Everyone’s going agro: How does your city garden grow?

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L’étoile chef/owner Mark Gresge will remove lunch from the restaurant's offerings in the new year. Photo: Cramer Photo L’étoile chef/owner Mark Gresge will remove lunch from the restaurant's offerings in the new year. Photo: Cramer Photo

Urban farming is one of the hottest trends in food right now. Maybe it’s the economy, or maybe it’s that nothing beats the satisfaction of eating food that you grew and dug up yourself. Lush lawns are being replaced with veggie gardens, flower beds with compost piles, and storage sheds with chicken coops.

As the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels and the second largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions, it’s about time America goes through a “green” phase. Growing your own food reduces fuel consumption and our carbon footprint, encourages healthy eating habits, and stretches a family’s food budget, but can anyone with a patch of grass grow their own? Or is this just another hobby for the money- and time-rich?

Williams-Sonoma, the culinary behemoth that capitalizes on a gourmand’s need for copper pots, panini presses, and demi-glace, just launched a line called Agrarian, giving well-to-do GYO-ers a one-stop digital shop for seeds, plants, gardening tools, cheesemaking kits, beds and planters, beekeeping equipment, chicken coops, canning and preserving equipment, and more. There are $110 burlap totes, $300 copper pitchforks, and $80 fermentation pots. Even the shiny $700 blender under “Healthy Living” is photographed on a weathered wooden table to hammer home the homespun-ness of it all. Clearly, the site’s a playground for the 1 percent, and most of them would probably sooner hire someone to till their land than do it themselves.

For the rest of us, we have places like Fifth Season Gardening Co. for affordable gardening supplies and Radical Roots for plants and shrubs. Need a vision or jumpstart for your garden? C’ville Foodscapes, a worker-owned cooperative, provides various design, installation, and maintenance services for anyone wanting to add food-producing gardens to his home or business. Services range from $75 to $135 for a design consultation and $600 and up for an entire site transformation and installation. Low-income individuals or families can apply to receive a free garden system complete with a garden bed, rain barrel, and compost bin through the Garden Grants Program. Since its launch in 2009, C’ville Foodscapes has completed more than 85 projects and six grants.

Community gardens like the ones at Piedmont Virginia Community College, University of Virginia, Friendship Court, and The Haven, as well as the Edible Schoolyard projects at Buford Middle School, Cale Elementary School, and Clark Elementary School all welcome volunteers and are a good starting place to learn more about urban gardening while lending a helping hand. Or, if you have agrarian know-how but no space, lease one of the 73 community garden plots in Meadowcreek Gardens, off Morton Drive behind the English Inn.

And, don’t forget that one shop’s trash may be another garden’s treasure. Last year, the crew at Shenandoah Joe noticed an increasing number of people asking for leftover coffee grounds for composting (they lower the pH of the soil and act as a source of nitrogen). Now, every week, 15 people drop off five-gallon buckets outside the backdoor of the Preston roaster, picking them up on Sunday filled to the brim with grounds that would have otherwise been discarded. One bucket has “garden steroids” written on it, one belongs to a guy who cultivates mushrooms in the grounds, and another will go home with an area chef. Mas Tapas’ Tomas Rahal grows herbs and everything from collards to raspberries to supplement his Spanish import-centric menu in a 10’x10′ space outside the restaurant’s back door and in 12 4’x12′ beds in a plot nearby.

Mas isn’t the only restaurant in town featuring urban-grown produce on its menus. Laura McGurn tends to Zinc’s patio garden, from which freshly plucked tatsoi, swiss chard, mizuna, and kale becomes the spring salad. Arugula, scallions, nasturtiums, and peas aren’t far behind, and owner Vu Nguyen is planning a rooftop garden at Moto Pho Co., his Vietnamese place opening across the street in June. Mark Gresge, chef/owner of L’etoile, has a small garden that’s supplying the restaurant this spring with lettuce, spinach, radishes, carrots, sweet onions, and various beans. “It makes for some fresh, exciting eating. A little dirt on the fingers seasons the pot nicely,” said Gresge.

When so much of our lives feel beyond our control, gardening gives us some semblance of it back. We decide what we put into the soil and then onto our plates. Self-sufficiency is at the heart of the American dream, and land (and the right to work it) helps us to achieve it. Whatever the reason, green is most definitely the new black.

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