Down on the (city) farm

The MUSC Urban Farm is on a half-acre in the middle of the city. Photograph by Ferris Kaplan

“That orange flower? It’s a nasturtium. You can eat it,” the farm educator says, plucking a bright blossom that tastes like a peppery radish, with a sweet finish.

The half-acre farm grows more than 30 fruits and vegetables, including broccoli, lettuce, kale, carrots, radishes and kohlrabi. What you might not expect is that this farm is tucked in the middle of the Medical University of South Carolina campus in downtown Charleston.

The garden, started in 2012, was the brainchild of then-MUSC president Raymond Greenberg, who envisioned a living classroom where patients, staff and the community could learn about the connection between food and health, according to Susan Johnson, director of health promotion.

If the MUSC Urban Farm can produce almost 1,100 pounds of food a year in an old parking lot, then maybe there are some lessons a home gardener can learn in time for spring planting.

Farm educator Carmen Ketron enthusiastically shares lessons that work at home:

“We’re lucky to be facing South,” Ketron says. She notes, however, that houses in the shade need to plant vegetables that thrive in the shade such as lettuces, beets or carrots.

Ketron says she regularly polls volunteers to find out what kinds of vegetables they want to eat.

“Having such an international population on campus, we plant a lot of what people miss from home. So we have Asian cabbage, herbs used in Indian cooking, French mache lettuce,” she says. “We have a lot of funky, weird stuff you can’t find at the grocery. But we also go with a lot of standards, although they may be funky standards like purple carrots or purple sweet potatoes. We get a lot of young kids and you want their introduction to vegetables to be comfortable, so we have carrots, radishes.

“If it’s not yummy, I don’t want to put it in there. Lots of varieties of seeds are for things like growing a big tomato. But it tastes like cardboard. The stuff here is taste-tested, Carmen-approved.”

She adds that the urban farm tries to always have at least three different types of kale.

“Sometimes, you can’t get one type to grow. It bolts early or there’s a frost. So we like to have backups,” she says.

Nothing like trying to grow plants in the soup that is Charleston’s soil. Ketron says the farm has drainage at the high ends of the farm, meaning that flood water sits in the “bowl” that is the rest of the garden.

The solution was additional drainage between rows and using hardy wood to build raised beds. Untreated lumber rotted and succumbed to termites, but newer boxes built of sturdy cedar survived.

“The older boxes were falling apart when people touched them,” Ketron recalls.

The raised beds have a mixture of compost, vermiculite, peat moss and cost-effective “fill dirt” that has a heavy ratio of limestone to complement the compost.

Ketron says raised beds can help combat the wet Charleston soil.

Local hardware stores and garden centers have raised bed kits that can be easily assembled, or gardeners can make their own with wood or railroad ties.

If nailing together railroad ties for a raised bed seems too labor-intensive, Ketron says container gardening can be a good solution for the home gardener.

Containers called “vegetable trugs” are prefabricated raised troughs for gardens. They can be ordered online and are a good solution for a raised garden, as are smaller rooftop containers for those in apartments.

“Charleston soil has a lot of sand. Sometimes people live on saltwater marshes. And a lot of people in urban settings are on brown fields, where the soil has been polluted with chemicals or toxic waste,” Johnson says.

All of those are good candidates for gardening in a vegetable trug.

“A lot of homeowners’ associations may accept the look of a trug, where they’ll forbid a traditional raised garden,” Ketron says. “We like them because you can get wheelchairs under them.”

She says the urban garden has citrus and strawberries in containers.

“Anything we grow can grow in containers,” Ketron says.

Although the raised beds have a careful mixture of soil and compost designed to promote veggie growth, the “lasagna method” is a “no fuss, no muss” method that can work for homeowners.

Simply lay down moistened cardboard to suffocate weeds, then create your own no-till topsoil with layers of leaves, mulch, hay, compost, newspaper, peat moss, even table scraps. Over time, the layers will settle and you can just add more material.

“It takes the roots longer to set up, but you can just pretty much leave the soil as it is,” Ketron says. “It breaks down slowly, so there is a slow release of nutrients. We originally grew sweet potatoes this way.”

You may want to put similar plants together, but Ketron says to consider companion planting instead, in which different plants act as allies to the plants next to them.

“Companion planting has become a hot topic in large-scale agriculture as well,” Ketron says.

She points out that the nasturtium we ate at the beginning of our tour is not only edible but also an effective bug deterrent to the lettuce planted next to it.

Leeks and garlic are planted in the middle of leafy greens so that, even if bugs invade one patch of lettuce, the harsh taste of the garlic will stop them from migrating to the lettuce on the other side of the leeks.

In addition to the nasturtium and other bug repellents, the urban farm is fortunate to have a couple of hawks who have chosen to hunt at the farm. Their presence keeps squirrels, pigeons and tree rats in check, all of whom can destroy a garden by getting to the produce before it can be harvested.

The farm has a small bee hive, which helps pollinate the plants.

Homeowners also may have bats, another of nature’s insect repellents. Every night, bats eat about half their body weight in bugs that can destroy a crop. In addition, their guano is a good organic fertilizer.

The urban farm harvests enough every week for 15-20 people. To keep the produce coming, Ketron says the farm plants on a rolling basis — “succession planting” — so something is always ready for picking.

“We’ll have lettuce that is two weeks old, and then we plant another section of lettuce,” Ketron says. “That may be hard to do at home because leafy greens take up so much space, but you can plant microgreens. They take up much less space and they take less time, and then you can continue planting through the spring and summer.”

As tempting as it can be to go all Johnny Appleseed and scatter seeds where you want them, the seed packets actually contain useful information about how to plant the seeds and maximize vegetable harvests.

Ketron says the gardening catalogs want you to succeed, and they fill their pages with veggie tales: background on each plant, how the vegetable will taste, etc.

“Plus they have beautiful pictures,” she says. “It will get you inspired.”

“There are a lot of old wives’ tales, like never plant summer stuff before Good Friday or wait until the iris comes up before you plant pole beans. ‘The Farmers’ Almanac’ is a great tool. But it is true that you should see what’s happening in nature. The last couple of years, the weather has been wacky. Look to see what your perennial crops, like your daffodils, are doing. When they come up, it’s safe to plant,” Ketron says.