06/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Urban Agriculture Booms in Seattle

Driven by a passion seen all over town, from burgeoning P-Patches to residents cultivating forsaken bits of soil, Seattle's officials have declared 2010 the Year of Urban Agriculture. With parking strips sprouting raised beds, productive gardens replacing lawns, and even a "dating" service called Urban Garden Share that matches up landless gardeners with those willing to share, Seattle has taken Michelle Obama's message of grow your own to heart. Even hipster-cool Seattle's Central Community College is offering a popular program on sustainable urban agriculture.

It doesn't really matter whether the food gardening renaissance is driven by do-it-yourself frugality in a time of economic uncertainties, or concern over food safety and the environment. Its joys are tangible and delicious; stepping out your back door to pick a dinner you grew from a couple of seed packets is viscerally satisfying. And not just Seattleites are replacing roses with rhubarb and hedging with blueberries. More than 41 million households in the U.S. grew a vegetable garden last year, meaning that a remarkable 38% of the population tended and harvested their own fresh food.

In Seattle, this has translated to long waiting lists for P-Patches. The city currently has 73 P-Patches on city land, with 2,000 people waiting for their own plots. Eight more P-Patches are being designed or built, and more community gardens are in the works in the next couple of years. The Seattle City Council is taking a broad view of urban agriculture. They are considering changing laws that currently prevent people from selling their backyard produce and creating zoning that supports city farming. Seattle leaders are working to form a Regional Food Policy Council with the goal to strengthen local food production and the reliability of our food sources.

Seattle's year of celebrating urban ag is kicking off on May 7, when Mayor Mike McGinn will build and plant gardens on City Hall's patios and balconies. Food raised in these gardens will be donated to a local food bank. Then on Saturday May 8th, volunteers for a city-wide event called "Spring into Bed" will gather at "food justice hubs" throughout the city to build gardens for people who can't afford to create their own.

2010-04-30-pinkblueberry.jpegLest all this sound a little too......earnest...keep in mind that growing vegetables is booming in part because plant breeders are producing edibles that are as pretty as they are tasty. Three days after I wrote about the new pink blueberry Vaccinium 'Pink Lemonade' in the Seattle Times, the regional grower sold out. An heirloom variety of onion (Allium cepa var. proliferum) , found on an old southeast Iowa farm, has been newly introduced to the market by Oregon wholesaler Log House Plants. 'Amish Spreading' is the name of this hardy perennial walking onion, which obligingly propagates itself after a long growing season and a bountiful harvest. Or how about a purple sweet potato, a darkly-colored Russian heirloom tomato called 'Black Sea Man', or all the tantalizingly ruffled, speckled, streaked and variously colored and shaped lettuces on the market? Whether you choose to grow fruit, herbs, vegetables or all three in your P-Patch or back yard, be assured that beauty need not be sacrificed for utility, even in the Year of Urban Agriculture.

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