There are few things as rewarding in this world than the self-sufficiency of growing your own food. Even if that food is just a single tomato that struggled to ripen after a season of battling the elements like rogue weather patterns, bugs and other critters. Regardless of whether or not you like tomatoes, you’ll always love the tomatoes you grow. The fruits of your labor always taste better when you’ve worked hard to achieve them.
The home garden can sometimes feel like a battlefield where you’re combating against the ever-changing elements and fighting off pests. A week of excessive heat and no rain can stress out your cucumbers and reduce its yield. Blossom end rot can strike your squash the moment there’s not enough calcium in the soil. Slugs and caterpillars will decimate your peppers overnight. And rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks can run off with your eggplant before you even have a chance to pick it. To the victor goes the spoils in war, as well as in nature.
But when it comes to home gardening, the best way to fight isn’t to fight at all, but rather to work in tandem with nature and use it to your garden’s benefit. “We use a lot of observation with our crops and with what we’re growing,” says Christa Barfield who practices organic and regenerative farming methods. “So if we notice there’s a pest, we’ll address it as organically as possible.”
Barfield is the urban farmer and owner of FarmerJawn, an organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that serves as a CSA (community supported agriculture), as well as a community that teaches people how to grow their own foods even in a city environment. “That’s my mission and the mission of my company,” says Barfield, “to let people know that they can grow their own food anywhere. Just because we live in a city with concrete slabs, we can grow enough food to last us for a year.” To Barfield, anyone anywhere at any time of year can grow their own organic herbs and produce, you just need to know what type of environment you’re working with.
Becoming an Urban Farmer
Barfield’s journey to becoming a farmer began in January 2018, a time when her life was in transition. She was about to turn 30 and had just left a decade-long career in healthcare administration where she had worked her way up to overseeing 200 patients a day in Center City Philadelphia. She was overwhelmed and stressed, and though she loved working in healthcare, she knew it was time to leave. “It was a great experience realizing that I can do this, but do I want to do this because I’m not healthy and I’m not taking care of myself,” says Barfield. “And that’s what it really boiled down to. That’s why I made the decision to resign for my own health and the health of my household.”
Not knowing what her next move would be, she decided to take her first trip abroad; a solo trip to Martinique, an island in the French West Indies. “It was a whole eat, pray, love trip I did for myself,” says Barfield. “It was me taking a leap of faith.”
While in Martinique, Barfield stayed with two host families – one a family of home gardeners who would serve fresh tea every morning with herbs picked straight from their garden, and the other a family of farmers feeding the local community through a CSA. She realized that though she was leaving the healthcare industry, she was learning about healthcare from an entirely new perspective – through food. “Healthcare – that’s what I saw in Martinique,” says Barfield. “The way people were taking care of themselves by growing herbs in their backyard and growing organic food. I reincarnated my career by growing food.”
Gardening can be very healing both mentally and physically. The meditative qualities of tending to your plants and observing nature can bring a sense of peace and relaxation. Growing a plant from seed and harvesting fresh produce after a season of hard work can also be very gratifying. And of course, the consumption of fresh produce has numerous health benefits. But beyond being a rewarding activity, building urban farms and gardens is an act of food sovereignty and a way to ensure that communities get access to the nutritious foods they need and deserve.
These were all things Barfield wanted to bring home to Philadelphia, starting with the Germantown neighborhood where she grew up. “I took these experiences, the tea and the farm, and I wanted to start a CSA and bring that to underserved communities and to people who look like me,” says Barfield.
Around one in five people in Philadelphia are faced with food insecurity, and the lack of access to regular meals and fresh foods disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities. Barfield believes that organic foods should be available to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. “I wanted to focus on organic food and looking at ways we can have the best and most nutrient dense foods and to grow it as closely to the city as possible,” says Barfield.
When she returned to Philadelphia, Barfield got to work. Seeing how enthusiastic she was about farming in her neighborhood, a friend gave her a greenhouse for Mother’s Day. The 4×6 greenhouse, which pretty much consumes her 10×12 backyard, is where FarmerJawn started and where she still grows her own herbs and produce today.
