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You don’t need acres of land to fulfill your dream of growing your own tomatoes. With the right techniques, you may not even need much of yard at all. We chat with local food blogger and master gardener Ed Bruske about how to grow your own food in an urban environment.
- Ed Bruske Co-Founder, DC Urban Gardeners; Certified Master Gardener; Blogger, The Slow Cook
Ed Bruske talks about what it takes to get a city garden ready for spring planting and how having a garden can change someone’s approach to cooking and eating:
Ed’s Garden in the Spring/Summer
Ed’s List of Veggies/Recipes
Ed compiled a list of vegetables that grow best in our area, with some recipes to go along with them. For Ed’s complete list of recipes, visit his blog, The Slow Cook.
- Sweet Potatoes
- Ruby Swiss chard
- Green Swiss chard
- Green Beans
- Heirloom Italian Summer Squash
- Lacinato kale
- Dr. Carolyn heirloom cherry tomato
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIf you have dreams of growing your own tomatoes, cooking with your own herbs or crafting salads with your own cucumbers, there might be a thing or two standing in your way. But living in a townhouse with limited yard space or even an apartment without any yard at all, don't have to be among those obstacles.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWith the right techniques and the right strategy, you can transform your living space in to an edible landscape. And regardless of where you live, it's the time of year to get started if you're thinking about growing your own food this spring. Joining us to explore the art of urban gardening is Ed Bruske.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIEd is the co-founder of the group D.C. Urban Gardeners and Certified Master Gardener. he's also a former Washington Post reporter. He now blogs at "The Slow Cook." Ed, good to see you again.
MR. ED BRUSKEThanks for having me back, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou are a certifiable green thumb, but you don't exactly live in a green thumb's paradise. Your urban farm sits right next to your townhouse in Columbia Heights surrounded by a busy D.C. neighborhood. How did you go about turning that space that you have into what you call an edible landscape?
BRUSKEThat's -- I don't know, we kind of fell into it. Fortunately, there was a -- for some reason, around this 110-year-old house, there was virtually no landscaping. A couple of trees had been there and they fell down and, well, after 9/11, I think we, my wife and I, like a lot of people, kind of investigating or thinking about where our place was and things and trying to get back to family values and whatnot. And I remembered my father's garden that we had when I was a kid and, as you said, tomatoes, strawberries, rhubarb sauce every spring.
BRUSKEAnd we looked out at this big empty yard of ours and thought, why couldn't we grow some food there as well? And, you know, we became more conscious of the environmental movement, our, you know, so-called carbon footprint and whatnot. My wife had plans for a great Victorian formal garden in that space and she would come out as I kept digging and digging and digging and wondering, what are you doing now?
BRUSKEThat's where the -- that's where our formal walkway is supposed to go. You can't have vegetables there. But so now we have -- it's a corner lot so it's really unusual. We don't have a backyard so it's technically our front yard on a busy corner and I just kept going until it was all vegetables.
NNAMDIIf you want to see what that front yard looks like, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org and stomp on over to Ed's place. And so we've got video there available for you. Over the years, you've used your website to write everything from investigative pieces about the food served inside D.C.'s public schools to Michele Obama's efforts to encourage healthy eating. But it's my understanding that "The Slow Cook" actually began as a journal following your vegetable garden project.
BRUSKEI had no idea what blogging was. I was in a master gardener class at University District of Columbia and one of my classmates is a very prominent garden blogger, Susan Harris, who I give total credit to any blogging that I've done. She suggested I start blog and I went from there. I had to find out what a blog was and I thought it was a great thing.
BRUSKEBut my father, from the time I was very young, encouraged me to write a diary and I was way too lazy to ever write a diary. But now, you know, with that blog staring me in the face every morning, I have an excuse to write about it.
NNAMDIHave you ever dreamt of growing your own vegetables and food in an urban setting? What's standing in your way? Call us, 800-433-8850. We're talking with Ed Bruske. He is co-founder of the group D.C. Urban Gardeners. He's a certified Master Gardener. He's also a former Washington Post reporter who now blogs at "The Slow Cook." 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there.
