After Novella Carpenter’s critically acclaimed memoir Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer came out, she and friend Willow Rosenthal, the founder of West Oakland gardening nonprofit City Slicker Farms, started talking about compiling a manual on urban gardening. “We always got these random emails like, ‘My chickens aren’t laying anymore!’” says Carpenter. So she and Rosenthal joked that they should write a book so they could reply: “Buy the book!”

Three years later, they can. Their new book, The Essential Urban Farmer, is a 500-page nuts-and-bolts guide to farming in the city — complete with sample garden designs, detailed illustrations, and photos of rabbit genitalia. Rosenthal, who is also a Waldorf School teacher and runs a small CSA in Berkeley, wrote the first two sections of the book: “Designing Your Urban Farm” and “Raising City Vegetables and Fruits.” Carpenter wrote the section called “Raising City Animals.” With advice on how to fix a chicken’s prolapsed “vent,” and a detailed how-to on eviscerating a chicken, it’s not for the squeamish. But then, neither is raising livestock.

I talked to Carpenter and Rosenthal recently about the guide, and got some tips about  how to create a thriving urban farm.

Q. Why did you write this book?

Carpenter: We were both trial-and-error urban farmers. We would’ve loved to have had a guidebook that showed us best practices. So this is the book that we wished we’d had when we were starting out.

Q. In the intro, you write that the average urban backyard can grow all the fruit and veggies for one person in 25 x 40 feet, and that it makes economic sense to garden if you have more time than money. Is this book geared, in part, towards low-income readers?  

Carpenter: Yeah, definitely. I’m low-income, Willow is probably low-income, too. People are like, “You should eat organic food,” but when you go to Whole Foods or the farmers’ market, it’s so expensive. So this was our DIY way to eat organic, healthy food. If you do it right, it can be cost effective.

Rosenthal: I wouldn’t say that it’s only geared towards low-income people, but toward people who are interested in making their own solutions. It’s not going to be as useful for people who want to purchase everything at the garden store or hire other people to do work in the garden. To make an impact on the way that the food system is structured for environmental good, it’s necessary for people of all walks of life to grow food in the city.

Q. What mistakes did each of you make early on in your respective urban farms that you hope to prevent others from making with this book?

Carpenter: Well, I remember that Willow and I had built a chicken shed and we were raising pullets (adolescent chickens) and we didn’t realize that raccoons are really smart. They can use their little fingers to pry off staples (which we’d used to staple the chicken wire to the chicken shed). Over the course of four days, the raccoon would slowly pry off more. And then one night, it came in and killed every single pullet — I think there were 25 in there. It was massive carnage. The lesson here was don’t put the staples on the outside.

In terms of the garden, I would say my problem is not harvesting stuff. You can plant all these really beautiful vegetables and there’s a tendency to not want to harvest them because they look so beautiful. You need to have a harvest day, like Fridays or Thursdays, where you go out into the garden and harvest everything that’s ready and put it in your fridge. I can’t emphasize how genius this is.

Willow Rosenthal, photo courtesy of the author

Rosenthal: What mistakes didn’t I make?  (Laughter.) Farming is a process of trial and error. Each farm is its own unique entity. You do need to find your own way. Plants are always gonna die and you’re going to have to figure that out.

Q. In Chapter 1, which is about choosing a site, you talk about the importance of being pro-active, especially when getting written permission from the owner or landlord. What sorts of perks help convince a landlord or owner that a community garden is a good thing?

Rosenthal: Many landlords have an altruistic streak. When presented with something to do for the community that’s no skin off their back — they’re happy to do it. I think we tend to make a lot of assumptions about who people are. But it’s important to have an open mind. Maybe two out of 10 landlords don’t care at all about the community. But there are eight who do, so let’s get those people involved. You’re politicizing them in a way — you’re bringing them into this activist movement.

[Another] real perk is your thanks! I know that sounds cheesy, but you should focus on informing the landlord of what’s going on and thanking them. The mistake some people make is, “I got permission and now I can forget about it.” It’s a relationship you need to cultivate and not take for granted.

