Communities are filled with avid gardeners and you may be one yourself. Home gardens and community gardens are scattered all over the country. On an individual basis, they don’t appear to do much to affect the ecology of a region. Collectively, their environmental impact on a region is unclear.
What type of impact could disconnected gardens possibly have in a neighborhood, city or region?
It’s a big question to think about and one that plant ecologist,Cara Fertitta is tackling head-on in her research at University of California Riverside. Working with gardeners and small scale farmers, Cara has started to measure the impact gardens have in the urban landscapes of Riverside and Los Angeles. She visits with us today to discuss her research.
Please join me in welcoming Cara Fertitta!
Cara, thank you for introducing yourself at a recent meeting of the Riverside Community Garden Council. Tell us about yourself.
I’m currently a third year graduate student at the University of California Riverside pursuing my PhD in plant ecology. I’ve lived here in Riverside for about 4 ½ years. I made the move after graduating with a B.S. in biology from the University of South Carolina in 2010. I was pretty sure at that point that I wanted to pursue graduate school, but I had recently made a few major directional changes, so I decided to take some time off in between. In those intermediate years I actually had a really interesting job working as a baker for a tiny little artisan sourdough bakery (Now the not-so-tiny Rustic Loaf of Upland). I would go bake bread in the morning with my boss in a tiny little commercial kitchen space, and then head out to farmer’s markets to sell. It was a great experience. At the same time I was getting really passionate about gardening and increasingly invested in cooking and sustaining a homemade pantry. Being involved in the farmer’s market scene was a constant inspiration and connected me to a lot of local farmers.
Originally I’m from Massachusetts — the youngest of four daughters in a stereotypically large, traditional Italian-Sicilian family. I remember gardening and cooking with my mother at a very young age, so these seeds, so-to-speak, where planted early. My enthusiasm for science didn’t arise until high school. About the time I started learning biology, anatomy, and physiology, I was hooked. Discovering my passion for ecology took longer — I had little appreciation for it until my later years of college, but at some point it just seemed to click with me as the most fascinating science. The science of how things interact with each other and the environment — I mean, how cool is that? As a nature buff, gardener, and food enthusiast, the rest unfolded quite naturally.
Your project is very interesting. Would you mind telling readers about your research?
My project is investigating the productivity, efficiency, and sustainability of small-scale, local food systems ranging from community gardens to small farms. There are a growing number of gardens and small farms popping up across the country, particularly in urban areas. Over a third of American households are participating in some form of food production, yet we have almost no data quantifying how productive small scale systems are and how they compare to large scale production systems. Further, we have very limited data on how gardeners and small farmers are using their space and resources, and what implications this has for their overall sustainability. Although these systems are small, they stand to have substantial impacts on the environment, particularly in urban regions where they are very much integrated into the community.
I’m hoping to get a better picture on what gardeners are doing, and use that to quantify the impact of these practices on the environment. I hope this research will help gardeners better manage their resources and reduce waste.
Why is productivity of small-scale gardens of interest to you? How did you come to research this topic?
This subject is interesting to me from both a scientific and personal perspective. This research will be the focus of my dissertation for my PhD in plant ecology. My scientific interests have long been focused on the overlap between plant community ecology and agroecology (i.e. agricultural ecosystems). Integrating ecological principles at the large-scale is often quite challenging due to the reliance on very standardized heavy machinery. At the small-scale, people often incorporate ecologically-friendly practices without even realizing it — planting densely and diversely and relaying primarily on renewable human labor, which could represent a substantial advantage in sustainability, but that’s not to say that large-scale systems don’t have certain advantages as well.
At the personal level, I’m interested because I am a small-scale producer and supporter myself. I’m a very avid and enthusiastic gardener and I’m also a big proponent of home-cooking with an emphasis on seasonal, locally-sourced (if not homegrown) produce. I love gardening because it connects me to both the food I eat and to the environment I live in. When I’m planting and landscaping, I’m also watching the migration of different birds, seeing which pollinators visit what, watching the soil biota shift as I introduce compost to the soil. It’s a fascinating endeavor as both a person and a scientist and I’m very interested to see the results of this study.
How many home gardens are in your data set? How many community gardens?
