Brooklyn Farmer's Sage Advice

Manny Howard Empire of dirtManny Howard is not your garden variety New Yorker.

Sure, everyone's got a dream that usually involves public recognition of some kind, a good seat on the train and something involving the Yankees winning another pennant -- but it doesn't usually involve becoming a farmer.

Howard, a Brooklyn-born writer and documentary maker, got assigned a story in 2007 that changed his life. His task: to create a sustainable farm in his Brooklyn backyard that he would live off of -- solely -- for a month. Now several years later, the farm is still producing and Howard recently wrote a book about the ongoing experience, "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard Into a Farm."

Over a hundred years ago this area of New York used to be farmland and so Howard decided to see if Brooklyn still is fertile ground.

It is.

Howard discovered what he was made of, too. Lots of people talk about organic living and eating what is grown near you; he put this food movement to the test.

If he made a farm where grass couldn't live, you can create some sort of garden and add a decidedly country aspect to your city space, too. The city-dweller-turned-farmer shares some of his insights into urban farm living.I myself left New York to seek nature. I took hours-long train, car and plane rides to enjoy green and water and sky everywhere I looked. (Not to mention the hundreds of dollars that usually took.)

I wanted trees, and nature (more than yellow snow), and birds (of different variety than pigeon), and sky, and flowers (other than bodega-sold). I wanted to feel attached to the earth and soil and life with a capital "L." Living with nature is part of being human, albeit one preempted in the hustle and bustle of daily city life, and I did something to get it.

Manny Howard did, too. However, he didn't want to leave his beloved Brooklyn. Lifelong boroughites tend to be that way, so he turned the 800-square-foot backyard of his Flatbush home into a farm: We are talking chickens (egg collections since 2007 and requisite slaughtering), rabbits (and requisite slaughtering) and a full garden (collard greens, eggplant, yellow squash, callaloo, beans, cabbage, fennel....

Forget about your little basil plant from Trader Joe's (like the one on my counter), Howard went full-throttle into the locavore movement. And like many others that turn to nature to challenge themselves, Howard found his spirit -- it was just uncovered from layers of clay and then spread through nine tons of replacement soil. Along the path to agrarian enlightenment, Howard learned serious life lessons, wrote a book, sold the movie rights, and brought dinner to the table. (Even his marriage and two young children survived the experience!)

Speaking with Howard you see his experience has turned him into part Dalai Lama ("The earth will do what it will, help it and get out of the way."), part comic ("So I stood there in the basement full of plants I watered for weeks but killed in a matter of hours and thought, 'Where can i get some celery plants in Brooklyn?'") and part Dr. Phil, ("You treat marriages and relationship like the earth you work. You can't just throw out a yard and start over, you have to work through the bad crops and rocks in the soil.")

For those of you wanting to green up your city life here are some principles from the Brooklyn Farmer:

  • Be prudent. This is the first thing. "I thought I would bend the plot to my will, and thought it would bend to my will through work. But I learned the lessons and virtue of making do with what I got. Every time I tried to impose my will something died; a chicken or rabbit or tree, or our marriage."
  • Show tenacity. "After the tornado hit [the first in Brooklyn in over a century] and the coop was crushed, and the week before my dietary moonwalk, why didn't I pack it in? I never thought of it. Not that you are planning to live off of your food, but know that gardens and farming take a commitment past the logical. Sure your crops may fail, and nature might play with you, but sticking with it will make your garden happen. After getting the soil and seeds and watering and light lamps (if you need), you can't let a little thing like total crop death [as happened to Howard] stop you.
  • Know what you've got. "Test your soil -- local college and university Agriculture Extension schools provide this service and are very reliable. If your soil turns out to be deficient, nutrient poor or whatever, seek advice about the correct additives to get it healthy again. If your soil is toxic, shun it. Plant in boxes or pots."
  • Follow directions. After trying to get by on some things, Howard learns that nature doesn't take shortcuts. "If a seed packet or plant says it requires full sun, don't try to fake it. Find full sun, or grow something else."
  • Tend seeds carefully. "If you grow plants from seeds, use an all-spectrum grow-lamp and keep it close to the sprouts. When the sprouts first appear, turn an oscillating fan on (low) near them, the intermittent breeze will help them grow strong shoots and stems. Only transfer the strongest plants to your garden. The runts will take up valuable space and nutrients."
  • Practice restraint in a small space. "Resist the temptation to put plants to close together. Plants compete viciously for sunlight and root space. Give them adequate personal space."
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