Greening the Urban Food Deserts

After some changes in my plans for spring (no trip to the EU for now), I was hired to Urban Greens logowork with an upstart company called Urban Greens. Its focus blends community development through food production in the city and into the conglomerate of suburbs that forms the tri-state region of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.  Ryan Doan, one of our Permaculture students in our latest weekend PDC here in Cincinnati, started the company a couple of years ago along with his local community in the East End, to help promote healthy living with healthy community relations via viable business models.  This model is a blend of CSA, farmers market, restaurants, as market outlets but importantly the company is an employer (for me and others).

Ryan Doan- Urban Greens

My focus over the last three weeks has been lots of design and field work. Ryan and myself, have been channeling lots of creative energy and ideas, including some late night sessions together but also with other movers and shakers of the local foods scene.  There is much enthusiasm in the city now and demand in my mind way out strips the supply.  Concurrently, I also have been doing design work for the new sites that have come into Urban Greens management this year (Bond Hill, Newtown, OTR) or are being advanced from a smaller production capability than last year (Hamilton).  Furthermore, implementation of food forestry has commenced at the sites with perennial polyculture plantings beginning. Of course because we are market gardners, spring garden cleanup has been in high gear so compost, seeds, and plant could go in the ground.

So below is a breakdown of the different gardens with some images and designs to get some land and social context. First a little background and then what we have been implementing.


Hamilton (North of Cincinnati by about 40 minutes) was my first stop of any of the Urban Greens gardens originally.  On a cold and rainy winter day, it gave us the perfect perspective of a huge plaground of abundant water, gentle slopes and varying aspects all below a pond.  The examination of contour and connecting keypoints was quickly illuminated through the pattern eye. So we decided general land use patterns- hedgerows, food forests, annual gardens, beds on contour and interconnecting trees terraces.  On Wednesday (April 5th, 2013), I went again for manifesting the vision that we have roughly laid out in the following design.


The pattern of digging the beds gently with a shovel, fork and three sets of hands defined our main tasks at the workday.  Those hands of course included Ryan Doans’, but also Christine Annarino, a local Gardner that I had met for lunch one warm afternoon the year before.  Small world to see her also working for Urban Greens as well.  So all the while the bed cleanup was happening we were also sifting aged leaf compost to add to the raised beds.  One of the brilliant parts of Urban Greens raised beds system is the infill with woodchips in the aisles to lessen the high and dry mountain effect.  The valley becomes a sponge for water and no desert of bare soil is issued.  Dug, cleaned, composted, wood chipped in the aisle, seeded, strawed lightly, and water.  Easy pezzie.

Permaculture Swale

We also got some perennials in the ground there that the other co-manager of that garden, Taft (on vacation currently), had procured.  So that day we planted five trees, three apples, one apricot, and another Santa Rosa plum to match the already existing two dwarf ones that were planted in the fall.  We began to define our swale (ditch and mound on contour) by planting our Apples along the proposed mound.  It will be quite a big earthwork as we are dealing with heaps of water from impervious surface runoff (roofs, compacted lawn, driveway) and also a seepage spring.  Below are the before and after pics of four beds we got implemented and in the background you can see the trees.

Bond Hill

This is one of our new sites that is a retrofit from a failed we thrive garden.  Thus it already has fencing, some 6 ft x 8 ft raised beds, and some soil amendment and scantly woodchipped paths.  It sits on the ground of Tyred Stone New Beginnings Church and right across from the Community Action Center building which is the center for low-income aid.  The church also hosts a weekday preschool called Head Start, which is a very good program for getting young children ready to head to school and learn.  The teachers are wonderful and have already agreed to work with us on bringing the kids through the garden for tours!!!!!!


We have worked at Bond Hill several times now as the infrastructure present lends itself to intensive production and permaculture development this year.  Thus we have been doing the same digging, planting, and watering regime as described above.  Now we wait for the onions, the spinach, the potatoes, and such to sprout up.  This season has been a late spring but the temps and rain of the “April Showers” will hopefully bring May Vegetables.

