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Volume 32, Issue 4, 2021


Volume 32, Issue 4, 2021

Urban gardens and farms

By Manuela Callari PhD, Science Writer

In Düsseldorf, a city in the west of Germany crossed by the Rhine river, the council has installed a floating park in the Marina made of recycled plastic. Each block has different layers of soil and plants that provide different biological functions. Vegetation can grow on top of the floating blocks where people can walk or sit. But it can also grow through the blocks, creating a breeding ground and shelter for fish and other animals. The floating platform enhances the natural habitat, offering green space for the city dwellers while boosting local biodiversity.

In many cities around the world, such as London, Melbourne or San Francisco, rooftop and vertical gardens have been developed on skyscrapers and buildings in the past few years. 

In other cities, people use pocket-size pieces of land amongst buildings to grow food in other cities while increasing green space in their neighbourhood.

Figure 1: Cities around the world are creating natural habitats and food gardens in cities, including rooftops and pocket sizes of land between buildings.

The benefits of urban gardens and farms go beyond producing enough food for the whole city – in fact, that is not the case. Provide fresh, sustainable food to the neighbourhood is only one of the aims of urban farming. 

Urban vegetable patches and gardens can have several benefits. They can help people living in urban settings connect with their food source, become aware of the effort and amount of resources that growing foods involves, and appreciate the food we eat more. It offers an opportunity for supporting wildlife and biodiversity in the city, providing habitat for birds and pollinators.

Urban gardens green our cities, creating an edible landscape, bring up a sense of community, promote healthy eating and support pollinator populations. They make cities more resilient, cooler and more biodiverse. Urban agriculture can also contribute to water and biological waste management. 

Figure 2: Urban gardens create an edible landscape and promote sense of community, connection with food, healthy eating, and biodiversity.

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Urban farming

In Sydney, Australia, a former bowling green was converted into a 1200m² working farm. One of many examples of urban farms across the world, Pocket City Farms uses regenerative and permaculture methods to grow vegetables, herbs and salad greens in the middle of the city. Myriad of urban farms like Pocket City Farm continue to pop up in cities of the world – urban agriculture is a growing movement. 

There is a common misconception that urban farming is a new concept.  In reality, it is one of the oldest methods of agriculture. Since society moved away from the hunter-gatherer culture, people began creating small plots around villages to produce food. 

As cities developed and expanded, land dedicated to agriculture slowly disappeared to make room for buildings and roads. Now the interest in urban gardening has regained momentum.

Urban farms are generally pocket-size patches that need to be carefully designed to make the most of the reduced space and sun. These gardens often use sustainable, organic or permaculture principles, which include: 

  1. composting food scrap, brown and green waste from the garden,
  2. worm farming,
  3. chickens or quails from which manure is harvested,
  4. using stormwater and water systems that can recycle water, such as aquaponic systems,
  5. fruit trees are tightly pruned to fit in a confined space. Ideally, more trees are fitted in the garden to have more variety throughout the year rather than one big tree that fruits all at once,
  6. raised beds are often employed to avoid lead contamination from urban soil,
  7. crop rotation.
Figure 3: Urban gardens are cropping up all over the world

The bee highway

Urban gardens and farms also serve as habitats for pollinators. These include birds, bats, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, wasps, small mammals, and, most importantly, bees. 

Pollinators have a vital role in our ecosystems and agriculture. Without pollinators, we would not be able to grow food naturally. Pollinators carry pollen on their bodies and transfer it from flower to flower, fertilising plants along the way, allowing them to reproduce.

Figure 4: Pollinators are vital for fertilising the crops that give us food.

Research shows that improving pollinator density and diversity, which means making sure that increasing numbers and variety of insects visit plants, directly impacts crop yields. Our very existence depends on pollinators, but they are dangerously in decline due to the expansion of cities, habitat loss and pesticides.

Fortunately, in many world capitals like Paris, London, and New York, urban beekeeping is becoming trending. Beehives can be kept on rooftops and backyards, supporting bee populations in cities. Urban gardens can help pollinators too.

In Sydney, Australia, a not-for-profit organisation called Planting Seeds is establishing a networked “highway” of rest points for birds, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. 

They have created a habitat regeneration program to establish key pollinating spaces and pollinator habitats at strategic urban locations throughout the city.

The program involves revamping unused pieces of land, sometimes only small patches alongside streets, to create little oases for pollinators. These oases, called B&B’s – or Bed and Breakfasts for Birds, Bees, Butterflies and Biodiversity – provide much-needed rest and revival for pollinators. 

Each Bed and Breakfast includes a native stingless beehive, an insect hotel, or a nesting box. It also provides pollinators with a selection of native pollinating plants.