Barfield started her journey as a farmer three years ago and since then has expanded FarmerJawn exponentially from the modest greenhouse in her backyard to two farms just outside of Philadelphia, providing food to a CSA of 60 families. She has also expanded operations to several gardening spaces throughout the city where she runs hands-on workshops and community events. One of those gardening spaces is located next to her tea shop Viva Leaf Tea on Germantown Avenue where she grows fresh herbs for hand blended teas that she now sells and includes in her FarmerJawn CSA boxes. She says that growing the tea next to the shop reduces the climate impact of transportation and ensures the highest quality of tea.
To Barfield, FarmerJawn and Viva Leaf Tea are more than opportunities to connect communities to the fresh, organic produce they need. “It’s all about education,” says Barfield. “For years, we’ve been giving food to people. I think about the food pantries and the initiatives to give out free food. But I think what’s better than free is always going to be an opportunity. That’s where the real value is. Teaching people how they can be self-sustainable is what we really should be focusing on. That’s why I’m trying to get farms and gardens all over the city and put them in underserved communities.”
Growing with Nature
Barfield says that gardening is a lot easier than you may think, and you can grow a bounty of delicious herbs and produce in your own yard or even in a city. But before you throw a seed in the ground, you really need to understand what kind of environment you’re working with. The sun, the soil, the climate and of course all of the other bugs and animals we share the land with are all factors home gardeners need to keep in mind when planning, but don’t forget to factor yourself into the equation.
“Understand the type of gardener you want to be and what kind of gardener you will actually be because this will help you plan the varieties of plants you should grow,” says Barfield. Overly ambitious beginners may bite off more than they can chew, which can be discouraging. If you’re a busy city dweller who doesn’t have too much spare time to garden, you may want plants that are less fussy. Choose varieties that are more heat-tolerant so that the heat won’t impact their growth or require a shade cloth.
The more relaxed home gardener may also want to look into plants that are bolt-resistant, meaning they hold out longer over the harvest period. “Choose varieties that have lower maturation dates, so it’s not like you’re waiting,” says Barfield, noting that this is a great strategy for new gardeners who will find the quicker harvest to be more motivating. She recommends trying out radishes that have a maturation date of around 22, which is a lot faster than tomatoes that can require anywhere from 60 to 80 days.
Once you decide what to grow, you need to plan when to grow. “I would say follow a calendar. Set a plan in place for what you want to grow for the season,” says Barfield. “Understand where you’re growing food by understanding your agricultural zone. People need to know their zone so you can look up when you should start growing things and when you can plant inside and transition your plants outside.”
Knowing your zone according to the USDA Hardiness Zone Map helps you anticipate weather patterns so your garden can fall in sync with the natural rhythm of each season. It can also help you plan where in your yard gets the best sunlight. For Barfield who started her farming operation in her 10×12 backyard, her Philadelphia rowhome presented a few challenges, but it wasn’t impossible. “Because I do live in a rowhome, there are yards on either side of me,” says Barfield. When building her 4×6 greenhouse, she had to make sure to put it in a spot that got at least 6 hours of sunlight per day. And for the times of year where there isn’t enough sunlight, she uses grow lights.
But you don’t have to go as far as constructing a greenhouse in your backyard. If you have limited square footage, raised garden beds and vertical garden beds can help you maximize your space. You can even reap plenty of rewards with a few potted herbs on a sunny windowsill.
Once you plan what to grow, where to grow and when to start growing it, you still need to pay attention to your plants, track their progress and make sure pests don’t eat your produce before you get a chance to taste it. When it comes to growing produce for the FarmerJawn CSA and herbs for the fresh teas sold through Viva Leaf Tea, Barfield believes in being as organic as possible. “We want to keep all pesticides away from our plants as much as possible,” she says. Using chemicals to keep pests away may seem like a quick solution, but Barfield says there are plenty of natural methods to keep bugs from destroying your plants.
Barfield’s main method for pest control is companion planting, a strategy where mutually beneficial plants are planted next to one another. “It will save you a lot of headache when it comes to the pests that are bound to come,” she says. Barfield says that planting dill next to your brassica plants, like your kale and bok choy, will naturally repel caterpillars from munching on your leafy greens. For rodents, the smell of allium family plants like garlic, leeks and onions will make your plants less appetizing to them. If space is an issue, you don’t have to plant full bulbs – chives and shallots will do just fine in safeguarding your plants against some animals.
“Companion planting is huge,” says Barfield, “because the more organic and the less we’re adding into our food, the healthier we are as a people. And for years to come we’ll be building a healthier environment and our descendants will be healthier because of the decisions we’re making now regarding what we put into the earth and into our bodies.”