Urban Agriculture Challenges and Solutions: Part 1

13th Street Garden
13th St. Garden has individual beds and collective rows.


13th Street Garden

This is the first in a series of articles about the challenges gardeners and farmers have faced in an urban area, as well as the solutions they have come up with in the face of these issues.

13th Street Garden was established eight years ago and can be found in the Old North neighborhood of St. Louis. It is unique in that it is a resource garden, one that lends tools and knowledge to other gardens. It is also special because of its longevity. I met with garden leaders Jason and Jessica to talk about the unique issues they face as garden leaders in St. Louis.

13th Street Garden
A street side view of 13th St Garden.

The garden has historically been supported by the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, but it is managed by longtime, dedicated neighborhood volunteers. They hold a weekly farmers’ market on site where they sell extra produce that is collectively grown in the center rows. The money from the market goes back into the garden to keep it running with seeds, plants, tools, and other materials. When asked what their biggest challenge is, both agreed lack of time and volunteers keeps them from reaching all of their goals.

“In an effort to keep weeds down, we decided to try having people sign up to weed just a single row each week, which is much more manageable than trying to tackle everything at once,” Jason said when explaining the solutions they’ve found to increasing involvement with more neighbors.

They also do outreach, such as going door to door in their neighborhood and speaking to market customers about how they can join the garden. Jessica says their market especially creates a sense of community, bringing in people from across the area who may not be members of the garden.

Jessica holds this sense of community very dearly.

“I moved here from Chicago where I lived in a mid-rise building and didn’t know anyone. Here, I know many of my neighbors. We have potlucks for almost every holiday and people come to our farmers’ market just to hang out and talk.”

They both agreed that Old North is a tight knit neighborhood, but that the garden makes it even closer.

“That’s the magic of this neighborhood. People know each other and they care about each other,” said Jason.

However, they are concerned about gardening in an urban environment.

“Lead exposure is a concern, even though plants don’t absorb much into their roots,” said Jason.

This concerns many urban farmers and gardeners. Lead is often left behind in the soil from demolished buildings.

Many gardens, including the 13th St. Garden, use raised beds and rows with fresh soil and compost to avoid lead exposure. Washing one’s hands after gardening and harvested vegetables before eating them also helps cut down on the risk of exposure. They are also experimenting with low till practices and mulching to reduce direct contact with the soil and skin.

13th Street Garden
13th St Garden has individual beds and collective rows.

They’ve also faced some theft.

“We’ve had a couple incidences of plants being pulled out of the ground and taken. Whole kale plants just disappearing. The majority of our garden-grown seedlings disappeared at the beginning of the season.”

And while they feel disappointed when theft happens, they remind themselves that it only happens occasionally. Neighbors and other urban farmers reached out to donate money and seedlings to replace those lost, getting the garden back on schedule for planting.

“Everyone is really supportive. Even if they’re not part of the garden,” said Jason.

Looking forward, both Jessica and Jason are primarily concerned with how best to increase fresh food access in their neighborhood. They want to be a resource for their community, whether that means sharing knowledge or assisting people in setting up a backyard garden.

“If a backyard garden is going to work best for them, then we will try to support them however we can,” said Jason.

In summary

To address lack of time and volunteers, 13th St. Garden does outreach door-to-door and at their on-site farmers’ markets. They also have interested people take responsibility for smaller tasks such as weeding a row, instead of expecting everyone to tackle the whole garden.

To address the risk of lead exposure, they use raised beds and rows with fresh soil and compost to prevent contamination. They also remind volunteers and members to wash hands and produce after coming into contact with soil. They are also trying low till practices.

When it comes to theft, they remind themselves that it is an infrequent occurrence that does not reflect the attitudes of the majority of the community.

To increase food access in the community, they focus on providing the best resources for each individual, in addition to increasing production and growing their farmers’ market.


