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From Reality TV to Urban Farming

By emmajean.

By Emma-Jean Weinstein, @mycitygardens

The thought of planting your own vegetable garden probably seems overwhelming if you're not doing it yet.

"Is there lead in my soil?" You may ask, "Should I get it tested? What about a raised bed garden? What crops do I start with?” 

One Boston-native who knows many of the answers to such questions is Jessie Banhazi, the owner and co-founder of Green City Growers, a Boston-area company that assists individuals, restaurants, businesses, schools, and even eldercare homes in growing food anywhere.

Jessie used to work in reality television in New York City, but she soon got fed up. When a friend called to describe the burgeoning urban farming business he had witnessed in Portland, OR (where else?!) they decided to start something similar on the east coast.

So, Jessie moved from reality television to planting vegetables. Typical. 

The idea behind Green City Growers is to "foster a deep connection between people and the food they eat". They also look at spaces which are considered untraditional growing areas and make them fruitful.

Jessie was earnest about the obstacles urban farmers must face. "Light is a huge issue," she said. In a city, tall buildings lead to light deprivation which stunt vegetable growth, especially if you're growing crops that need tons of light like tomatoes or zucchinis.

Also, most of the soil in urban areas is contaminated with lead (you can get yours tested by the UMass Soil Testing Facility for $10), which is why 95 percent of the vegetable gardens GCG plants are raised beds. There's also the issue of pollinating. Bees don't populate urban areas the way they do suburban and rural ones, so GCG often hand pollinates plants. "It's a really odd experience," Jessie said, "You take a male flower and kind of stick it into a female flower."

So what solutions are out there for urban gardeners? "Know what direction you're facing," Jessie says. Know how much light is in your yard and pick crops that do well in the light. Only have four to six hours of sunshine a day? That's fine! Plant radishes, root vegetables, mixed greens, leafy greens, and herbs. Jessie says they should do fine in minimal sunlight.

And… Call up Green City Growers for help! You don't necessarily need to pay for them to tackle your entire gardening project. You and your yard-sharing partner can just get a planting plan or a light analysis for the space. There's so much information out there about planting, sometimes you just need a little guidance to point you in the right direction.

What are the biggest benefits Jessie's seen from urban farming? "The quality of your food just can't compare to what you get from the grocery store," she said, "It's invaluable." 

Jessie, for instance, makes some incredible hot sauce with the veggies from her garden. If she throws together the tomatoes, garlic and jalapenos growing in her backyard, there's an accentuated flavor. The jalapenos are even hotter when homegrown!

Not only that, but it's awesome for kids who are picky eaters and avoid vegetables like the plague. They might scowl at broccoli from the supermarket but if they get to pick lettuce right from the backyard, they'll be much more eager to eat it.

So, as you begin your yard-sharing project with your neighbors, remember not to get overwhelmed, to start small, and to call up Green City Growers if you need any help!