Three Urban Garden Ideas: Gravity Drip Irrigation, Worm Walkways & Bamboo Hoop Houses

I have been experimenting with some new ideas in my small-scale urban garden in our rented home in the Gainesville, FL student ghetto.

One of my goals in gardening is to use local, sustainable and/or reclaimed materials as much as possible.

I am interested in discovering and developing urban gardening models that are:

  • Affordable.
  • Built with local and reclaimed materials when possible.
  • Beneficial to ecology and promote soil building.

Here are a few of the projects I am working on or have worked on (often with help from roommates and friends) over the summer and fall in my small home garden in Gainesville.

#1: Gravity Drip Irrigation System

A drip irrigation system keeps plants consistently watered, at a slow pace throughout the day. It saves you water, time, and work. And the plants love it because they are never thirsty.

Here is a video of my gravity drip irrigation system when I installed it in July:

For this project, I got a 55-gallon barrel from a car wash and washed it out several times to get out the soapy residues. I placed the barrel on a stack of about 10 half-pallets (five wooden shipping pallets which I sawed in half). The barrel serves as the water reservoir for the gravity drip irrigation system.

Instructions & Parts

I purchased my irrigation supplies from Irrigation Direct. I estimate that it cost me around $40 to $50, for drip materials that will last for seasons. While I would imagine it would be difficult to find reclaimed or free microtubing parts, it is a small investment that will last, will save you time and work, and will pay for itself in water savings.

Materials from Irrigation Direct:
Links in bold are items that are necessary or highly recommended.

  1. A 1/2″ Main Line of Poly Tubing is inserted in a 1/2″ hole that I have drilled in the main water reservoir, a plastic barrel which I acquired from a local car wash.
  2. Inside the barrel, I have attached a 3/4″ Hose Thread Swivel and a 3/4″ Hose Filter Washer to prevent debris inside the barrel from clogging the main drip line.
  3. Outside the barrel, I have attached a 5/8″ Flow Control Valve to have the ability to turn the whole drip system on and off.
  4. The main 1/2″ poly tubing halfway encircles the garden, while seven 1/4″ Vinyl Micro Tubing lines divert the water throughout all of my rows. Attach the 1/4″ micro tubing to the 1/2″ main line using 1/4″ Barbed Connectors. You can also restrict water flow to individual rows by installing 1/4″ Barbed In-Line Flow Control Valves.
  5. Finally, you need 1/2 GPH Mini In-Line Drippers to drip water on the individual plants, or Full Circle Stream Spray Bubblers for spraying larger areas like flower beds or a group of containers. Micro Tubing Holder Stakes are helpful for keeping dirt out of the drippers.
  6. Don’t forget Goof Plugs for cutting off the water at the end of the 1/4″ microtubing, and a Compression Hose End Plug for stopping water flow at the end of the 1/2″ main line.

To use the gravity drip system, I fill the water reservoir using a hose every one to two days (depending on the size of your garden and water needs). I run the drip system for 4-5 hours each day and turn the valve off every evening. Adding mulch around plants helps to retain moisture and reduce the amount of water needed.

In the future, I would like to find or fashion a rain gutter on the shed to divert rainwater into the reservoir.

#2: Worm Walkways

Worm Walkways

My Worm Walkway is a raised garden path made of wooden pallets, with a worm farm underneath.

Why worms? Worms aid in breaking down organic matter and turning it into compost. They also produce castings (i.e. worm poop) which can be used as a nutrient-rich organic fertilizer.

To make the pathways, I cut wooden pallets in half, then removed the bottom panels of wood so that I would have space to add the worm farm below. Important: Be sure to use pallets marked with an “HT” stamp, indicating that they are heat treated rather than chemically treated.

After cutting the pallets, I filled the area below them with a mix of dried crumbled leaves and vegetable scraps, fruit peels and coffee grounds. After the mixture sat for a while and composted, I added 1000 Alabama Jumper worms, which should further break down the organic matter and leave behind their nutrient-rich castings.

Alabama Jumper Worms

The idea behind the Worm Walkways is that you use the underutilized pathways between your rows to create rich, vermicomposted soil for the next season’s beds. The following season, you can plant directly in the space that was previously your walkway (and turn your spent rows into new Worm Walkways), or take the finished compost and add it to your already existing rows for the next planting.