NNAMDIEd, we're not quite out of the woods weather wise right now, but spring is right around the corner. What should you be thinking about at this point in the year, whether you're working with a yard or you're trying to grow something outside your apartment window?
BRUSKEWell, something amazing happens every year, Kojo. I mean, I've got my garden journal in front of me, which is just kind of scribblings in pencil, little drawings of the garden beds. It's nothing very formal, but I'm always surprised that when I look out the window and decide that it's probably time to plant seeds, I go back in my garden journal, I find out it's the same day I planted seeds last year and the year before that or more or less.
BRUSKESo, actually, this a year a lot of gardeners have already been busy planting their tomatoes and peppers and eggplants and onions and things indoors in seed trays to get an early start on things and some of them have grow lights and all kinds of fancy lighting mechanisms to get those things to grow. Our house is in a little bit of an uproar this year so I don't have my usual big picture window that I use to grow those things.
BRUSKEBut when Ann, your webmaster, said she wanted to do some filming...
NNAMDICan't stop her.
BRUSKE...I thought that was a perfect opportunity to go and plant some things and it turns out it’s the same day I planted last year. So now you should be thinking about, you know, clearing all the dead debris from all year, if you had a garden or, you know, thinking about creating a planter box, if that's what it is, or, you know, getting some potting soil, whatever it might be and planting cool weather vegetables like arugula and kale and collards, lettuces and sorrel and things like that.
NNAMDIFor those of us who have some space outdoors for soil, whether it's a full yard or just a tiny corner of our property, at what point should we be starting the process of actually prepping a garden bed?
BRUSKEWell, before you get to your garden bed, you need to look around because the things -- the things that plants need to grow, including vegetables, are sun, water, soil and food. So you need all of those things. And in the city, as we've discovered, the sun can be a very interesting part of that equation because its moving, your house is not. So you can have very challenging issues with shadow and things like that.
BRUSKEAnd we sort of -- we chase the sun around our yard...
NNAMDIYes, that's what I understand.
BRUSKE...because we have, you know, it's an old Victorian three-story house on the corner there and, you know, this time of year, the sun disappears from the one corner of the yard where it's sunny at about 2:00 in the afternoon, 2:30. On the other end of the yard, it's in total shadow, but that end of the yard, in June, will be in full sunshine.
BRUSKESo it requires some planning. So you want to know, you know, where you're getting sun and when you're getting sun and you might even want to, you know, take some notes and think that through about the sun requirements for whatever it is you're planting.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that a crucial part of your early spring routine is dusting your soil with compost and that the compost you use is the product of a sort of urban scavenger hunt. But before you respond to how that works, I think we have Meredith in your part of town who has some similar problems to the ones you've experienced. Meredith, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MEREDITHHi, Kojo. I just was calling because we bought a house in Columbia Heights recently and ever since we've moved, I've done a ton of vegetable gardening, which I was looking forward to, but we've discovered we have a huge rat problem in the alley behind our house. They also come into the backyard frequently at night and we do see them in the front as well. And I would have no problem converting my front space to vegetable gardening, but we do see them there and I'm worried about tomatoes and then -- I don't know.
MEREDITHI'm not sure what rats can chew. And also, I would love to compost. I hate throwing out all my vegetable scraps in the kitchen, but as I've seen from my neighbors, the compost is a magnet for the rats. And I'm just wondering if you have any suggestions about gardening and composting?
NNAMDIYou know, we had asked him earlier about deer, but he knows as much about mice and rats as he does about deer.
BRUSKEI know less about deer in the middle of Columbia Heights, but I know lots about rats and mice and things like that.
NNAMDIThere you go.
BRUSKEI don't have much. I haven't had much problem with rats getting into the garden and eating the food. We stopped growing things like melons and winter squashes because they were growing all the way out of the garden and into the street. They're huge plants and when the melons start to ripen, they're sitting on the ground and they just become an easy meal for the rats it seems.
BRUSKESomething was nibbling on them, but otherwise not so much. What the rats will get into is the compost if you're putting anything that they like to eat in your compost. So for any urban composter, for most your urban composters, I would recommend doing that in some kind of a closed container like a trash can or one of the commercial barrels, a sealed container.