The church grounds, outside of the fenced in vegetable area, also received a statement of permanence through us planting trees- fruit and nut.  Chestnuts that will anchor our mediterranean edible landscaping out front on the rocky earthwork and the stone fruit food forest along the car park.  Many layers are to be added but the seed has been sown.


Just five weeks ago, Ryan inked a lease deal with the Turpin’s who own the 12th oldest farm in the nation.  A Revolutionary War present, the farm has stayed in its 800 acres entirety since then.  The Turpins, seeking new energy and direction with the project, partnered with Urban Greens so that the local foods movement could be propelled through their accumulated assets.  Existing infrastructure assets that we seek to leverage are the following:

  • Large greenhouse and plant nursery infrastructure
  • chicken coop and fencing along with the goats and their pen
  • flat land with well water
  • arboretum with statues and water features.


Since i have come on, we have been working out design constraints and beginning the process of implementation.  Major projects have included moving the seed starting operation mainly from Ryan’s basement (thanks Megan for allowing that one) to the large greenhouse as it has started to become sunny and a bit warmer.  They did so well we were actually able to plant some of them out on Thursday (04/04/13).  We also have been undertaking the huge mission of creating a sheet mulch to kill off the grasses and weeds and begin the garden fertility process.  Rather than tilling, we are letting the fungus survive and we are constantly inoculating to make sure our summer veggie selection rocks!

Another connection from the PDC put on by myself and, is a woman named Amie Bako who is a landowner in Kentucky.  She is an animal lover and we have inked a deal with her to supply us with 50 chickens which will inhabit the coop in about five more weeks.  She is raising them herself as we speak and we will have up to as many as 10 different types of heritage breeds.  This will even include the fuzzy ones with black skin.  So I have been cleaning the coop and pin and we have been examining rotations, fencing, watering, tightening up the building and all of that.

Urban Greens Chicken Coop in Newtown at the Turpin Farm
Urban Greens Chicken Coop in Newtown at the Turpin Farm

East End

Urban Greens Cincinnati East End
Urban Greens Cincinnati East End

The hub of Urban Greens is of course where it started which is in the east end of the city.  The gardens sit on the flood banks, once where homes stood but with the Ohio River flooding them too many times, they simply tore them down.  One day maybe the river will wash all what has been done there away but for now the gardens are full of life.  It’s a hub for people of the CSA to fulfill their volunteer hours which is a big help in this time of running around like busy little squirrels.  That has been the highlight of my experience there, the social interaction of a community engaged in its food production and support of local businesses.

Another inspiring piece of the Newtown site is the bank of natural capital that has happened through carbon waste recycling.  Wood chips, leaves, grass clippings, weeds and all sort of materials have been recycled into soil and humus.  Humus is the stable carbon compound that gives it that smell, that texture and for us gardeners we love it cause it brings fertility, water drainage and water storage.  A perfect meld indeed.


Mainly with this dry cold and windy spring we are trying to keep the gardens moist, the beds shaped, and the flow of energy going there.  Imagine this tiny little object that has enough potential to store info on how to grow and the sugars to do so before its solar panels are fully functional: A SEED!!!!!!!!  Consequently I am excited to water despite the Arctic feeling water ( I did spend winter in the DR so…..) as i know the potential that strawberry PKLANT URBAN GREENSwater can unveil through the seed.  I am exited to see things sprout and excited to see new and old familiar faces around.  We also have gotten a couple of strawberry beds in order and some great guild plants like french sorrel and comfrey have come from my garden.  It feels nice to landscape the exterior of the gardens and know that this space will be so green and lush so soon.

Overall its been a great scene thus far, working with great employees like Ellie and Ana as well.  I have felt supported well and am very happy to contribute to the local foods scene here in Cincinnati.  All the while I have been getting my garden together, propagating strawberries for Urban Greens from my garden, and even direct seeding some lettuce.  Cleanup has begun for our fall Permaculture Garden and Farm tour.  Oh and i of course can’t leave out embarking on the journey that is the lake-– designing your own place is even harder.  One last thanks goes out to Ryan Doan for bringing me in and creating an atmosphere of cooperation not competition.

Ellie of Urban Greens
Ellie of Urban Greens

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