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What Philly’s Urban Farmers are Up to This Winter

February 27, 2015 Category: Method

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Sure, freezing temperatures and icy winds can be inconvenient. For those of us fortunate enough to have a roof over our heads, winter is nothing but a few months of enduring discomfort and lethargy. But what if your business depends on warmer climates?

This is the dilemma faced by Philly’s urban farms. Whereas traditional rural farms generally have more acreage to work with, urban farm are confined to small blocks of land. One advantage they do have is that Philadelphia is what’s considered an “urban heat island,”meaning the temperature in the city can be significantly warmer than the suburbs.

Author and urban farmer (and, full disclosure, contributor) Nic Esposito said the temperature difference can be up to 10 degrees warmer in the spring and summer. It happens because concrete absorbs heat, and without enough trees to process carbon dioxide, temperatures take longer to cool. That temperature difference creates a seasonal extension of sorts by elongating spring, summer and fall climates. All of that means a shorter winter, at least in terms of temperature.

Regardless of Father Winter’s brumal breath, urban farms are far from dormant this time of year. Ty Holmberg, who works at Bartram’s Garden in West Philadelphia, a collaboration between Philadelphia Horticultural Society, Parks and Recreation, and the University of Pennsylvania, said that seasonal extension is crucial to farming success in Philadelphia.

In fact, there are only two months out of the year when Bartram’s is not growing anything.

“December we’re not growing, January we’re not growing. February, we start seeds in the greenhouse,” he said. Those seeds can include collards, kale, onions and scallions, all of which Bartram will be planting in mid-March as soon as the weather breaks and the land is workable.

Right now, Holmberg said Bartram’s has about ten rows of “overwintered” crops – in a sense, crops that have been hibernating since November. Those plants are draped in plastic and cloth, in what’s known as a “low tunnel.”

“They’re still slowly producing,” said Holmberg. “But they’re just kind of hanging out. When the warm months hit, they’ll really shoot up and we’ll have a nice crop from them.”

A larger model of the low tunnel is the “high tunnel,” which is currently seeing a lot of use over at Greensgrow Farms in Kensington, a CSA urban farm, nursery and community kitchen.

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Katelyn Repash, who has taken over as Greensgrow’s farmer for Nathan Hassler-Brooks (who has left Greensgrow to launch his own CSA farm out in Chester County), has been working at Greensgrow since last March. Though this has been her first winter at Greensgrow, Repash has been farming for five years now — at Charlestown Farm in Phoenixville and through co-op programs at Dickinson College, her alma mater.

Greensgrow uses high tunnels throughout the winter to house overwintered crops. The tunnels act as greenhouses, but without gas heat. Those crops are watered via a drip irrigation system, comprised of several hoses with small incisions made every six inches, which line the base of each row of crops and maintain sufficient moisture levels.

Perhaps the most innovative structure present at Greensgrow right now is the temporary tunnel — similar to the high tunnel in architecture and composition, but housing several columns of portable cloth “growbags.” Each bag is home to a few shoots of spinach cloaked in three-millimeter thick plastic.

Meanwhile, in Greensgrow’s greenhouse, Ping the Duck and Milkshake the Potbelly Pig (who, it’s worth noting, ran for “Mayor of Kensington” back in September of 2013) are living like kings in a 65 degree environment. The greenhouse, which also serves as the farm’s retail space, is exceptionally comfortable, especially considering Greensgrow employees only turn on the heat for a few hours at night. Also housed in the greenhouse is an all-new hydroponics unit, currently growing row after row of lettuce.

A time to heal

Bartram’s Garden and Emerald Street Farm, however, don’t use their greenhouses during the winter.

“We tend to freeze out our greenhouse so we don’t deal with the same diseases you had from this very musky, saturated environment,” Holmberg said of the greenhouse over at Bartram’s Garden. Freezing out a greenhouse entails leaving it open through the winter with the intention of killing any diseases or pests that might have made their way in.

“We give about two months for the greenhouse to freeze up,” Holmberg added.

Esposito, who co-manages Emerald Street Urban Farm with his wife Elisa, agreed.

“Right now,” he said, “we have our greenhouse cleared out. I’m a neat freak on the farm.”

Above all, winter is a time to heal. The cold provides Philadelphia farms and community gardens with a temporary respite from the diseases and pests that ordinarily ravage crops, trees, and  most importantly, soil.

“Really take care of your soil,” urged Esposito, who says gardeners using raised beds tend to forget the lasting importance of soil.

Holmberg also advises gardeners and farmers alike to invest heavily in the health of their soil.

“Spend the money and time to find ways to get good soil and feed your soil,” he said. This time of year, he added, it’s important not to start tilling your field too early. “If it’s too wet or too early, you can really mess up your soil composition.”

Besides, he said there’s another upside to winter weather: Snow.

“Some people call it the poor man’s fertilizer,” Holmberg said.

Meanwhile, over at Greensgrow, soil is a huge issue, considering a factory once stood where the farm is located off Aramingo Avenue.

“Soil clean up is very expensive,” said Repash. To compensate, the farm has no choice but to use raised beds to avoid contaminating their crops.

Taking time 0ff 

While the frigid weather may slow down Philly’s urban farms as it does any other industry, they are very much alive through the winter months. Winter is a time to prioritize for farmers.

Before the spring hits (any day now!) Esposito and his wife over at Emerald Street Urban Farm are raising funds for the upcoming season. Holmberg and Bartram’s Garden are waist-deep in seed-sorting as they prepare for the year in advance. Repash and Greensgrow are getting ready to graft their heirloom tomatoes, and will be opening the retail space to the public at the end of the month.

Perhaps most important? Taking time off.

“It’s our one time to relax during the year,” said Holmberg, who just recently got back to Philly from a month-long stay in Cambodia.

After all, farmers need time off, too.

“You don’t have to live in the country to enjoy it,” said Esposito. Anyone who has tasted locally grown Philly fruits and veggies would agree.

Images via Tony Abraham

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