The Essential Urban Farm by Novella Carpenter and Willow Rosenthal 2011 Penguin Books $25.00
Florida State University
The Essential Urban Farm thoroughly covers many aspects of urban farming, including raising plants and raising animals. It is well written, easy to understand, and covers a wide range of topics. It is geared toward the person who plans to engage in these practices, rather than the researcher who studies the practices. It does not contextualize the information it provides within broader scholarly literature, but that is not to say that it would not be valuable to academics who wanted to see how certain topics are discussed within how-to texts made for the non-specialist or early career farmer. For example, one looking at food security might look at the section on creating local food systems within the urban environment to see how individual urban farmers are implementing these practices.
The book is filled with gardening tips that I am looking forward to trying, and the language is pretty straightforward and is easy to understand even for someone with limited experience. I have been gardening for a few years in two different climates, so had already done some of the things they had suggested, but I still learned a lot about my crops. I had begun gardening in earnest in Iowa, before moving to my current home in Florida, which is (obviously) much warmer and more conducive to year-round planting. When I started reading the book, I found myself wanting to see more about how different planting conditions and such might vary in different climates, but it occurred to me that the key pieces of knowledge in the book, such as how to lay out a garden, are not climate-specific. The more I read, the more I felt that the authors did a good job of bringing breadth to their discussions so each suggestion could be applied to a variety of situations.
The book covers animal care too, which I spent less time with because I am not currently raising livestock, so the section on that was less immediately relevant to my needs. Were I to begin raising animals though, the book would have the kind of information that I would want to know about as I was getting started. For those who do plan to keep animals, the book covers chickens and other smaller barnyard animals (e.g. goats) but not animals that require more space than the urban farmer could provide (e.g. cows).
The most valuable feature of the book for me is the appendices. There are thirteen of them, and they cover a variety of topics that I have wanted to learn more about but have not found a straightforward resource to guide me. For example, Appendix 3 covers plant nutrient needs to help you decide how to rotate crops. Many of my plants are heavy feeders, so I used their table to decide what to plant to replenish my soil after this growing season.
The authors devote a good amount of space to discussions of tenants doing urban farming on rented property (which is what I do), and how to work with what you have. This idea is present throughout the book, and readers are urged to use recycled/salvaged/thrifted materials as often as possible. For those who rent or who have poor soil conditions, there are also options for making use of less-than-perfect space (which includes anything from layering planting material over asphalt/concrete to amending the existing soil). The suggestions for amending soil usually involve the addition of organic matter, and there are also tips for removing harmful substances that might build up in the soil of an urban environment. Because they offer a variety of options for resolving different farming issues (and these options range widely in terms of cost and difficulty), and because of the focus on repurposing materials, I would consider it to be useful for those working within a tight budget.
There were a few things I would have liked to see a bit more coverage for, but for the most part this is an excellent and comprehensive volume. I would especially recommend it to the novice gardener or farmer because it provides in-depth information, but is not written with the tone of many other manuals I’ve encountered that make the reader feel as though their plants will all die unless they follow a long series of complicated steps. That being said, the coverage is broad enough that it may not exactly meet the needs of someone who is farther along or who needs a very specific piece of information (say, about a particular plant). This is definitely one I plan to refer back to time and again as I continue to grow in my new garden, and in the future when I am able to keep farm animals.