If successful, these Worm Walkways could prove to be a sustainable and effective way to build rich soil in a small space, while turning previously unused pathways into mini ecological hubs.

The inspiration for this came from an instructional video by the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute:

#3: Bamboo Hoop House

The latest project I am working on is a bamboo hoop house, made from my neighbor’s invasive bamboo plants and plastic bags that I was previously throwing away.

Bamboo Hoop House
(Incomplete as pictured.)

With any luck, this mini greenhouse will allow me to grow some warmer season crops in my raised bed, to have a wider variety of food in the cold months, and to start seeds early before the last winter frost.

My neighbor has a mini bamboo forest in his yard, and since bamboo is an invasive exotic that is hard to destroy, he had no problem with me cutting a few live sticks to make the frame for my hoop house.

Since I have been collecting cabbage leaves (for compost) from Reggae Shack in clear plastic bags, I am using the plastic from these bags as the cover for my greenhouse. I am waiting on a few more bags that I can use to add a front and back cover to the hoop house in the coming weeks.

I used a staple gun to attach the plastic to the sticks, folding the plastic along the edges to give it more security. I have used duct tape to cover any holes and attach the edges of the bags to each other.

All of the above projects are evolving works in progress, but with any luck they will help me reach my goal of growing a substantial amount of my own food in a small space.

Why I’m Not Buying Today’s Whole Foods Daily Deal on LivingSocial

I find something unsettling about Whole Foods. Although they generally provide better quality food than Publix or other big name grocery stores, the Whole Foods model is not one I value in my community.

When I was a teenager in Miami, I used to walk a mile to a little health food store near the Dadeland South metro station on US-1. It was during high school after I had decided to be vegan and I was exploring my new “health food” options. I don’t remember the name of the store, but it was a hole-in-the-wall type of place where I would occasionally buy organic (some locally-sourced) produce, fair-trade chocolate, or Nag Champa incense. Although it was small, it had its charm, especially because it was literally the only health food store in several miles’ radius.

About a year later, Whole Foods bought out the Wild Oats chain, which had a huge store a mile south of my local health food store on US-1. Whole Foods simultaneously opened another store about a mile north of my local health food store, just off of US-1. In mere months, the health food store closed its doors for good. It was sandwiched between two Whole Foods and it suffocated.

Today, aside from Beehive Natural Foods on Bird Road (a 20-year-old small grocery store with a charming juice bar and vegan cafe), there are few, if any, health food stores that I know of within South Miami. But there are a handful of Whole Foods.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Whole Foods, and I shop there sometimes when I visit my parents in Miami. Thank goodness that people have a big-name place to shop that offers some healthier and alternative foods, and it’s a fun place to shop. At Whole Foods, you can buy organic produce, bulk grains, and other interesting health products. They also have a great cafe that is a good place to eat lunch. And the Whole Foods company, admirably, has some focus on food ethics, with its Whole Trade Program and Seafood Sustainability ratings.

But the prices at Whole Foods make me swallow uncomfortably, and I do not like the idea of paying (especially paying that much) for a fruit or vegetable that was shipped from California, Mexico or Chile to me in Florida.

I would rather visit a farmers’ market in my neighborhood where I can pay a local farmer directly for my food; or a local grocery store with a humble focus on sustainability and our unique local culture. And I would pay these people proudly because I could see them face-to-face and feel comfortable knowing where my money is going.

The problem is that Whole Foods crushes these smaller local food distributors, and perpetuates a culture like that of Miami, where there are few local coffee shops, but plenty of Starbucks; few health food stores, but plenty of Whole Foods. If they opened a Whole Foods in Gainesville near Ward’s, or the new Citizens’ Co-op, it might crush them, too.

This is why I’m not buying the Whole Foods deal on Living Social today.

My intention is not to make anyone feel guilty about getting a great deal at a great store — go right ahead. But consider the role that Whole Foods plays in your community, and whether there are other places where you can buy food that was produced more nearby, and by people who you can actually meet and shake hands with.

My (admittedly unsolicited) opinion on Whole Foods has caused debates between me and my more eco-friendly friends before. I welcome further discussion of this topic on Facebook or wherever this might be shared.