These B&Bs for pollinators have been installed at schools, community housing, places of worship and community centres across Sydney. The organisation also invites private citizens to participate in the initiative. In fact, the B&Bs can also be installed in people’s backyards or balconies.

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Why you should start urban farming in your backyard or at school

Learn unique skills. Most of us have forgotten where our food comes from, or maybe we have never known. We have very little awareness of what it takes to grow food. Urban gardening can help us develop unique manual skills such as pruning, sowing and hoeing. You can learn about native, little known plants and flowers and which ones pollinators are attracted to. You can also learn about the seasonality of crops, or what plants grow synergistically and which ones don’t like to be close to each other.

Urban gardening can teach you how to optimise small spaces well to grow food. You can learn about vertical gardening, container gardening, rooftop gardening, and hydroponic gardening. You can learn about worm farming and composting, and you can learn about synergistic gardening.

Grow healthy food. Growing your own food means growing healthy, nutritious food like fruits, vegetables, and herbs in a sustainable manner. These foods are good for your health and the health of the environment. They are also good for your finances because the more foods you grow on your urban farm, the less you need to buy at the supermarket. Even a bed of herbs can go a long way.

Grow sustainable food. Urban gardening can help reduce the carbon footprint of the mass-production food system. Mass-produced food consumes an enormous amount of the planet resources and pollutes the environment through fertilisers and pesticides. In addition, transporting food from the place where it’s grown to supermarket shelves consumes tonnes of fossil fuels. In the US, for example, food is transported on average between 1,500 and 2,500 miles to reach the consumer.

Build community. When you live in big cities, it is sometimes difficult to bond with the people who live in your neighbourhood and form a strong community. Lack of human connection is often associated with feeling lonely and unhappy. Urban gardening can help neighbours come together for a common purpose, increasing your sense of belonging.

Improve your mood. Initially, farming can be frustrating – growing food is hard work, and you have a lot to learn at the start. But it immensely rewarding and satisfying to grow your own vegetables and fruits. Also, plenty of research now shows that spending time in nature greatly benefits your physical and mental health. It can help you be calmer and happier.

Figure 5: School gardens are a great way to teach children about growing food.

How to start a home farm

1. Study your location. Before you begin planning what you want to grow in your garden, it is important that you know how much sunlight your plants will be able to get during the day to determine what you can plant. In areas of your gardens that get at least six hours of sunlight a day, you can plant almost anything. But there are lots of plants that can still grow in partial sunlight or even partial shade.

Ensure you have good quality soil able to retain nutrients and hold water. It is also essential to make sure that the soil is not contaminated with lead – this is an issue in many cities. If that is the case, you can avoid led contamination by installing raised beds and filling them with good quality soil, compost and manure.

2. Choose what vegetables to plant. Now that you know how much sunlight your garden will get, you can choose what to plant. Depending on the season, you could select several different vegetables from – ask the personnel at the nursery for advice.

3. Design and plan your vegetable garden. Depending on how big or small your vegetable garden is, you may need to put some effort into how you design it. Start by drawing a rough plan, including where your home is, existing structures, water points, and paving. Also, mark how much sunlight each part of the garden gets, as this might change where you plant certain vegetables. Pay attention to crop rotation – if you plant foods from the same group next year they won’t grow well.

4. Choose a type of planter. As mentioned above, raised garden beds are often ideal for small urban gardens. But you can also use wall planters, timber planters, vertical gardens or pots.

5. Plant your vegetables. Once you have decided what to grow, you can begin by preparing your soil – add composting and manure to give the soil lots of nutrients. Then you can plant your seeds or seedlings and cover the soil with mulch, which will help retain the water trapped in the soil and build up a healthy microbial community. Remember to water them regularly.

These are a few basic steps to get started, but there is much to learn. Educate yourself about organic methods and permaculture. It will help you grow healthy, nutritious food while managing garden waste and optimising resources.

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Student Activities

1. What are urban farms? 

2. What are the main benefits for humans, wildlife and the environment?

3. What do organic methods and permaculture involve?

4. What are pollinators? Why are they important? Why are they in danger?

5. What is the bee highway?

6. Why should anyone care about starting an urban farm?

7. What are the essential steps to get an urban farm started?

8. What is crop rotation and why is it important?

9. In groups, identify an area of your school or your city to install an urban garden. Then design a vegetable farm.


Pocket City Farms. URL:

A highly productive small-scale urban garden, Gardening Australia. URL: 

Gardening Australia. How to create a hydroponic heaven. URL:

Four bed crop rotation, Sustainable Gardening Australia. URL: 

New recycled park in Dusseldorf, 2021. URL: 

Parletta N, 2021. Working around the legacy of lead: how safe is your veggie patch? URL: 

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