Essential Pittsburgh
6:01 pm
Fri August 2, 2013

Urban Farming In Pittsburgh: Better Food From Your Backyard

The bioshelter at Garfield Farms will provide year-round growing.
Credit Garfield Farms

From the country to the city, many urban dwellers are beginning to develop self-sustainable farms in the backyards of their Pittsburgh apartments. These “city farms” engage communities in the farming process and improve nutrition to citizens that do not live near a grocery store or market.

Small gardens and urban livestock such as chicken and bees can be found on balconies, roofs and oftentimes in revitalized vacant lots.

Heather Mikulas works in local food infrastructure and agricultural entrepreneurship for the Penn State University Extension Office in Allegheny County and helps backyard farmers develop their own agricultural techniques. She says that everyone has a different reason to start planting an urban garden, but anyone can do it.

“People really want to have a direct connection to the earth, a tactical hobby, and they want to get some exercise and fresh air.”

Mikulas, who grew up helping her grandparents can fruits and vegetables in their backyard, says nostalgia is a big motivation for urban gardening in Pittsburgh because of the large number of immigrant gardens that have played a role in the city’s past. Residents that live in food deserts, she says, farm for practical reasons, but others do it to assist in community development.

Fortunately for Pittsburghers, the city has in place several ordinances that encourage urban agriculture. Zoning laws exist to protect people that want to have chicken and bees on their property.  Living on one city lot allows residents to own up to three chickens and one hive of bees.  Owning goats requires a separate variance.

Find out more about Pittsburgh's urban agriculture regulations

What about the winter?

Through a little research, farmers can discover how to insulate their chicken coops and winterize their bee hives, Mikulas explains. 
“And farming on the backside of the calendar is really a fun project,” she adds.  Due to climate change, Pittsburgh has been moved a month warmer for the final harvesting day which means more time for growing and more crops for farmers.  With an easily constructed PVC-pipe and aluminum shelter, plants can be stored in a greenhouse-type structure throughout the winter season.

Bioshelters

This greenhouse structure has origins in the permaculture world, where planters mimic natural eco-systems to produce food. The shelter is very sustainable and uses solar heating instead of propane to catch the sun from the south east and filter in necessary amounts of heat.  Garfield Farms in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Garfield has almost completed work on the city's first bioshelter.

Suggestions for Pittsburgh farmers:

1.     Give your potential farm a soil lead test. The Steel City has industrial roots.  Even if your house has been a house for years, its soil has a high potential for some sort of lead activity.

2.     Give the soil a nutrient test, too. Mikulas says the two are relatively inexpensive but can mean a world of difference to urban farms.  The Penn State Extension Office offers both tests.

3.     Don’t compost those giant weeds.  Residents know all too well the huge volumes of fibrous plants that take over many backyards.  But because of the biology of the species, they can grow almost anywhere. It’s best to take them to a drop off location. Also, use a machete to clear room for your potential farm, it’s probably the best tool for the kinds of "pioneer species" growing in backyards.

Mikulas says Pittsburgh is definitely on the track to success and further sustainability with urban farming.  Food from the city's farms help growers feel healthier and more satisfied when they see the entire farming process.