NNAMDIThat's what you do, trashcans?
BRUSKEI store my compost in the trashcan. What I do is try to be very careful about the things that we put out, that we compost, otherwise like no grain products, you know, potatoes, no meat, things like that. So strictly, you know, like peels and garden debris and coffee grounds and so on and so forth.
NNAMDIWell, you can tell us, and Meredith you'll be fascinated by this, where does Starbucks fit into your composting strategy?
BRUSKEWell, you know, this is a universal problem now because with our industrial agriculture is we've become dependent on fertilizers made from fossil fuels and we all know that's not sustainable. So how are we going to fertilize our crops and the issue, even on a mini-level or my level is the same, I can hardly make enough compost to feed my garden and that's the only fertilizer that I use.
BRUSKESo I'm, as Kojo mentioned, I’m on a constant scavenger hunt, stealing the leaves that people put at the curb and...
NNAMDITips, Meredith, they're just tips.
BRUSKE...and bugging the landscape crews around the neighborhood for their grass clippings. And I wheel my hand truck down to the local Starbucks every once in a while and push 40 or 50 pounds of coffee grounds up the hill and use that.
NNAMDIThat works for you, Meredith?
MEREDITHIt does. Our landlord at our previous house was almost at the point of cementing his compost pile, which was in a black, you know, store bought espresso compost container because the rats kept digging underneath, underneath all the barriers. But maybe it was because they were putting grain based or other products into that that was really driving the rats crazy.
BRUSKEThey will burrow into your compost pile, that's absolutely correct.
MEREDITHOkay. So really be mindful of what goes into the compost pile?
BRUSKEYes, they won't burrow into a metal trashcan. They will eat their way into a plastic trashcan, though.
NNAMDIMeredith, thank you so much for your call.
MEREDITHThank you. Thank you, bye.
NNAMDIHere we go onto Steven in Alexandria, Va. Steven, your turn.
STEVENYes, my concern with (unintelligible) urban gardening is a lot of soil content in the D.C. metropolitan area has high content of lead and other toxins in it and don't the vegetables that you grow absorb the bad qualities of the soil, too?
BRUSKENo. This area is very -- is sort of controversial and it's not very well studied. So I don't want to give any definite answers because the numbers that EPA has put out, in my opinion, are way too low as far as what is an adequate or safe lead level in soil. If you are planning to garden directly into the soil in an urban area, you should by all means have your soil tested for lead and for arsenic as well.
BRUSKEBut what we found is, we did close to our house where the paint falls off, the lead level was pretty high. And in urban areas, of course you have -- if you're close to a roadway, you get the lead from the exhaust of cars that were at one point using lead so and you can't get the lead out of the soil. You can mitigate it somewhat with compost, but you want to know what your lead level is.
BRUSKEAnd the -- the only -- the major problem with lead in soil is with children, and getting it on their hands and then in their mouth, and tracking it into the house, etc., etc. You don't have to worry about vegetables or fruit trees or berries taking up lead, they don't do that. But there is a little bit of a concern around leafy greens. So if you have lead in your soil, you might wanna keep your leafy greens away from that.
NNAMDISteven, thank you for your call. And speaking of pollution in cars, here is Joan in Takoma Park, Md. Hi, Joan.
JOANHi. Thank you so much for taking my call. Yeah. It's convenient. It does follow onto the previous call. I live on Flower Avenue, which is a very heavily traveled street. And my backyard is very shady, so I can't garden in the back, but I could potentially turn my lawn into a garden. But I am concerned about the fumes from the cars, and that sort of thing getting on the plants or vegetables, whatever. And would I -- is it possible just to wash it off or what kind of care do you need to take or...
BRUSKEYeah. Take your pick, the pesticides they spray on the stuff you get in the supermarket, or the car exhaust fumes. We just -- we wash our stuff and we don't worry beyond that.
NNAMDIIt works for you, Joan. Thank you very much for your call. Good luck to you.