Thoughts on Los Angeles, a City of Paradoxes

As I’ve walked and bussed my way through Los Angeles each day during my one month stay here, I have tried to piece together a narrative in my head on my feelings and observations about this city, never quite getting a grasp on my understanding of it. Tonight, on one of my last nights living here, this mental puzzle comes together a little more, and I write this post in an attempt to express my thoughts on Los Angeles and my experiences here.

Going by foot and transit in L.A. has given me the opportunity to interact with people and see the neighborhoods far better than if I had been driving a car. Exploring urban gardens and food initiatives as part of a personal project has given me an excuse to explore the city and witness amazing instances of people working together to fundamentally transform a place and its food system. And working from home and out of coffee shops on my website, Apple iPhone Review (my business and primary “job”), has made me feel embedded in an entrepreneurial and creative culture that thrives here in Los Angeles.

The Bus

After meeting up tonight on Melrose Ave for dinner with my aunt (who visited from Orange County), I later took the bus home from my sister and her boyfriend’s West Hollywood apartment to my temporary Hollywood studio.

While waiting at the bus stop on Fairfax Avenue around midnight, I stood by the street curb and looked off into the distance, watching the still-steady stream of cars make their way through the streets, like blood ceaselessly pulsing through the city veins.

I reflected on my time here and on my plans for when I get back home to Gainesville.

Finally, my bus arrives. Fifteen minutes late.

I board the bus and sit in an empty seat toward the front. I slide down one seat, away from the aisle, so that another passenger can use the outside seat if desired.

One stop later, a man boards the bus and chooses the seat beside me. I cross my arms and move my left leg inward a bit, so that it is not touching his. He crosses his arms, too.

I look out the window and think about how strange it is to sit two inches away from a fellow human being and never acknowledge each other at all. This has been my experience in L.A. People rarely interact in public here unless they know each other or are doing business.

For the most part it seems Los Angelenos don’t speak on the bus, and they don’t make eye contact when they pass each other on the sidewalks.

I can understand how someone new to the city might feel alone, when people here are mostly focused inward, on their own lives and careers, and do not often interact with strangers. But I found that in the general absence of public interaction, offering someone a smile, a “Hi!” or a “Thank you!” goes a long way to building a connection. Despite the isolationist public attitude in Los Angeles, people generally do treat you kindly if you engage them.

Disinterest in strangers aside, Los Angelenos are highly networked in their personal lives and careers.

Unquestionably, much of L.A. culture is about meeting people and working creatively together. I met more people than I can count who are involved in theatre, acting, or some kind of creative production. Many people endure low pay, odd hours and an extremely competitive job market only to do what they love. Before he left town for the month, the guy who sublet me his Hollywood studio, Vinny, invited me to a showing of Much Ado About Nothing, which he directed for the eighth annual Shakespeare in Santa Monica. Vinny is a 27-year old from northern California who has until this year survived on only a thespian’s income all his adult life. He is currently in New York City auditioning for a Broadway play.

The energy surrounding “The Industry,” as they call it here, is transferred to other pockets of Los Angeles, and the result is a large community of passionate people working to better the city and its neighborhoods.

One of the things I spent some time doing here is meeting people who are working on innovative food initiatives, some of which I’ve documented on Urban Food America. As it turns out, there are a lot of people in L.A. working on the types of “inspiring community food initiatives” that I wished to document on the blog.

As I sit on the bus tonight, I think about how even though I was put off by it at first, I appreciate the space that people generally give each other in public. When you are always surrounded by people, it is nice to have your thoughts to yourself.

Nevertheless, I had some interesting conversations with people on public transit, including most recently on the subway with a man apparently in his 50’s who had moved from Spokane, Washington to pursue an acting career. When I spoke with him, he was coming back from playing a part as an extra in a new Seth Rogen movie.

Comfort of Community vs. Anonymity of the City

One thing I struggle with in Gainesville sometimes is the smallness of the place. While I cherish Gainesville for its tight-knit, progressive community, it can feel suffocating at times. Don’t get me wrong, I love how after living there for five years, I can go anywhere and there is a likelihood that I’ll stumble upon someone I know and maybe say hi and talk, the type of encounter that rarely happened in Miami where I grew up. But I have to admit that sometimes the Miami kid in me wants to walk around and not be recognized by anyone. The opportunity to reinvent yourself each time you go out is alluring, but absent in small towns.

What is better, the comfort of community, or the anonymity of the city? Before coming to L.A. this month, I was craving the latter.

