In the final part of our series on the benefits and how-to’s of leasing land for market gardening, we turn to the specifics of converting leased land into an urban farm.
The Initial Conversion
Turning a newly rented piece of land into a farm is a process.
Before signing the lease, Curtis takes a shovel and digs into the ground to check the soil and to look for invasive weeds. This is an important activity that shouldn’t be skipped. You’re going to need to know what kinds of invasive weeds are in your area because there are different ways to control or mitigate them.
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the weeds, you can then assess whether or not you’d be willing to take on the new plot. Don’t be afraid to say no to a property. Curtis has turned down what seemed to be promising pieces of land on account of their tremendous weed loads. Weigh the benefits with the time, effort, and money you’re going to have to invest to get rid of those weeds.
Assuming the weeds aren’t too bad and Curtis does lease the property, he begins by attempting to smother whatever’s growing with tarps. Sometimes he does a bit of rototilling, but this is risky because some weeds regrow from cut-up sections of their own roots. After the first weeds have dried up under a tarp, without sunlight, he starts to build up the soil by amending it with a lot of good compost and organic material so that the ground is fertile.
He expects the weeds to regrow, but when they do he uses a flame weeder to knock them back. After that, he’s pretty much good to go and ready to start planting.
Although prepping a 2,000-ft2 piece of land can take one person 15 hours of work, it’s time well spent. Curtis prefers to work on a new property little by little over the course of the summer or fall so the land is ready by the next spring.
In the first six years that Curtis was farming, he went ahead and did soil tests on most of the properties he leased. But he realized that he was getting the same results from each property. He concluded that the general soil profile for his area was the same.
He now only tests for contaminants, and he only does this when it seems necessary based on the history of the property.
Determining Row Layout
For the urban context, Curtis generally doesn’t concern himself with the orientation of his crop beds. Orientation only really matters for trellised crops, since a north-facing wall doesn’t receive sun and because the trellises can cast shade on other crops. But most of Curtis’s trellised crops are in greenhouses.
Another thing to consider regarding row layout is the land configuration. In an urban area, you shouldn’t expect that all the land that will be available to you will be perfectly rectangular in shape. There will also be obstructions like fences or large trees.
So it’s fine if your beds aren’t uniformly 50 by 25 feet. You can adjust your bed sizes depending on your plot’s configuration.
You’ll also need to pay attention to whether those obstructions cast shade. That shade might become a problem in the colder seasons, as colder soil may not allow good germination. You can always plan to grow cold-loving crops (such as cut salad greens and radishes) in the shadier areas of your plot.
Lastly, in terms of bed spacing, Curtis prefers fewer but longer beds — as opposed to many shorter ones — because this means less walkways and more land to utilize for farming.
Hopefully, this series on leasing farmland has been useful to you. For more on market gardening, please subscribe to the Farm Small, Farm Smart podcast — the longest-running vegetable farming podcast in the world.
Listen to more episodes with Curtis in The Urban Farm.
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