NNAMDIWe're gonna short break so that we can sample some of the fare that Ed -- no. I mean, so that we can take care of some business -- some business here. You can still call us, 800-433-8850. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. We're talking urban gardening with Ed Bruske, co-founder of the group DC Urban Gardeners. He's a certified master gardener. You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow or e-mail to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIThe week before Thanksgiving. Those are the tomatoes that Ed Bruske harvested the week before Thanksgiving. He joins us in studio. Ed Bruske is co-founder of the group DC Urban Gardeners. He's a certified master gardener. Also a former Washington Post reporter, he now blogs at "The Slow Cook." When we talk about planting seasonally, Ed, what are some of the vegetables that people should be thinking about at time of year, particularly vegetables that grow well in our region, in Washington?
BRUSKEI love fava beans. And I saw -- I got an e-mail from my friend Sylvia -- Sylvie out in Virginia, who was hoping that I had planted my fava beans. I haven't planted them yet. She's another avid kitchen gardener out near Little Washington -- The Inn at Little Washington. There's a whole community of really smart people who are involved in this. I don't put myself in that company necessarily, but what -- I brought my journal here, so I could tell you what I plant this time of year, if I can find it.
BRUSKEAnd it would be things like, you should be thinking about salad, as I mentioned before, collards, mustard greens, kale. We'll also be getting into planting peas, onions, garlic -- well, garlic would have planted in the fall, but you could still plant it in the spring. Those are the primary spring vegetables, before we get into the hot weather.
NNAMDIWhen we're talking about all seasons, what are some of the vegetables that you think grow particularly well in Washington?
BRUSKEI'm so glad you asked, because I brought a list. The -- last year, I don't know if you noticed, was the hottest summer on record in Washington. It was crazy. So at the top of my list is a vegetable that loves hot weather, and loves humid weather, and I love it. It's called okra.
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, it's my understanding that you've got such affection for okra as a D.C. vegetable, what should people know about okra, apart from the fact that I love it too.
BRUSKEYeah. Well, it originated in Africa and then became very much a part of the cuisine in the southern United States and Mediterranean, and it's spread to India and southeast Asia. It's kind of an exotic plant. It's in the -- if I remember right, the hibiscus family. So it actually makes a beautiful flower, and we do want our garden to look pretty as well. And then just when it starts producing pods, the seed pods, it produced them in great quantity, and you have to be all over them.
BRUSKEWhen we get into August, I'll be harvesting okra pods on a daily basis, and sometimes twice a day. You can't hear them grow, but you can almost hear them grow.
NNAMDII had okra with my dinner Tuesday night. But when I was a kid -- or Monday night. When I was a kid, it seemed to be when my mother prepared it, it seemed to be so slippery and slimy that I couldn't handle it. But once I finally tasted it, I've been in love with it ever since.
BRUSKESome people are put off by the mucilaginous quality.
NNAMDIIs that what it is?
BRUSKEYes. But I've never had that problem except when I tried to prepare it raw. So I don't do raw. Most people like it fried because that avoids the whole issue, but I've, you know, just built recipes around okra, many of them. Another one that I like a lot is sweet potatoes. And I think it's an extremely virtuous vegetable, because it's so cool to pull something that big out of your yard in the middle of the city for one thing. But also it provides so many calories and good nutrition, and the leaves are edible.
BRUSKESo I've had -- at one point developed a recipe that used okra and sweet potato leaves and various other things in a wonderful stew.
NNAMDIWhich brings me to this, how has your family's cookbook changed over the years that you've been farming in your front yard?
BRUSKEWell, my -- I used to be a slave to recipes. I'm a self-taught cook. So I didn't go to culinary school. And my wife would constantly reprimand me for being such a slave to recipes. It's just a recipe, you know, do what you want. Whatever. It's just a guide. And I never really got that. But like a lot of other people, you know, I would see something in a magazine or on TV or whatever, and I would go to the store with a list of ingredients.
BRUSKEAnd sometimes it would take me to two, three, four stores before I had all of my ingredients. What a revelation to have your own garden, where all of sudden you're not reading recipes and shopping at different grocery stores. You're trying to figure out what to make out of what you have. So we've learned to -- we've come 180 degrees to learning how to cook with what's ripe in the garden.