It turns out that L.A. offers a sense of comfort, too, with its many different niches and community initiatives.

As I approach my bus stop on Hollywood Blvd and Highland, I reach to pull the yellow cable, which not only signals the bus driver to stop, but tells the passenger sitting between you and the aisle that you are about to get up. Pulling the yellow bus cable would be the only sign of communication exchanged between me and the man next to me, except that he cheerfully says “You’re welcome,” when I thank him for getting up.

L.A. Paradox

In an email exchange I had with one Jason, a native Alabaman who now lives in L.A. and whom I met at the Micheltorena Elementary School community garden the first weekend I arrived, he told me: “L.A. is a funny paradox: angelinos love organic food but are in conflict with earthiness!”

This remark stuck with me throughout my stay because it rang true to me and aligned with a lot of my observations of the city.

The paradox that Jason mentioned has unfolded before me this month: While Los Angelenos ignore each other in public, they are usually friendly and enthusiastic in personal interactions. While L.A. can seem massive and impersonal, it is home to a diversity of small neighborhoods, many with active markets and communities. And while the city revolves around an industry that is admittedly vain and obsessed with celebrity, there is nevertheless a remarkable sense of altruism and desire to do things for the public good.

There is a Death Cab for Cutie song in Photo Album, one of my favorite music albums in high school, that paints a poetic, albeit pessimistic, portrayal of Los Angeles. Originally, the song gave me a negative impression of the city, especially because it reminded me somewhat of Miami.

It’s a lovely summer’s day
And I can almost see a skyline through a thickening shroud of egos.
(Is this the city of angels or demons?)
Here the names are what remain…
Stars encapsulate the gold lame
And they need constant cleaning for when the tourists begin salivating.

You can’t swim in a town this shallow – you will most assuredly drown tomorrow.

— “Why You’d Want to Live Here” by Death Cab for Cutie

Chasing Dreams

In the late 1800s, pioneers pushed westward to arrive at California, where the promise of not only gold, but fertile farmland, lay before them.

Without overlooking the current culture of vanity and waste in L.A., my own trip to the west coast revealed a place with an enduring pioneering spirit, a diversity of people, and an urban agricultural movement that promises to inform the future of food in this country.

While the Death Cab song “Why You’d Want to Live Here” (cited above) had previously guided my perception of L.A., now that I’ve lived here and seen another side, I have developed a fondness for this city that is hard to describe. The perceived vanity in this city is also a self-reflection and a desire to be and do better.

I will soon be California Dreaming.

Update: The next day, I saw a shooting star in the middle of Hollywood as I was walking home at the end of the night. It was another strange L.A. paradox, given the light pollution; yet fitting given the symbolic setting. I will never forget it.

Grow Your Food

Since we planted our single 4×4 raised bed garden in the backyard last year, our once tiny organic garden has expanded throughout the back, into the front yard, and to both sides of the house. We have supported the whole operation with no amendments other than the compost we make from our food scraps and dried leaves.

As we work to expand our Gainesville organic garden, the question on my mind remains, “How much food can we realistically grow on this small property?”

My goal in gardening is to grow more food — and to do so in a financially and environmentally sustainable way.

To Grow Your Own Food is Empowering

I worked on a local organic farm for six months, and despite the meager pay and browbeating sun, I felt proud to do what felt like a patriotic act: to grow food for the benefit of people in my community.

Now that we have expanded our home garden and I’ve unquestionably caught the gardening fever, nothing has made me feel like I’m having a direct and meaningful positive impact like growing my own food.

When the average vegetable travels thousands of miles (aided by fossil fuels) to arrive at your plate, to grow your own food is environmentally sustainable.

When the far transportation of food relies on gasoline that is decreasing in supply and increasing in price, to grow your own food is economically smart.

When corporate farms are paying workers a wage that equates to modern day slavery, to grow your own food is humanitarian.

And when any of the above is bringing you down and you feel like your legislators aren’t doing anything about it, then to grow your own food is empowering.

In our efforts to grow more food around our small brick house in the Gainesville “Student Ghetto,” we have planted seeds in almost every spot that gets at least four hours of sun. We just mix the sandy soil with heaps of compost and plant seeds. Voilà. It works.

A Resourceful Gardening Approach

We are innovative, frugal and resourceful in our gardening approach:

  1. We use dead branches, fence posts and shovel handles for growing pole beans.
  2. We turn old five gallon buckets into hanging tomato and basil pots.
  3. We use old tires to grow tomatoes.

