Urban farming

There are different farming styles and techniques to optimize your space and “go green.”

In recent years, the repercussions that human activity has had on the environment have been palpable, such as excessive deforestation, continuous abuse and contamination of natural resources, among others.

Likewise, a year ago —because of the pandemic—an immediate positive effect was seen in the atmosphere when human beings took a break from polluting and damaging the environment. That moment showed that small changes can have a big impact if we all do our part.

Cultivating the land more is one of the activities that have a positive impact on the environment, as well as in our direct surroundings and at home, whether you live in rural or urban areas.

“Urban farming is an infrastructure in the city that synchronizes an agricultural system in terms of production and consumption. An example of this are the agricultural markets that are being seen in different regions of the island, such as in Placita Roosevelt,” said architect Juan Carlos Gallisá Becerra, who presented the virtual talk ‘Agriculture Integrated to Buildings’ during a recent conference by the College of Architects and Landscape Architects, which were held in commemoration of Landscape Architecture Month.

Gallisá also mentioned that establishing gardens in buildings, condominiums, schools and urbanizations, in addition to being a source of healthier food for communities, also provides a cleaner and fresher environment.

The architect pointed out that space should not be a limitation when gardening, and urged the public to incorporate agriculture in the city through different techniques that can be adjusted to the abilities and budget of individuals and communities.

“In a first conference, we addressed the issue of agriculture at the urban level. You can create a garden with food input both at home, schools or workplaces, taking advantage of the back, side or front patios of a house or buildings using different plants of vegetables and fruits, among other strategies,” said the self-proclaimed urban farmer.

As Gallisá described, the ways in which agriculture can be incorporated into an urban environment are:

Farming in Patios

This is similar to conventional agriculture, where fruits and vegetables are grown on existing land. But if the land is in the city —which is often impacted, polluted or heavily compacted—box containers with good soil can be used.

Farming on Rooftops

This strategy is known as a “natural roof.” It is basically a waterproofed roof in layers, where a minimum of eight inches of soil or peat moss is added, and covered with the desired planting. Although this technology is more expensive, there are simple alternatives to achieve it. For example, placing traditional three- or five-gallon pots on tables or creating concrete, wood, metal or plastic containers.

Vertical Farming

This technique is also known as “green walls.” Commonly, creeper plants are placed that create a kind of mesh to cover the surface. It can also be done by creating a structure for placing pots on walls.

Hydroponic Farming

This is another more elaborate form of urban gardening by using mineral solutions instead of agricultural soil or land.

Gallisá underscored that, in general, and before starting a project in any of these types of gardening, it is important to know the type of plant to be used and how they grow, to determine maintenance and sunshine needs, among others, so they can thrive.

“There are plants that are biannual, they give you fruit twice and then you must replace the entire plant. There are others that last for years. These are important details to know in terms of what to plant, in what area of the house or structure it can be placed and harvested,” he explained.

Another important aspect to consider is the interaction that the garden will have with the structure where it will be placed.

“Gardening on a roof that is quite covered with vegetation is a strategy that serves as thermal insulation. This will help the building to be cooler and more energy efficient. But it is necessary to consider the resistance of the surface and to know the humidity that these techniques will contribute to the structure,” specified Gallisá, who is certified in green and sustainable buildings and supports ecological agriculture that is free of agrochemicals or products that can be considered dangerous to human beings.

Time and Cost Effectiveness

The architect mentioned that the time it will take to achieve an urban gardening project and its cost will depend on the expectations, resources and technology that each individual or community has.

“There are people who choose to plant in recycled containers such as plastic bottles, paint pails and car tires, which are a series of resources and waste from the city that can be reused for planting and are the most basic, economical and effective. In fact, these techniques are very common in community gardens that are done with few resources. There are also individuals or higher-budget facilities that make their natural ceilings with expensive and elegant materials, such as restaurants with their own gardens that offer tours as an added value to the diner experience,” Gallisá stated.

The Magic of the Garden

Considering that some plants require more care than others and their care may vary from the moment the seed is sown and the daily maintenance needed, he urges garden lovers to talk to a professional on the alternatives that fit their specific realities to avoid frustrations in the process.

“I don’t think there are people with a good or bad hand for farming; what I do understand is that it is important to have knowledge. The success of a project also depends on the care taken on the tasks to avoid mistakes in the planting and harvesting process. If you have the knowledge, due care and time, you will be productive,” said Gallisá, who has three decades worth of experience in architecture and 10 years as an urban farmer.

As alternatives for those who are not very skilled in gardening and wish to practice with resistant options from the environmental point of view, whether in a patio or in containers, Gallisá recommended starting with succulent plants.

“They are pretty and they re-green although they don’t produce any kind of food. From the food point of view, lettuce is easy to harvest, eggplant is very resistant and withstands sun and drought, just like pineapple, which can endure a lot of lack of water. However, the latter tolerates very little excess water and can rot. In contrast, citrus trees are quite hardy, but when they are small, beetles tend to make nests in their roots and eat them. They require a mesh and thus beetles can’t eat them,” he said.

For those who prefer a vertical or wall garden, he suggested planting cherry tomatoes, spinach and passion fruit, which are vine-type plants that cover walls easily and will bear good fruit.

As additional advice, he stressed the importance of measuring moisture in the traditional way (by pressing your finger on the soil) or using available electronic tools, as well as monitoring the acid or alkaline levels of the soil.

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