-Written by Mallory Brown, Communications & Fundraising AmeriCorps VISTA at Gateway Greening


To read about other community gardens, check out the links below:




Gateway Greening is grateful to announce a new partnership with Wells Fargo Advisors.  Within our community and school garden program, Wells Fargo Advisors is providing $100,000 in funding to Gateway Greening to build new gardens and to expand existing gardens.  The new partnership allows Gateway Greening to assist more community-led projects with urban agriculture resources and training.  For 2017, this funding will help build or expand 25 community or school gardens.

“It’s great to join hands with non-profits and make a positive impact,” said David Kowach, head of Wells Fargo Advisors. “It brings even more fulfillment to the work we do every day.” 

“Gateway Greening greatly appreciates this new grant from Wells Fargo Advisors to expand and create community and school gardens in the St. Louis area.,” said Matt Schindler, Executive Director of Gateway Greening.  “In terms of community development, access to healthy food, and sustainable land use, this partnership will improve the lives of hundreds of people in a wide variety of neighborhoods across the region.”

This new partnership with Wells Fargo Advisors will strengthen Gateway Greening’s garden development program.  Demand for urban agricultural knowledge and resources continues to grow, and Gateway Greening has been St. Louis’ source for 33 years.

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About Gateway Greening

Gateway Greening is a nonprofit organization that educates and empowers people to strengthen their communities through gardening and urban agriculture. Gateway Greening has been working to provide creative, grassroots solutions to urban problems since 1984. Programs include supporting more than 220 community and school gardens across the St. Louis area through educational opportunities, garden supplies and technical assistance; and Gateway Greening’s Urban Farm, a 2.5-acre farm in downtown St. Louis that provides therapeutic horticulture and a jobs training program. Visit Gateway Greening at www.gatewaygreening.org. @gatewaygreening.

Edible Perennials: A 101

Every spring, farmers and gardeners alike begin to grow their plants. While some planting and a lot of planning happens during the winter months, the bulk of the work of growing begins in early spring. But what if you could plant edible plants that come back year after year with less work?


Benefits of Edible Perennials

Annuals, plants that live only one year and must be replaced, make up the majority of edibles grown in Missouri. Perennials can provide relief from some the work that annuals involve, but their low maintenance characteristics aren’t the only benefit they provide.

Edible Perennials - Rubarb
Rubarb, a local favorite in pies and other baked goods.

Edible perennials are great for soil. Bare soil quickly dries out and washes away in the winter without the help of roots to hold it in place. And so growing something is vital. Also, perennials don’t require tilling which can kill beneficial components of soil. Perennials allow soil to thrive by adding organic matter to it and letting worms mix all the beneficial components together.

Perennials, including trees, help catch water and nutrients that might otherwise run into storm water drains without nurturing anything. One of the biggest issues in cities is the proliferation of impervious surfaces such as concrete and asphalt that do not catch storm water, leading to overburdened and overflowing sewer systems. Perennials help to divert storm water by catching it in their root systems, something that grass, with its small roots, just can’t do.

These plants also create nurturing and permanent habitats for animals, fungus, and more. These are vital as people continue to destroy existing habitats to put up buildings and roads.

Perennials help extend the harvest season. Some edible perennials are ready in early spring, which means you have plants to harvest and eat during a period that usually isn’t high yield. This is especially beneficial for school gardens that want to harvest some edible plants before summer arrives.

These plants can also help to improve your garden. Some perennials fix nitrogen in the soil, providing themselves and neighboring crops with fertilizer. Others help to prevent erosion on hills or work as hedges or ground cover. And several can help pollinators while others can climb trellises to provide shade for other plants.


Examples of Perennial Edibles that Grow Well In Missouri:

Walking Onion
Walking Onion is a hardy and delicious member of the onion family.

Thyme, oregano, sage, and tarragon

Raspberry, blueberries, and blackberries

Elderberries and Aronia (chokeberries)


Shrub cherries




Anise Hyssop


Walking onion


Garlic Chives



Further Considerations:

Anise Hyssop
Anise Hyssop is a perennial herb that tastes great in salads, pastas, and soups.