NNAMDIAnd you have done very well. I can testify. You have brought along a fair amount of bounty from your urban farm with you to the studio. Could you walk me through the spread we've got here in front of us, starting with this?
BRUSKEWell, I heard, Kojo, that you do all these Wednesday food shows, and you never get anything to eat and you starve basically until 2:00 when you go have your lunch.
NNAMDIThis is true, he lied cleverly, but go ahead.
BRUSKEI decided to bring you a buffet. So, uh, what you have there to your right is a plate of what we call squash carpaccio. So it's raw zucchini, very healthy, sliced thinly and then seasoned with olive oil and salt, a little pepper, and then crumbled goat cheese, and everything dusted with a bunch of basil, which also is not ripe, but it was locally grown apparently in Virginia. That's what they told me at Whole Foods.
BRUSKESo we would make that, you know, in the summer for a wonderful, you know, meal out on the deck, or to start.
NNAMDIIt tastes pretty good in the winter too. I can tell you that.
BRUSKEYeah. So we have that. And the other plate that you have there is -- it's also zucchini with goat cheese topped with some of our green tomato chutney. We're always -- one of the most popular features on my blog are the pieces I've written about what to do with green tomatoes. Because as you get into the season -- the end of the season, you get a lot of green tomatoes and people want to know what to do with them.
BRUSKEYes, pickled okra. That's our spicy Texas-style pickled okra. Next to that is a mason jar of sort of -- pickled -- dill pickles with all spice and different seasonings. You also have a jar -- oh, those are the green tomatoes that I harvested in -- the week before Thanksgiving. You know, the tomatoes, we really had a horrible year last year, I have to say. You know, we were -- we had...
NNAMDIYou can't tell it by me.
BRUSKE...field mice that ate through all of our zucchini, and through our eggplant and tomatoes and whatnot. And the tomatoes and cucumbers just did not want to produce. But then as soon as it started to cool off, they started to make -- we started to see tomatoes like crazy. So the week before Thanksgiving, I harvested 12 pounds of green tomatoes and I pickled them. Very interesting savory green pickle recipe with cinnamon.
NNAMDIAnd I am appreciating it even as we speak. It is not worth noting that the pickled zucchini I am holding in my hand right is prize winning pickled zucchini.
BRUSKEYes. Go D.C. State Fair. We had our first Amy (word?) , shout out to you, congratulations, our first ever D.C. State Fair last year at Harriet Tubman Elementary School. Highly successful, dozens and dozens of entries. I didn't win in any of the individual categories, but when all the votes were tallied, my sweet pickled zucchini were deemed to be the best D.C. grown food product.
NNAMDIAnd it is indeed delicious. I have sampled everything that Ed Bruske has brought today, and I bet you didn't even know it. What's the secret to pickling and preserving the vegetables that otherwise might get thrown out and left uneaten.
BRUSKEKnowing first that there are two worlds of pickling. One is fermented pickles, which would be like your deli style dills, that are fermented by bacterial action of lacto fermentation, and sauerkraut and so forth. And then there's the world of vinegar pickles, which, you know, involve vinegar, sometimes some sugar, salt, spices, etc. And that's really all you need to know. And we use pretty rudimentary equipment.
NNAMDINow, let's move over to the challenges of gardening in an apartment. We got this e-mail from Rona in Gaithersburg. "I live in a high-rise condo building, and would love to do some gardening on the rooftop. Any suggestions on how to get the board of directors and building management to approve this?"
BRUSKEI was just gonna say, you should try your rooftop.
NNAMDIYeah. Well, she wanted legal advice.
BRUSKEIs -- did she say she was in a condo?
NNAMDIIn a condo in...
NNAMDIYes. In a condo in -- the e-mail comes from Gaithersburg.
BRUSKEYeah. I have never owned a condo so...
NNAMDIYou don't know about that.
BRUSKE... I cannot speak to that. However, I know that there have been some famous instances of people gardening on rooftops, even in downtown Washington. I was just in New York where a non-profit group has taken over the roof of an acre-sized warehouse building where they're growing all -- they used cranes to get the soil up to the roof. But I would approach the condo association and see what they say. They may want to consult with their engineers or architects to make sure, you know, you got the -- the structural support you need up there, and water. You would need water.
