holes in the bottom, filled them with soil i bought from a local organic farmers (which was much less expensive than buying soil by the bag), and mixed in casings from a worm composting bin we'd been maintaining in our kitchen for the 9 months previous. i tied strings from the bucket handles to the top of the porch roof, and planted starts in them: snap peas, collards, mizuna, spinach, and red dandelion greens. As the peas grew, they climbed the strings. The greens were happy growing lower down in each of the pots. Within 6 weeks i was harvesting greens, and within 8, peas.

The greens have all started to bolt now. (That's when they send up a long tall shoot from the middle and flower and go to seed. They also stop producing many edible leaves at that point, and the flavor of the remaining ones often changes for the worse.) But the peas are in full-on glory. i can go out there and pick a handful every day. i suppose you could make a great stir-fry with peas like these, but i always just eat them right there, sitting on the bench among all the greenery.

The space has become an almost magically pleasant one to hang out in. The dappled sunlight shimmering through the pea vines is quite beautiful, and it is cool on hot days. Bees and other insects buzz around, and there's even a few worms in some of the buckets. When i water the buckets, the rich smell of wet earth hangs in the air with a sultry presence. The space is both productive and alluring; it nurtures and satiates and enlivens. It has become a tiny oasis in a sea of concrete.

This kind of gardening is not difficult. It just requires dedication. And the tangible and unquantifiable rewards are obvious. My life is definitely better for having this garden in my life.

When the peas are done, cucumbers will take their place, for pickling. i've started those already, from seeds, in another set of buckets, and when they are ready to start climbing, the peas will be about done and the buckets can be swapped out. Here in Cascadia, our long growing season means that you can have two or even three generations of a crop. As food prices rise and global warming makes other parts of the world less habitable, our position here will be a good one. The time is now to start learning self-sufficiency skills like these.

Well Done 27.May.2004 00:52


A very nice accomplishment! You are certainly to be commended for setting an example that we should all follow.

gardens not lawns 27.May.2004 01:16


excellent!! thanks for sharing!
it is unfortunate however that soil in the city is toxic and unfertile. gardening and composting are excellent ways to rejuvinate the ground...

but so is getting rid of cars and dumping the remainder of the worlds pesticides inside the headquarters of monsanto and du pont. cheers! many wishes for a bountiful harvest!

grow your own 27.May.2004 07:57

return to the garden

This is not only beautiful AND edible, I might mention that it also adds privacy. In a world where American's in general have become hopelessly dependent on others, no longer gardening or cooking for themselves...kraft and general mills(curiously initialed GM) have become the only option...YOU are setting a shining example, Thank you!

Next step, grow some extra plant starts and hand them out to passing admirers....

They won't stop growing it, they won't label it...but they can't make us eat it!

peppers 27.May.2004 09:22


any particular type of pepper native to the now portland area? i will soon be moving into a place with a small area in the back to grow a couple things. i love spinach also, do greens in general not need as much sunlight as other foods? grow grow grow, Daily Grind rocks.


Thanks Johnny! 27.May.2004 11:38


Holy shit! Your peas are putting mine to shame. (The slugs have been wreaking havoc in mine, but they must eat too.)

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and pictures. When more of us grow what we need rather than buying it, the world will be much healthier. As you mentioned, the produce one buys in most stores has been trucked in from great distances, compromising freshness and wasting fuel. Also, food grown in giant, faceless agri-corps is growing on dead soil. They dump so much pesticide and herbicide into the soil that it turns a pale gray rather than a rich, loamy black. There are no nutrients for the plants to absorb, so the produce delivered to us from there is full of synthetic fertilizers and lacking in the subtle and nutritious compounds that we crave. Maybe that's why so many Americans are getting fatter -- we keep eating more and more in an effort to satisfy our cravings.

We can also grow medicinal and culinary herbs, as well as bamboo, flowers and other things for crafts. The more we do for ourselves, the more free we are from the capitalist machine. Also, when we grow a garden, we're feeding the birds, insects, rodents and other life that is starved in the suburban wasteland of chemlawns and fruitless foundation shrubs.

One thing to think about when gardening is a sense of balance. It's not necessary to attack every insect or weed you see, because doing so merely perpetuates an lack of balance and hence a cycle of problems. Allowing an ecological web to form in your garden instead is a much more rewarding experience. In my garden, the wasps, lacewings and ladybugs eat the aphids. The snakes, birds and spiders eat the slugs. (The slugs eat my peas.) The many herbs, flowers and vegetables shade the soil and form relationships with each other that reduces the need to weed.

Early in the spring, the slugs fell out of balance with the rest of the ecosystem, probably because I had composted in the vegetable beds all winter, and so they were used to eating there. I could have waited for nature to restore the balance, which she would have done as soon as the snakes and birds discovered the feast, but since they were eating every pea seeding to the ground I decided not to wait. I didn't drag out the slug bait, or even the organic plate of beer. Instead, I walked through the garden every morning and every evening (more often on wet days) and picked off every slug I found. I tossed them into the wild area at the back of the garden, where they now contentedly chew on weeds. This gave my seedlings the chance to grow into plants, and now the slugs merely nibble the lower leaves.