Q. Starting an urban farm demands a lot of work — not to mention money. You need to pay for water, buy liability insurance, equipment, wood and nails for raised beds, maybe even hoop houses. Are there funds would-be gardeners can apply for if they don’t have enough of their own money?

Carpenter: If you’re doing a community garden, you can approach your city government. Pretty much every city has a community garden association. I know in Seattle it’s the P-Patch.

Rosenthal:  There are a couple of important resources. Master Gardener programs exist in every county in the United States — they are a subset of the agriculture extension services run by local universities. The USDA spends money through these agencies to support farmers. They were intended to support primarily commercial farmers. But this is changing as people in urban areas are actually using those services more. I always tell people, this is your tax dollars at work and you have every right to utilize them!

If you have a pest, you can take a sample of the plant and put them in a baggie and send them to a specialist and they will ID that for you — for free.

In some states, like California, you can now get services through the [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)] program to help you start a home garden. You can use food stamps for all sorts of special vouchers for gardening supplies.

Regional and citywide organizations can often provide a lot of technical assistance. Some of them may provide materials free of charge — City Slicker Farms does. The other way that home gardeners can make it affordable is by producing their own vegetable seedlings. When you go to the store to buy a cauliflower seedling and it’s $3 for a six-pack, you’re hardly saving money on your food bill. But if you’re buying a packet of seeds — 100 seeds for two bucks. In our book we give an outline of a simple setup for using fluorescent lighting to start seedlings indoors.

Q. The book does contain many tricks for saving money on construction: getting softwood pallets for free to use as compost bins or boxed beds, using old bathtubs as containers. What are some other tricks the two of you have used over time to save money on construction supplies?

Novella Carpenter with her goats.

Carpenter: One of the greatest fencing materials is really cheap: concrete reinforcement mesh.  But you can buy this mesh at any Home Depot or local lumber yard and it’s $12 for a giant sheet of it. You can use it for making quick and easy fences. It’ll even keep goats in!

Also for me, one of the great parts of living in a city is there is so much waste that you can feed to animals. You [also] never have to buy pots. You can usually find those at garden stores — they’re trying to get rid of the black plastic pots.

I found this guy who makes redwood sculptures of giant grizzly bears. And he has all these scrap pieces of redwood that he throws aside. I actually built a little chicken coop from those once. So you have to look at your resources and think how you can repurpose [them into] building materials.

Rosenthal: Get your building materials for free or cheap, but invest money in hardware. If the bolts that hold your boxes together are rated for outdoor use your boxes will last a long time.

In terms of getting free building materials: I was blessed because here in the East Bay we have a wonderful company called the ReUse People. They salvage whole houses — including a lot of the framing lumber — and they sell it for a very affordable price, already cleaned of nails and screws. So check your salvage yard.

Extremely valuable materials go into the garbage, such as hardwood pallets. Softwood pallets, unless you line them with something, can degrade pretty quickly. Hardwood pallets are an amazingly valuable resource.

My other favorite free material is old burlap sacks. They’re great containers for planting. They’ll degrade over time but they’re free and have structure to them. You can get them at coffee roasters or chocolate companies. A lot of times you can find them on Freecycle.org.

Q. I was surprised to learn that you can farm on heavy-metal contaminated soil.  Have either of you done that? And if so, which precautions did you take?   

Rosenthal: There’s a lot of gray area when it comes to health, toxicity, and safety. Rather than saying “do this or just do that,” our hope is to educate people so they can make their own decisions.

With our backyard garden program at City Slicker Farms, the first thing we do is go into a resident’s garden and test their soil for lead and heavy metals. There were some situations where we said, “No, we don’t think you should have vegetable gardens unless we cap the soil and put in raised beds.” We follow stringent guidelines with people.

First we cover the soil with mulch — or put down layers of cardboard and mulch. Dilution has an effect. If you bring in an equal volume of compost and mix that in with your soil, you’ve already cut the level of lead in half.

Q. You say that native soil is better than potting soil, but what if your soil has chemicals or toxins in it?  Where do you go about getting healthy native soil to amend your own?   

Rosenthal: That’s a good question. We live in such an “I can just buy whatever I need” culture. And a lot of the potting soil is actually toxic to plants.