However, perennials have their drawbacks. Some perennial vegetables, like asparagus, take a few years to establish. Other perennials are only edible for short periods as they become bitter when they flower. A few perennials can choke other plants by taking over parts of your garden. And some perennials have issues with disease and pest management as a result of the lack of crop rotation.

Edible perennials are a great addition to your current selection of annuals. They work together and can create a thriving and delicious garden!


To read more on this subject, check out these links:

Perennial Vegetables: Grow More Food With Less Work

Edible Spring Perennials You Need To Grow




The Process, Pros, and Cons of No-Till Farming

This is the first year that Gateway Greening has offered a high school internship program, in addition to our summer teen employment program. Through the internship, local high school students explore environmental issues, the St. Louis food system, and local urban agriculture projects, all while earning school credit.


Dig It STL Interns ask: “Why are you tilling the Farm beds?”

Blog - No Till 2017 Img 02

In October 2016, high school seniors Adam and Anna started their internships with Gateway Greening through the Dig It STL program, spending a large portion of each week throughout the fall and spring semesters of their senior year working on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm. From researching and creating a crop rotation plan for the coming year, to getting outside and performing hands-on tasks, they were an incredible help.

As Adam and Anna learned about soil structure and different soil management practices during their internship, they asked Teen Program Coordinator Carolyn Cosgrove-Payne: “why do we till the vegetable beds on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm?” As an urban agriculture organization, Gateway Greening teaches about no-till practices in our curriculum and discuss the benefits of no-till for microbial activity, soil fertility, and carbon sequestration. 

However, we have never tried using no-till soil management practices on our own urban farm. When challenged with the question, the staff thought about it and realized the main reason we haven’t tried no-till is… inertia. Gateway Greening has never directly used no-till and things seemed to be working fine, so it never entered our minds. 

As part of the Dig It school-year program, interns are required to complete a culminating project that demonstrates some of the knowledge they gained during their time with Gateway Greening this spring. Adam and Anna chose to put forth a No-Till Proposal for the Gateway Greening Urban Farm as their culminating project. The rest this article shares Adam and Anna’s findings and research, in their own words. 


The Process, Pros, and Cons of No-Till Farming

by Adam Mancuso & Anna Dotson

Traditional farming practices utilize tilling when preparing to plant new seeds in the ground. This is done in several ways, from large machinery to handheld tools, but the goal is the same: to loosen and aerate the soil in order to make it easier to plant and introduce nutrients. However, this process not only interrupts the natural soil building process that is occurring during the growing season, but also is not effective at reaching its goal, on account of smoothing over, crusting, and loss of the soil that occurs after heavy rainfall. This is why some farmers choose to instead use no-till practices on their farms, to maintain and boost the natural processes present, depending in part on what kind of soil is present on their farm. While till farming builds up the soil (using compost, pesticides, fertilizers, etc), tears it down, and builds it up again, no-till farmers instead continuously build up the soil throughout the year.

Blog | No Till 2 June 2017 02
In 2017, Hen bit and Chamomile did their best to invade raised berms on the urban farm.

There are a few things that go into a no-till bed or field. The first thing that needs to be done when preparing a no-till bed is to plant cover crops over the winter then use a roller or crimping tool to kill the cover crops once the growing season is 1-2 weeks away. After this is done, tarps should be put over the beds to cover them until planting time. If a roller or crimper is not used, then this process should be started 2-3 weeks in advance rather than 1-2. Once it is time to plant crops, add in about 4 inches of mulch during the initial seeding along with compost around the plants, making sure to pull the mulch away from the stems of young plants as they start sprouting. If there are perennial roots from other plants present in the soil, be sure to remove these from the areas being planted in so they do not come up and disrupt the growing of the plant that is supposed to be growing. Minimal watering through drip irrigation is the best way to water no-till spaces, and an important thing to keep in mind during the entire process is to compact the soil as little as possible. Compacting the soil is counterproductive as one of the goals of no-till farming is to build up the soil structure, however there is preliminary research that shows that soil in no-till systems are better at recovering on its own from compaction than soil in systems that use tillage. Growers also need to be mindful of any small weeds that may start to grow and to gently pull them out before they form large root systems.