BRUSKEAnd be mindful that it's gonna be very sunny up there, and very windy when the wind is blowing, and you will need a water source.
NNAMDILet's say you live on the fifth floor of a building in an apartment, and you've only got window space to work with. What can I grow and what are a few tips on how to grow it?
BRUSKENot even a little terrace or a balcony?
NNAMDIJust window space, that's it.
NNAMDIAnd it only gets -- it only gets sun for a couple -- a few hours.
BRUSKEWell, let's back up one second. Okay. To grow just about anything, you really need four hours' sun. That's...
NNAMDIOkay. It gets five hours of sun a day.
BRUSKEOkay. Lettuce, radishes, that kind of thing. To grow tomatoes and cucumbers, you really need six hours of sun. So starting from that point, if you get a few hours of sun, there's no reason why you can't grow a number of herbs in your window. You could even grow some lettuce there. And that, you know, you're definitely limited. But you're limited by the, I guess, the size of the windowsill that you have.
NNAMDIThey give me a small plot of land outdoors. What are the keys to grown vertically?
BRUSKEI love growing vertically. Some of our most fun happens vertically. First -- the first key is picking things that like to grow vertically. Tomatoes are a vining plant, but they normally vine along the ground. So to get them to grow up, you -- you know, traditionally need a cage of some sort, or you need to tie them up somehow. Cucumbers on the other hand, put out little clean tendrils. They will grow all up -- all by themselves. Likewise, pole beans and things like that.
BRUSKESo you just need to start making a list of the various vegetables that like to grow up.
NNAMDIHere's this e-mail we got from Carolina. "Every year for the past eight years I've tried to grow vegetables and fruits on my tenth story balcony in Crystal City. Every year the tomatoes and eggplants and zucchini squash start out promising with new green shoots and showy flowers. And every year by mid-summer all the baby veggies wither and die except for the five or six tomatoes which end up tiny and sour and totally not worth all the effort in watering. Realistically, all I can grow are a handful of herbs and flowers. What am I doing wrong?"
BRUSKEI don't know exactly what you're doing wrong, or if you are in fact doing anything wrong. I would check to make sure that you are getting adequate sunlight. I would want to know, you know, what kind of soil medium you're using and what you're using to feed your plants, whether it's fish emulsion or Miracle Grow. They're gonna need something, okay. And they're gonna need water, but not too much water.
BRUSKESo I think you just need to maybe go back to the drawing board and figure out what it is exactly your plants needs rather than what you may be doing wrong.
NNAMDIWe're running out time very quickly. Here is Nick in Potomac, Md. Nick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NICKHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a certified organic farmer, and I have been farming on 20 acres, which is a vacant school site here in Potomac, Md., for the past 30 years. And I just heard on Thursday that the school board is not gonna renew my lease. And yesterday, Tuesday, they had a meeting that we had about two working days' notice, to vote on that and give the lease to the Montgomery County. The Montgomery County will then give another lease to a private athletic organization who will then construct soccer fields on the property. And ...
NNAMDIYou know, Montgomery County superintendent, Jerry Weast, has written a letter to the school board outlining his concerns about vegetable gardens. Did that have anything to do with your situation?
NNAMDIOh, okay. But we're running out of time. We only have about 30 seconds.
NICKOkay. What I'm pointing out here is that there are competing demands on urban lands, and one thing that I am able to do here as a certified organic farmer is raise GMO-free seed because there are no other farms near me whose pollen could contaminate my seed. And I sell that seed to other farmers and to seed companies.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're about out of time. Any cryptic comments that you can make in ten seconds or less?
BRUSKEI don't understand why Montgomery County is so unfriendly to gardens.
NNAMDIEd Bruske is -- and thank you for your call, Nick. Ed Bruske is the co-founder of the group DC Urban Gardeners. He's a certified master gardener. He's also a former Washington Post reporter. He now blogs at "The Slow Cook." You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, take a look at his garden. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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