If you don't want them nibbling the lower leaves either, drop a few blades of grass or a torn leaf near the plants you want them to stay away from. Check it in the early morning or at disk, and you will see the slugs flocking to the torn leaf or grass. Rotting leaves give off an aroma they simply can't resist. They'll eat that instead of your plants, and when you find them you can just toss em out of the garden and replace the torn leaf.

I could go on and on.....

Worms Garbage disposal 27.May.2004 13:22


>>>>>illed them with soil i bought from a local organic farmers (which was much less expensive than buying soil by the bag), and mixed in casings from a worm composting bin we'd been maintaining in our kitchen for the 9 months previous.<<<<<

How did you make the worm composting bin for the kitchen? Good idea.

About Vermicomposting 27.May.2004 14:14

Little Wing

Multnomah County Library has a few books on building worm bins. Here's the info for two of them:

Worms Eat My Garbage, by Mary Appelhof (Call number: 639.75 A648w)

The Worm Cafe, by Binet Payne (Call number: 631.875 P346w 1999)

Also, any good, comprehensive book on composting will cover vermicomposting too.


To Sf: greens 27.May.2004 14:19


Sf -- greens generally prefer a bit of shade and can't tolerate much heat. They tend to bolt when the weather gets hot. It's best to grow them in early spring and in the fall. I have some kale and cabbage and broccoli I planted last fall that wintered over (even through our memorable ice storm) that we've been eating on for awhile.

I wish more people could/would garden and get a sense of the miracle of harvesting beautiful organic food from a tiny seed -- and then composting the remains to create soil for more organic food. Talk about being grounded and peaceful! Maybe we could require all politicians to grow their own food.


Want To Trade Starts? 27.May.2004 15:07

Food Not Lawns

I have some extra tomato starts that I would love to trade for other starts. They are oraganic. I have 5-8 containers and all containers have at least 2 (some many more) tomato plants in them. They are easy to seperate. Not sure of the varities but I remember planting cherry, yellow pear and a couple of heirlooms. May or maynot be those types. Anyone interested in trading please let me know.

I have always thought that gardens instead of lawns is a great idea. I am slowly adding edibles around my yard such as blueberry bushes, artichokes, strawberries and other perennials. I tend to lean more towards the perennials as money is always an issue.

Does anyone have any suggestions for a fruit tree that is inexpensive, high yielding, easy to maintain as an organic crop and gives good shade yet not getting overly large? And anyone know where I can get one?

let's eat! 27.May.2004 20:08

dirty nails

We can also grow potatoes in a big barrel with some holes poked in the sides: throw in a little dirt/compost/straw then some seed potatoes (or some from the kitchen that already started sprouting). Throw more stuff over the top. As the plants grow larger add more soil stuff. After the plants flower and begin to die off you just upend thebarrel to harvest. We grew sweet potatoes in big (bucket-sized) flower pots last year and it not only worked fine but the vines are beautiful too. And there's always seed sprouting; folks without soil can do that in jars in the kitchen.

I gotta plug 27.May.2004 20:27

Gowing Gardens


Growing Gardens was founded in 1996 with a mission to promote food gardening for improved nutrition, health, and self-reliance while enhancing the quality of life of individuals and communities.

Growing Gardens is proud to be chosen as a 2003 Public Health Hero by Multnomah County Health Department! Growing Gardens also participates in GuideStar, the on-line standard for nonprofit accountability. Check out our listing.


Access to healthful, culturally appropriate food is an inherent right.

Individuals and communities are empowered when they have the knowledge and skills to provide food.

All people deserve recognition and respect for their unique value.

Joy and fun are essential elements in any activity we host, promote, or undertake.

Trust, honesty, open-mindedness and accountability are core elements in all we do.

Quality of life is improved when we respect and honor our environment and when we promote the interconnection of all things.

Growing Gardens began as the Portland Home Garden Project in 1996. The organization's original focus was installing home gardens for low income households in Portland. The organization expanded its mission to build gardens in partnership with other organizations with the involvement of hundreds of community volunteers. To reflect this change, the organization was renamed Growing Gardens in 1998. In 1999, Growing Gardens began offering workshops on topics such as basic gardening, composting, cooking and food preservation. An education and service-learning program for youth, called YouthGrow, began in 2000.


Home Garden Program: Home garden installation, seeds, plant starts, classes, mentors for a three year enrollment per gardener.
In 2003 Growing Gardens:

Built 38 new Home Gardens

Enlisted 180 volunteers to install new gardens

Linked 39 Home Gardeners with Mentors

Distributed over 2200 seed packets and 1100 plant starts

Created 11 Compost Bins

Delivered 90 pounds of steer manure and 11 pounds of fava beans for cover crop

Inspiring Thread 28.May.2004 08:36


Love your garden pics. This is an excellent part of the country for year round gardening. Because of the long growing season, veggies, such as tomotoes can be among the tastiest anywhere. Only the most heat loving plants are a little difficult to grow (watermellons, eggplants), but it is possible if you have a good summer. I am just loving my arugula and lettuce crop right now and the summer veggies (tomatoes, jalapenos, squash, and many others) are pretty healthy. Just waiting for more consistent warm weather.