Well our gardener recruitment is an ongoing process. Currently I have 11 different gardens throughout Riverside and LA committed to the study, but I’m always happy to have more. I was initially planning to sample some home gardens as well, but since space and spatial limitation is such an important aspect of this study, we decided that using community garden plots would be more conducive to the study’s objectives. While some home gardens are contained, many of them are sprawling or disjointed. There doesn’t tend to be distinct spatial boundaries in a yard and spatial boundaries are key to my study.
You’ve mentioned that you hope your research will “influence policy decisions that may improve land tenure and public support for community gardens by showing their value in food production and sustainability.” What do you hope your research will do for home gardens?
I think for home gardens, the most important take away from this research will be regarding resource use efficiency (meaning yield output per resource input) and sustainability. I’m using a modeling technique to assess sustainability in terms of environmental impacts ranging from air and water pollution, to green house gas emissions, to human health impacts. Gardens pose many opportunities to be more productive and efficient forms of agriculture than large-scale production. They use voluntary, renewable labor, they incorporate a lot of diversity (which is beneficial for nutrient and water retention, prevention of pest, disease, and weed outbreaks, and attraction of pollinators), and much like a natural environment they leave little unoccupied space and they plant creatively (e.g. like using vertical space along horizontal space — think trellising). But there’s a good chance many gardeners are overusing their resources. Studies of lawns show widespread over-use of fertilizers, pesticides, water, etc., and it’s likely this extends to many gardeners as well. Overuse of resources is not only a waste, it can be extremely damaging to the environment — particularly when it comes to agrochemical use. In organic gardens, the resources themselves are often much lower-impact, but getting the timing and composition of compost in balance can be quite a challenge. I’m hoping to get a better picture on what gardeners are doing, and use that to quantify the impact of these practices on the environment. I hope this research will help gardeners better manage their resources and reduce waste.
Many people garden in small spaces or do container gardening on patios and balconies. How might your research be applicable to this group of people?
These folks really represent the smallest of small on the spatial limitation spectrum, and my hats off to them to using whatever space they can. Their use of space is often very creative and exploitive, which has the potential to equate to very high productivity (productivity here meaning yield normalized by space). However, properly managing resources in these container gardens is very tricky. The drainage and the shallow depth of most containers makes balancing water and nutrient needs a challenge which could result in reduced productivity and in most cases likely result in reduced resource use efficiency. Since my research will be working with folks that are planting in the ground, I’m afraid it may not be terribly insightful for container gardeners. I think that would really require a study of its own.
There is a nice collection of resources by the National Gardening Association that can be used in the classroom. Do you plan to develop instructional material for community gardens, school gardens and home gardens in the future?
I think there’s potential for the development of some helpful reference materials, but it’s not something I’ve considered yet. We do, however, plan to hold one-on-one consultations with all interested participants as well as a couple of public workshops co-sponsored by UCR’s agricultural Extension program.
Will you be presenting at the Grow Riverside conference in June?
I’m not planning to present this June since I will still be in the data collection phase. Next summer, however, I should have a lot more worth talking about.
If you would like to follow Cara’s progress, periodic updates will be posted to the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension’s Urban Agriculture Blog. Subscribe to their blog here.
The City of Riverside is experiencing a renaissance when it comes to local agriculture. This growing interest is fueled by passionate Riverside residents, community organizations such as the Riverside Community Garden Council, Sustain Riverside, and the City’s partnership with Seedstock to create GrowRIVERSIDE, a program establishing a sustainable food and agriculture system throughout the city.
Art, Botany and Urban Agriculture at Home
Many resources exist to facilitate the creation of home gardens and to encourage the study of plants at home. If you’re an aspiring gardener or looking for resources to bring urban gardening to your classroom or outdoor program, here are a few resources to investigate:
- Search for Master Gardener Programs by State
- Kitchen Counter Botany
- Drawing food as a way to learn about plants
- Drawings reveal conceptual knowledge of plants
Also, be sure to follow Cara’s research into the productivity, resource use and environmental impact of urban gardens. You can follow Cara’s progress by subscribing to the urban agriculture blog maintained by the University of California. What a way to introduce students to ecology!
Riverside residents are invited to download a map to local community gardens created by the City of Riverside Community Development Department (see right). This map is available in English and in Spanish.
Plants, Life, Riverside is an interpretive project about plants in an urban setting. Where are the plants in Riverside? Let’s find out.