Locavores, SPIN Farmers, and Pumpkineers--Oh My!

Even Newark, N.J., is becoming a grow-it-yourself paradise

Photo: The Star-Ledger, Newark, N.J.

John Taylor [right] is tending Swiss chard, arugula, collards, spinach, turnips, and herbs this fall....Located not in New Jersey farm country or even a suburban backyard, Taylor's farm project is brightening a fenced-in half acre in downtown Newark. —Jennifer Weiss, The Star-Ledger

For many readers, the spring has just sprung and the grass is riz, as the poet said. It's time, in other words, to turn our attention to growing things or, more to the point, to words related to growing things.

A column last year introduced some climate-friendly food terms, such as foodshed, the area where a person or family can obtain locally grown food; food miles, the distance that a food item travels from its source to the consumer; and locavore, a person who eats only locally grown food. (I didn't know it at the time, but it turns out that the spirited equivalent of the locavore is the locapour, a person who drinks only locally produced wine or beer.)

This obsession led to the 100-mile diet, made up of only foods grown or produced within 100 miles of where you live. But why shoot for a 100-mile diet when you can be hyperlocal and strive instead for a 100-foot diet, and reduce the farm-to-fork environmental costs of food by implementing a garden-to-fork strategy? In fact, why rely on a farmer at all? With a bit of pluck and a willingness to allow dirt under your fingernails, you can become an urban farmer who, despite the limitations of a city plot, grows much of his or her own food.

Edible gardening is the watchphrase of the grow-your-own-food movement, which is often called, pretty much inevitably, grow-it-yourself, or GIY. These backyard farmers engage in SPIN (from the phrase Small Plot INtensive) cultivation of vegetables and other crops. Many of these SPIN gardens (or SPIN farms, as they're sometimes called, with just a trace of irony) are as small as a quarter acre and sit in dense downtown areas. (So this practice just might qualify as extreme gardening, which refers to growing that takes place in hostile or difficult conditions.) Urban agriculturists who don't have a quarter acre to spare (or even a yard, for that matter) can still get in on the fun by microgardening, growing food in extremely small, dense plots, or even in a series of pots. (The artful arrangement of plants growing in pots and other containers is called potscaping.)

Big-city growers putting the "home" in homesteading are seen by some as bioneers, biological pioneers who are crafting local solutions to global problems. But bioneers can also be biological engineers, because they often resort to elegant technological solutions to the problems of growing crops within city limits. (I would be remiss at this point if I didn't mention the pumpkineers who grow giant pumpkins, particularly ones meant to be entered in pumpkin-weighing contests.) In the same way that gardeners have turned from geoponics (that is, growing plants in soil or a similar medium) to hydroponics (growing plants in water), today's urban homesteaders are practicing aquaponics, where aquatic animals are added to a hydroponic system to create a symbiotic environment; bubbleponics, where a highly oxygenated and nutrient-dense solution is applied directly to plant roots; and aeroponics, where plants are grown within a mist environment without any medium at all. If even misting is out of the question, city growers can turn to xeriscaping (also called xerogardening or smartscaping), where plants are grown using only minimal amounts of water, or even no water at all. ("Xeri" comes from the Greek xeros, meaning "dry.")

In the 1990s, some increasingly desperate and frustrated nutritionists began to use the term food desert to refer to an area, particularly an inner city, where fresh, healthy food is more or less nonexistent. Today, apparently even Newark, N.J., is turning into a veritable food oasis. If you grow the right crops and plan ahead for the winter, fresh, tasty, good-for-you produce can be had year-round. It might not feed the world, but it can feed your family—and make you a hyperlocal hero.

This article appeared in print as "The Locavore's Dilemma."

About the Author

Paul McFedries has written IEEE Spectrum's Technically Speaking column since 2002. In "The Locavore's Dilemma", he defines some neologisms for local food—grown no farther than 100 miles from home and perhaps as close as your own window box. He has written more than 70 books; the latest include The Facebook Guide for People Over 50 and Windows Home Server 2011 Unleashed. His Web site, Word Spy, tracks emerging words and phrases. This "lexpionage," as he calls it, isn't limited to technology terms: One recent find is "Lycra lout," used to describe a rude cyclist who may inspire "bikelash."

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