Community gardens 28.May.2004 10:08


Don't overlook Portland's wonderful community gardens for those whose landlords won't allow gardening. You can grow a lot of veggies and flowers in a 200 square foot plot! And the sense of community is wonderful too. They're all over town.

The program encourages:

  • Organic gardening
  • Building healthy soil
  • New and old plant varieties
  • Composting
  • Cover cropping
  • Food sustainability
  • Intergenerational activities
  • Perennial fruit in the landscape and garden

Woodlawn community garden, 7200 NE 11th
Woodlawn community garden, 7200 NE 11th
Reed community garden SE 28/Steele
Reed community garden SE 28/Steele

and remember the wild places 28.May.2004 10:34


If you do have a garden, remember to leave part of it a little wild. It doesn't take much. Just maybe a section along the back fence where the "weeds" can grow. If you want, plant some fruiting shrubs or trees there too, to feed wildlife. Some people freak out at the thought of allowing anything weird to go to seed near their precious beds, but the native wildlife will love you for it. If everyone would leave even a little strip of wild areas along their properties, the cascadia ecology could begin to heal a little.

Consider that the obligatory mowed lawn is grass that never goes to seed, and hence never forms protein rich seeds to feed the birds. And each lawn is a green desert where nothing but a few cutworms can survive for long. We drive out every living being for miles around us when we colonize an area and turn it into subdivisions.

It isn't just foolish hunting and trapping that causes the mass extinctions that follow humans into every corner of the globe: it's just the way we have chosen to live. We freak out when we see a bug or rodent, so we drag out traps and poisons to get rid of them. Even lovely deer freak us out enough to turn us into lethal killers. And those of us who don't kill animals can unwittingly starve them by creating perfectly manicured green patches of grass where once a diversity of seeding, fruiting, leafing things grew. Many wildflowers are becoming increasingly rare, now that people see them as "weeds" rather than the important pioneer plants they are. But it doesn't have to be this way.

If you can, create gardens! And if you create gardens, remember to leave places for the wild things too. If you catch bugs in your garden that freak you out, toss them out where the wild things go. You will be feeding and tending a new world.

Correction: community gardens 28.May.2004 11:34


400 square feet, not 200!

Grow 28.May.2004 14:37


This is an inspiring thread, one of the single most radical acts you can commit is to grow your own food. Everything you grow is less dollars to corporate agribusiness. Then you can use your savings to support local, organic small growers at co-ops and farmer's markets. Due to patents and GMOs it may be illegal or impossible to grow your own some day, stay informed and involved!

you've inspired me! 29.May.2004 09:42

peace rebel gardening girl

i've been itching to plant some seeds and watch them sprout up from the earth. school is out in a few weeks and i'll have some time to do things that currently goes into studying and writing and thinking, thinking, thinking. time to get out of my head and into the garden bed. i am going to have my 2.5 year old grand daughter help with the process, because it certainly will be a magickal unfolding for her, to watch that seed bear fruit that we can eat together!

Calling all Urban,Suburban & rural farmer's or wannabe's 29.May.2004 12:54

Neil- People's Produce Buyer Neil@peoples.coop

Love all the info on this thread . This is a call out for helpers . So for just over a year I have been working on an organic farm called Earthshine Gardens,25 miles south of Portland in Sherwood . We sell direct to stores and also at a number of local farmers markets , as well as feeding ourselves and our families . This year another farmer got involved with us, his name is John and he came up from an orgainc farm called Sunbow near Corvallis, also another farmer Paula from Sona's garden up in the NW hills joined the group, Paula is looking after the downtown Portland market on Sat, Tod is doing Lake Oswego (Sat),Hillsdale (Sun),People's (Wed) and he starts the East Bank Market this (Thur) . I am the laborer and general goffa (go for this,go for that) . Right now we have 5 peices of certified organic land we are growing on, NW Hills off Germantown Rd,Sherwood, St pauls,Newberg and Champoeg. We are also going to be helping another local farmer who is out in Gaston with his fruit harvest. As some of you may have heard it is going to be a big and very early fruit crop,cherries,grapes,apples etc, so I am setting up work parties to go out and help them with the harvest . Also we are also setting up work parties or individuals who would be interested in getting out of the city and helping us plant and harvest our 5 pieces of land .We are also planning building structures for people to be able to stay in . I am putting up a yurt and will be staying out there when I am not at People's. If you would be interested in working long days,getting dirty and wet, getting a burned head in the summer, cold in the winter, and learning organic farming with some amazing farmers Please email me at  Neil@peoples.coop or you can call (503)232-9051 and ask for Neil


PP 08.Jun.2004 10:55


Thanks pp. I have recently weeded the small area half way, and will prep a bit more when the weather drys. I believe this plot will be an experiment, I will though be interested in having the soil tested before growing. Take care, grow grow grow!