Skip to Navigation Skip to Content

Dishing the Dirt: The Plant It Yourself Movement Is Growing Like a Weed

Photo by Erin Kunkel

When it comes to urban farming, everyone has their limits. Margo True, food editor of Sunset magazine in Menlo Park, drew the line at a cow. “We found out we could legally keep our Jersey, named Holly, which we use for milk,” says True, the main author of One Block Feast: An Adventure From Yard to Table (Ten Speed Press), a cookbook that recounts the magazine staff’s attempt to make, grow, and raise everything—from bees to butternut squash—needed to make a series of seasonal dinners. “But it takes impregnating the cow, and well, we just didn’t feel we were up to it.” Now Holly lives on a farm nearby.

While the spring-release is a fantastic guide for the aspiring farmer, you’ll have to modify it for San Francisco, where one cow is about the size of the average backyard, and where summer fog presents you with a better chance of raising chickens than beefsteak tomatoes.

Though it might take more work than suburban or rural growing, living off city land can be done. “Balconies, fire escapes, windowsills—by whatever means necessary,” says Karla Nagy, who, along with a group of passionate gardeners, started Kitchen Garden SF, a program that’s part of the San Francisco Permaculture Guild. The group launched last summer during one of the most miserable growing seasons in San Francisco history, but the challenges are also a part of the thrill. “You have to find the right thing to grow. Then there’s the wind and getting the materials from the street to the garden, which can involve going through someone’s bedroom or up a 5-foot wall,” says Nagy.

Regardless of these hurdles, Kitchen Garden SF has 12 new plots under their belt—all planted with 75 percent vegetables and 25 percent flowers that attract beneficial insects like ladybugs and predatory wasps. Hire them to plant a garden for a sliding scale fee, and they’ll assist in doing everything from building raised beds to choosing the right vegetables for your microclimate. “Our goal is to create a community of gardeners so that neighbors will garden together,” says Nagy.

Should you want to keep this a DIY affair, there’s also the Grow Your Own Festival on May 21 at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, with city-friendly starters of all sorts sold by Flatland Flower Farmer. Co-owner Dan Lehrer, a city native who lives on a farm in Sebastopol, is astounded by what people have succeeded in growing here. “I met a woman who told me she’d grown Cherokee Purple tomatoes in a pot on her deck in the Mission,” he says. “It’s not a cool-weather tomato, but her deck heated up so much, it was like a little slice of Danville.”