Pros of No-till Farming

There are several pros when it comes to no-till farming over till farming. One of the main positives cited is very good erosion control, along with conservation of soil moisture and a buildup of organic material within the soil. No-till helps with erosion because the bulk of soil erosion in till farming comes from the tilling action itself, and because in no-till farming plant residue is left on the beds, the organic material builds up and helps with holding soil moisture and naturally promotes aeration and earthworm population increases (along with beneficial microbial life). Because in no-till the soil remains undisturbed, this also reduces the chances of accidentally bringing dormant weed seeds to the top of the soil (where they will then sprout), along with helping the soil to hold more carbon than it releases. No-till farming also has a hand in reducing loss of phosphorus in the soil. On larger farms, cutting out tillage also helps to cut out large amounts of fuel cost from the budget. In the long term, no-till helps provide larger yields during years without much rain while also helping farms save on water costs.

Blog | No Till 2 June 2017 01
Left: No-till bed. Right: Till bed planted with the same crop.

Cons of No-till Farming

Because building up soil structure is a slow process, there are certain benefits that can take up to 6 years for the effects to be seen at all. Another con to no-till is that there is no incorporation within the soil, meaning that compost added to the top of a bed stays on the top and the materials in it do not go far beyond that layer if root systems and/or microbial life do not transport them. In addition to the lack of incorporation, a con of having high organic matter content is that the organic matter ends up holding the soil together, which, if there is a poor earthworm count (or other microbial life), will not be broken up which can result in packing in of the soil and that could make it harder for plants to thrive in the soil. The increased ability for the beds to hold water is a bit of a double-edged sword as well, meaning that while holding more water is useful in terms of water costs and plant survival in dry years, in wet years the beds can end up over-saturated which then can result in slow warming in the soil if there is poor drainage. Poor drainage in no-till areas are typically caused by compaction of the soil. This can be solved by minimal use of “vertical tillage” to break up small areas of the soil that were previously compacted.

Project Conclusion

Two major parts to the no-till farming system is incorporating crop rotation and cover crop into the farming schedule, two things that are already being done at Gateway Greening. The main aspects that need to be increased are the amount of mulch and compost used. No-till farming increases soil structure, ability to hold water, and reduces soil erosion over time and is therefore a positive system for Gateway Greening to adopt.


Sources Cited

5 Steps For Successful No-Tilling. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2017, from https://www.no-tillfarmer.com/blogs/1-covering-no-till/post/4898-steps-for-successful-no-tilling

Duiker, S. W., & Myers, J. C. (n.d.). Better Soils With the No-Till System. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://www.chesco.org/DocumentCenter/View/6537

Eartheasy. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://learn.eartheasy.com/2009/01/no-till-gardening/

No-till agriculture offers vast sustainability benefits. So why do many organic farmers reject it? (2016, June 02). Retrieved March 10, 2017, from https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/06/02/no-till-agriculture-offers-vast-sustainability-benefits-so-why-do-organic-farmers-reject-it/

No-Till Pros Outweigh Cons For Growers. (n.d.). Retrieved March 10, 2017, from https://www.no-tillfarmer.com/articles/no-till-pros-outweigh-cons-for-growers

Pros and Cons of No-Tillage Farming. (n.d.). Retrieved March 10, 2017, from http://greentumble.com/pros-and-cons-of-no-tillage-farming/

University of Nebraska-Lincoln | Web Developer Network. (n.d.). Advantages and Disadvantages. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://cropwatch.unl.edu/tillage/advdisadv

What is No-Till? (2013, April 26). Retrieved April 21, 2017, from http://thefarmerslife.com/what-is-no-till/


Discover more about the Dig It STL Program: 

April on the Urban Farm with Dig It STL
A Semester in the Dig It STL Internship Program
No-Till Proposal by Dig It STL
USDA Awards Grant to Support Green Jobs for St. Louis Teens