New research aims to help urban farmers sustain functioning gardens in any landscape—and turn these areas into resources for local residents.

March 15, 2019
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city urban garden space
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There are so many ways that gardening can aid your health, from providing you with easy access to organic ingredients and stimulating physical exercise to an array of holistic mental benefits. For those living in large metropolitan cities, however, finding space to invest in a community garden can be hard-and even then, there's unique challenges in urban gardening and farming that rural residents don't have to deal with. But new research is underway to help create better guidelines and advice for those who wish to start a successful organic garden in any urban space, even if it's in the middle of a concrete jungle.

The American Society of Agronomy is highlighting researchers that are working to establish new guidelines for soil quality and maintenance in urban spaces, according to a ScienceDaily feature. Researchers, farmers, and community garden experts will soon present new findings that illustrates how urban soil-and, by extension, gardens themselves-could be a resource for human and environmental health.

"We can benefit from how we manage the environment," Jennifer Nicklay, one of the project's lead researchers, told ScienceDaily. "Clean water, clean air, and agriculture benefit us, our waterways, and wildlife. We put a value on crop yield, which is all well and good. But in urban [agriculture], we're in such proximity to other humans. The other benefits become really important to think of as a whole."

Nicklay, a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, is working with colleagues from the University of St. Thomas and Hamline University in the Minneapolis area to pinpoint the benefits of urban soil for cityscapes everywhere. With the support of groups like Minnesota's Fresh Water Society, the team often faces the everyday challenges of creating garden and farm space in a city-leases on land often expire, city codes may change and prevent farmers from actually planting, or tax codes add strain to the garden's viability overall.

"When you don't know how long you'll be there, it's hard to invest in long-term solutions," Nicklay says. "All the growers value land tenure and land access."

Nicklay and her team are working to find ways to make "healthy" soil in any urban plot, meaning soil that's loose and able to support crop growth without being contaminated by chemical runoffs or affected by debris (like copper wires, for example). They're also hoping to create guidelines to enable urban gardeners to leave plots in better shape than they found them in.

A urban farm owned by the University of St. Thomas is the group's control-they're comparing soil and plant samples from urban green spaces in 20 different lab tests that often occur weekly. These test results, which include microbe and insect populations, water quality, soil fertility, and greenhouse gas levels, will indicate how the soil is improving over time.

"The University of St. Thomas farm allows us to scaffold the data," Nicklay explained. "We can control more variables, see patterns and put them into context. In the less-controlled scenarios of our four urban growers, we see the range of possibilities in the real world."

Nicklay and the team also work with gardeners outside the Minneapolis area to see how their processes affect gardens' success overall.

"When something hasn't gone well, they tell me. We're able to work through it," she says. "We're getting so much from the farmers. We want to give back and answer community questions. We make sure people know we're here and invested in their success."

Nicklay first presented this project at the Soil Science of America International Solis Meeting in January-research will continue this year and the team expects to publish their formal findings in 2020. "We can help researchers, growers, communities, and policymakers understand the potential impacts of urban agriculture at this larger scale," Nicklay said.

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