Growing Food in the City

by Cris Carusi

As a spokesperson for the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, I spend a lot of time promoting sustainable farming and local food systems. I burn countless gallons of gasoline and motor oil driving to communities across Nebraska to do this work. On these trips, I generally subsist on a steady diet of Fritos and Diet Pepsi because I canít be bothered to stop and eat.

If all people lived like I do, sustainable, local food systems would be out of the question.

When Chuck Francis, director of the UNL Center for Sustainable Agricultural Systems, asked me to house-sit for him during his year-long sabbatical to Norway, I decided it was time for a minor lifestyle adjustment. Chuck and his wife, Barb, have a big backyard garden and a simple greenhouse at their Lincoln home. Here was my big chance to practice what I preach and grow a substantial amount of my own food.

My friends Lisa Bauer and Larry Cutforth enthusiastically offered to help with the garden. Lisa and I spent hours pouring over seed catalogues, picking out varieties which seemed easiest to grow. Chuck and Barb let us use their compost. Local vegetable growers Kevin and Charuth Loth generously helped us plan our planting schedule and sold us a pickup load of mulch. And on Good Friday, we worked up a patch of soil and planted potatoes.

Larry convinced us to grow a Native American "Three Sisters" corn, bean and squash garden, and it worked! In a 12í x 12í patch of garden we raised pumpkins, butternut squash, cucumbers, and a bumper crop of sweet corn. The third sister, beans, turned out to be a problem child, mainly because we planted bush beans instead of pole beans and they were starved for light.

To grow the "Three Sisters" garden, we planted 16 hills of corn spaced 4í apart in a 4x4 grid, with 4 corn plants per hill. When the corn was about 4" tall, we planted a couple of beans at the base of each corn plant. At the same time, we evenly spaced 12 hills of squash between the corn hills. We used mulch and a hoe to control early weeds; the squash choked out most weeds later in the summer. The squash vines have sprawled into the potato patch, but the potatoes donít seem to mind.

Overall, the garden has done wonderfully. The potatoes are huge and tasty, the tomatoes explode with flavor. We have enough Thai, Vietnamese, and Habanero peppers to supply the entire kingdom of Nepal. We feasted on baby salad greens in early summer and pesto in mid-summer. The onions, broccoli and cauliflower could have done better, but the bumper crop of garlic more than made up for it. The rainbow of zinnias, asters, marigolds, sunflowers, and cosmos planted throughout the garden never fails to cheer me up after a stressful day of grant writing for NSAS.

Our urban harvest was so bountiful that Lisa and I decided to preserve some of it for winter. We froze sweetcorn and pesto, and canned a batch of pickles for the holidays. Our most ambitious canning project, however, was tomato sauce.

The night before we began the sauce project, I called my dad to wish him a happy birthday. When I told him that I was going to spend Saturday canning tomato sauce, I could hear the look on his face in his silence on the other end of the line. It was his "I canít believe that I fathered this child" look. He tactfully suppressed his urge to shout, "Why the hell are you canning tomato sauce when you can buy it at the store! Do something useful!" and muttered something about it being more work than he would ever take on.

Dad was right - canning tomato sauce was a lot of work. It took hours to boil the sauce down. My canner, purchased along with a pile of garden hose at a Hartington auction, sprung a leak and we had to buy a replacement in the middle of the project. It is amazing how hard it was to find a canner in Lincoln. (Ace Hardware carries them, if youíre in need of one.) Fortunately Lisaís mom and grandmother, both of whom grew up on a farm, were just a phone call away and patiently answered our panicked canning questions.

Our hours and hours of work resulted in six quarts of tomato sauce.

"You did all of that work for six quarts of tomato sauce!" exclaimed my office mates at the Rural Development Commission the next Monday, shaking their heads in disbelief.

But one taste of that garden-fresh tomato sauce, and you realize that it was worth every hour of effort it took to make. Itís as close as Iíve come to re-creating my Italian grandmotherís homemade sauce. Lisa and I plan to make another batch this weekend.

All you need is a decent-sized backyard, spade, fork, hoe, good friends, patience, and a canner that does not leak to grow and preserve your own produce in the city. And why stop with produce? The lawn could be mowed and fertilized by chickens.....

A warning to Chuck and Barb Francis, wherever you are: Donít be surprised if you come home to find pastured poultry on your front lawn next summer.

Cris and Lisa's Tomato Sauce
Rinse about 40-45 pounds of ripe tomatoes. (Romas work well.) Remove core and blossom ends, and cut into quarters. Discard nasty fruit.

Chop up several large onions (about 6 cups of chopped onion), 15-20 medium sized garlic cloves (depending on your taste - I like to use a lot of garlic), and two big handfuls of fresh basil leaves.

In one very large kettle (or two large pots) heat 1/2 cup of olive oil. Sautee the onions, garlic, basil, 6 bay leaves, and 2 tablespoons of dried oregano until the onions are translucent. Add tomatoes. You may have to add them gradually as they cook down. Add about 1/4 cup salt, 1 tablespoon black pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste. Simmer the tomatoes for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Run the tomato mixture through a food mill, discarding seeds and skins. Simmer the sauce, uncovered, for many hours. The sauce will be slightly thinner than store-bought spaghetti sauce - we boiled it down to half of its original volume. Taste, and add salt and pepper if necessary. If the sauce tastes somewhat bitter, add a bit of sugar.

Pour the hot sauce into sterilized quart jars (this recipe yields 6-7 quarts), leaving 1/2 inch headroom. Add acid to each jar; 2 tablespoons of lemon juice or white distilled vinegar per quart will do the trick. Adjust lids and process in a boiling water bath for 40 minutes. (Refer to a food preservation book for detailed instructions on boiling water bath canning if youíre not familiar with the process. Keeping the Harvest, by Nancy Chioffi and Gretchen Mead, is a great reference available through the NSAS library.)

Cool and check jars for good seals. Bon appetit!

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