It’s possible to get topsoil. You can sometimes go on Craigslist and find people who are doing construction projects and need to get rid of some dirt. But often they’re like, “We need to dump it today.” And you should take a sample to the lab and test it before you buy it.

You can buy topsoil, potting mix, and compost. But you want to be sure they’re testing these products. Talk to the employees at locally-owned gardening centers. They often know a lot about what different potting mix companies are doing. Not all materials are equal. Making your own compost is a great way to get a high quality product.

Q. What about theft? A friend of mine in Portland recently had all of her (perfectly ripe) persimmons stolen from their backyard. Any tips on how to deal with this? 

Rosenthal: It does happen. My strategy has always been to try to communicate with these unknown people. It’s easy to victimize a faceless person, but if you put a sign on the front of your fence saying, “Hey, I know you might be tempted by these beautiful tomatoes, but if you want some, why don’t you just come knock on my door and I’d be happy to share.”

We are living in desperate times. It’s up to all of us to do what we can to help and not to take it personally. What we did at City Slicker Farms, we did have to lock our gardens at night so they wouldn’t get vandalized. So we just set up planter boxes outside of them and put up signs saying “Help yourself.”

Q. Novella, you emphasize how important it is to check your city’s ordinances to see whether it’s legal to keep bees, chickens, goats, rabbits, etc. Can you say more about that?

Carpenter: Oakland has kind of lax laws and the ordinances were ambiguous. For instance, I can have goats but I can’t have a male goat. I think actually you can’t have pigs, it’s buried into some weird law. I think it’s legal in Portland to have goats. It is in Seattle as well. In the book, we’re talking about super ground-level things like, it’s illegal to keep chickens in some cities. But then it becomes a question of who is watching those laws. If you had a neighbor that doesn’t like you, who is calling the city every day to report you, that’s when you’re gonna run into a problem. In that case, you  want to cover your ass and make sure that you’re legal.

Q. You say that bees are the “gateway urban farm animal.” Yet it sounds like it’s a fairly expensive operation. What’s the ballpark amount you spent buying hives, supplies, extractors, etc.? 

Carpenter: To get a beehive with bees and the queen and all that, you’re looking at $250. So, it is definitely a fairly nice Christmas present or birthday present. Or for some people, it’s a really nice pair of shoes. There are ways to do it more cheaply. If you’re handy, you can make your own frames. You can build your own boxes. But I’ve found that usually anything that I build is shit. I spend more money being frustrated.

To me, $250 seems expensive, but when you harvest your honey, you get six gallons, and you can sell it for $15 for half a quart or pint. And those boxes will last forever.

Q. You write that overfeeding is one of the biggest problems with backyard chickens — people give them scraps and kitchen waste but then forget to reduce the amount of pelleted feed. And as you mention, overweight chickens not only have trouble laying eggs, they can die prematurely. What’s a general rule of thumb for how much chicken feed to give a full-grown chicken per day?

Carpenter: Some people think of their chickens as their pets. That’s fine if you can afford to—you can buy scratch and hydrated mealworms. You can really go crazy with snacks for the chickens!  But each chicken needs about a handful of feed a day. So it’s not a huge amount.  You supplement with greens, weeds, grass, and they’ll be totally healthy and fine.

Q. You say rabbits are the new chickens. Is that really true? I’m not a vegetarian, but I just can’t get past the notion of slaughtering a bunny.

Carpenter: There is a pretty big trend of people who are new meat eaters and they want to raise their own turkeys and chickens and now rabbits. They can save money and have this great source of low-fat, hormone-free meat. Some people just use their manure, though. It’s so good and they poop so much!  It’s really balanced — not super high in nitrogen. I know a guy who grows a bucket of rabbit poop and sells it for $10 to people who grow marijuana.

Q. Which animal was the most rewarding for you to raise/keep?

Carpenter: You love them all for different reasons. But the animals I will have forever are bees. Bees are so giving. And I bought all that expensive equipment, so I better keep at it! There’s also just something so amazing about bees. They are such hard workers and you have this connection to the seasons that is really intense.