Who would have thought the best way to recycle something is to use it to grow food?

Friendship & Food

Another major benefit of growing your own food is that it enhances your friendships. When we have people over, the backyard is the obvious go-to spot, among the plants. People love it.

The garden ecosystem brings life to the atmosphere, and it’s a wonderful thing to show people. I love to give new friends tours around the garden because they are always so amazed — as am I — at the beauty and splendor of the garden.

I want everybody to see how easy, and how rewarding, it is to grow food.

Urban Farming

Because our current agricultural model is impossible to sustain, the evolution of farming is certain to bring on radical changes.

With 82 percent of Americans living in cities, the next few decades are likely to see a rise in urban farming. It is already happening, and mostly in the US’s most devastated areas.

In New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, Our School at Blair Grocery is educating and empowering at-risk youth by showing them how to grow food.

In Detroit, downtrodden lots are being turned into garden plots where poor single mothers grow organic produce to sell and support their families.

Update (Aug. 2011): I have recently begun a project to document inspiring urban food initiatives at

If we want to solve our environmental, social and economic problems, we need to grow our own food.

Don’t wait. Plant a seed today.

A Glimpse at Our Gainesville Organic Garden

Here are some photos of the garden(s) outside our home, a small brick house in the Gainesville “Student Ghetto” that has endured the torment of college students since 1929. No more.

With the knowledge, work and dedication of my former roommate Alex Mourant, we have turned a dull, dead landscape — front and back — into a flourishing and inviting space that is now the main attraction of our house.

Photos of Our Gainesville Garden

(Click on any photo to see an even more beautiful, high-resolution version.)

It all starts with the compost. We put our veggie scraps in a pile and mix them with dried leaves to produce a potent fertilizer that is black gold for our organic garden.

Compost Pile in Gainesville

This is our corn bed in the back:

Growing Corn in Gainesville

Growing Corn in Gainesville

Tomatoes spontaneously germinated from the compost on our corn bed, so we let them stay. We also planted beans, to semi-mimic the “three sisters” companion planting method — Native Americans planted corn, beans and squash together. The beans climb the corn, and the squash (or in our case tomato) shades the soil.

Corn, Tomatoes and Beans in the Gainesville Garden

These are probably cherry tomatoes in our corn bed:

Cherry Tomatoes in Gainesville

More tomatoes next to our raised bed.

Tomatoes in Gainesville

Trellised peas in front of our raised bed. If you just taste one of these peas off the vine, you will immediately understand one major benefit of growing your own food, the taste.

Peas on Trellis in Gainesville Florida

Some pots with basil, cilantro, tomato, and hot Czechoslovakian black pepper.

Potted Organic Plants in Gainesville

Alex adding freshly sifted compost to the front corn bed:

Compost, Gainesville Garden

This is our front yard corn bed now, with beans and squash interspersed. I planted sunflowers in the old tire (pictured below) but volunteer tomatoes came up instead.

Corn in the Front Yard, Gainesville Garden

Beans climbing up a post in our side yard. Something is eating the leaves. :-/

Growing Beans in Gainesville

Finally, this is our most recently planted bed, the Forget Me Not Plot, dedicated to my good friend and roommate Alex Mourant, who will soon depart to Fiji for a 27-month Peace Corps term. We planted a bunch of different seeds — including Forget Me Not flowers — in this plot and will let it flourish naturally, with little interference, in the spirit of Masanobu Fukuoka‘s ‘Do-Nothing Farming’ philosophy.

Forget Me Not Plot Dedicated to Alex Mourant

Mulberry Pickin’

Today as I was walking out of the Mother Earth market parking lot through the back entrance, I noticed a ton of squashed berries on the ground. I looked up to discover a tree full of ripe mulberries. So I got to picking and gathered myself a hefty handful.

Mulberries Gainesville

Yep, it’s mulberry season, and there are plenty to go around on trees throughout Gainesville. You can be a sucker and buy a $5 pack of blackberries from some farm 100 miles away, or you can step right outside the market and get local, organic berries for free.

Watch out, though, cause they stain like a mother.

I’m having the mulberries in my smoothie right now and they are sweet and delicious. Also keep an eye out for loquats, coming soon to trees near you.

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