Research and Resource Materials for the Urban Gardener

Spring buds calling out to gardeners

Spring buds calling out to gardeners

by Cyndy Crist

As gardening in urban areas grows, from small city lots to large community gardens, some people are finding that their experience and knowledge don’t quit match their increased interest in growing their own fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers.  Happily, there is a wealth of information readily available on the Internet to help gardeners, from novice to experienced, learn what they need to know to grow successfully.  Some of these are public sites and services (your tax dollars at work), while others are developed and managed by non-profits devoted to supporting urban agriculture and community development.

Here are a few such resources that you may find useful.  Some are national in scope while others are specific to Minnesota and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Rest assured, though, that if you don’t live in or near Minnesota, you’ll be able to find similar sites closer to your home and garden; I offer my local resources as examples of what’s out there to support you.

Crabapple blossom drop signaling spring planting

Crabapple blossom drop signaling spring planting

National Resources.  Although there are many commercial sites about gardening available on-line, I want to focus on two sites, one public and one non-profit, that have broad reaches and offer quality information for urban gardeners.

One is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose web address is www.usda.gov .  Although most of the resources here are geared more to farmers than home gardeners and address broad issues like biotechnology, climate change, energy, and dietary and food safety, there is also some great information for home growers.  I had a little trouble finding what I was looking for until I searched the “A-Z Index” where I selected “Consumers” which in turn led me to a list that included  “’Gardening.”  Bingo, there I found links to:

  • Extension Horticulture Information, including a map that shows the locations of extension offices in each state;
  • National Agricultural Library’s Gardening Resources, which offers a comprehensive list of subjects to browse and dig into;
  • the National Arboretum Gardening site, which provides consumer-friendly information on a range of topics from amaryllis, bonsai, and camellias to spring magnolias, turf, and winter holly;
  • an organic vegetables page with links to a dozen or more pages about topics like intensive organic gardening, weed management, and seed saving;
  • the plant hardiness zones map; and
  • several state-managed sites, like the University of Maryland Extension Service’s Home and Garden Information Center and the University of Illinois Extension’s Hort Corner.
Finally edible gardening begins in earnest

Finally edible gardening begins in earnest

Another resource with a broad scope is the website of the American Community Gardening Association, http://communitygarden.org.  ACGA is a bi-national nonprofit membership organization whose mission is “to build community by increasing and enhancing community gardening and greening across the United States and Canada.”  The site organizes its information under four topics: learn, connect, store, and take action.  Under “learn,” there is a wide array of free PDF documents on topics like fertilizers and soil building, composting, and seed saving as well as on policy-focused issues like food security, how to secure space, and the value of community greening.  The site also provides links and services to help you find community gardens in your area and to get involved in community greening activities.  In other words, whether you’re looking for information about how to garden or want to get involved in the community gardening movement, you’re likely to get a good start on the ACGA page.

State Resources.  At a state level, departments that focus on agriculture and natural resources are frequently good sources of information about gardening practices, needs, and issues specific to the state in which you live and garden.  Here are three examples from my home state of Minnesota.

Our premier source of information about gardening and related activities is the University of Minnesota Extension Service. Its website, www.extension.umn.edu, provides a wealth of information on just about any topic a home gardener or commercial grower might wish to explore.  Particularly valuable are a diagnostic tool that provides guidance on identifying and managing an array of garden pests and plant diseases and SULIS (the Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series). A great SULIS tool is the Plant Selection Program, which lets you search for plant choices within the two broad categories of woody (trees or shrubs) or herbaceous (think perennials) plants and then by an array of factors that include plant names, texture, form, flower color, and seasonal interest.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture website (www.mda.state.mn.us ) includes excellent information about “Plants, Pests and Pest Control” that can help the home gardener identify and address these challenges.  The site also provides an array of information and resources about organic growing. Although, like the USDA site, much of the information provided here is geared to large-scale growers, there is also some great information for the small urban gardener or farmer.

A second state agency, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (www.dnr.state.mn.us), although primarily associated with the management of state parks, hunting, and fishing, also works to meet the needs of home gardeners.  For example, they offer information about topics like landscaping with native plants and planting butterfly gardens, and they are a key player in the state’s efforts to fight the emerald ash borer now threatening the considerable canopy of Minnesota ash trees. Like MDA, they frequently partner with Extension to serve the state and its citizens.

green tomatoes in July

green tomatoes in July

Local Resources.  Many counties and cities also play a role in serving residents with interests that connect with gardening, local food production and distribution, and related environmental issues.  I offer here three examples of resources in and near my hometown of Saint Paul, MN.

In the broader Twin Cities area, we have a great resource in Gardening Matters (www.gardeningmatters.org ), a nonprofit organization formed to promote and preserve community gardening by connecting gardeners and providing training and other resources.  In addition to offering “tips, techniques, and resources” for gardening in community settings, the site offers a calendar of local events; information about specific projects and opportunities for community organizing and advocacy; and composting information (how to make compost and sources of compost and mulch that are free and for sale).  The site will soon include a community garden directory, a resource long desired by folks interested in finding available space or identifying existing gardens to visit.

I also want to give a “shout out” to a fascinating local site that I discovered while researching this post. Yards to Gardens (www.y2g.org ) is a site designed to help people share what they have (e.g., extra space, plants, seeds, or tools) or “find what [they’re] looking for.” It offers some additional resources to help gardeners get started and handle the logistics of sharing resources and has a strong environmental focus.  What a great concept!

Rosehips winding down summer

Rosehips winding down summer

The City of Saint Paul has launched a site on its webpage focused on healthy and local food (http://www.stpaul.gov/index.aspx?NID=4811).  Here you can find information about urban food production (community gardens, water access, etc.); zoning and permits (e.g., what animals and structures are allowed within the City); community connections (finding community garden sites and discovering other local resources); and more.

Don’t live in Minnesota? Don’t despair.  Much of the information provided by these Minnesota and Twin Cities sites is applicable to growers anywhere in the U.S., as are the resources offered by extension offices across the country.  Of the latter, two of the best I’ve used are Cornell University (www.gardening.cornell.edu ) and Iowa State University (www.extension.iastate.edu).  The link on the USDA site will help you find the extension service office closest to you.  Although in many states funding for these services has lagged far behind the demand for assistance, they remain a great, and mostly free, source of information and assistance.

I hope you’ll use the links I’ve provided here as a jumping off point. Although we sometimes need to be a bit skeptical of what we read on the Internet, I feel confident that the sources I’ve identified here will provide you with accurate, research-based information you can trust as you plan, plant, maintain, and ultimately enjoy the bounty of your urban garden.    So go ahead, surf your way to some great growing!

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