Kitchen Garden’s Amanda Staples talks about the successes and challenges of urban farming.
“I don’t really hate groundhogs,” says Amanda Staples about her farm’s number one produce predator. “I wouldn’t even mind them if they didn’t have such expensive taste.” Like fine diners, they insist on only the best part of the farm’s lettuce, boring out the tender center of each head, while leaving the rest of it to rot. “I’ll sometimes find ten in a row like that.” It’s a battle that resumes each growing season for Amanda at the Germantown Kitchen Garden — one of many challenges that include foxes, bugs, hard rains, and other acts of nature that can ruin a crop.
It’s a list that might make some aspiring farmers call it quits, but for an experienced hand like Amanda, it’s a minor irritation in comparison to the rewards – the joys of planting a new crop, bringing neighbors together at her farm stand, and the freedom that comes with being her own boss.
We caught up with Amanda to find out more about the struggles and rewards of farming in the city.
How did you get into urban farming?
It’s been an interest of mine for almost 20 years, since I was in my 20s. I was living in Kensington and Fishtown then. There was lots of vacant land and community gardens were popping up all over. It was so inspiring that me and some friends created a community garden on Frankford Avenue — it’s still there, which makes me happy.
Any green thumbs in the family?
My grandmother had a plant nursery in Clark Summit (near Scranton). She grew annuals and perennials in her greenhouses and had a Christmas Tree farm. I spent a lot of time there helping out. I even made wreaths with her at the Christmas Tree farm. Funny how years later making wreaths helped me raise startup money for Kitchen Garden.
What do you like most about running the Kitchen Garden?
I get to work outside and for myself. I also like the community aspect of the farm stand – people take pride in buying something grown in the neighborhood. I’m also a very social person, which is a big reason why my farm’s in the city rather than out in the sticks.
What are some challenges?
Lack of space is a big one. It’s hard to make a living growing vegetables on 10 acres, much less the ½ acre I have. But I’ve diversified my products to compensate – it’s also why I built a greenhouse and started selling plants.
Another challenge is direct sunlight. It’s not a big problem in summer, but it is in fall when huge trees on either side of the property and the lower position of the sun make things very shady. It makes it hard to get a robust fall crop.
The last challenge was a personal one – I had to learn that I couldn’t provide all the types of produce that I wanted to. I had to be merciless in cutting out crops that didn’t grow well. One day I said to a customer, I’m going to stop growing squash. It takes up a lot of space and there’s so many pests and diseases. It felt good to let that go.
Least favorite part of farming?
Funny to say it, but harvest days are my least favorite. You’d think a farmer would say it’s the best part of the job, but I dread it. It’s a really long day because everything needs to be harvested at once. Cutting baby lettuce, for instance – I’m bent over for so long, checking through leaves, picking sorting, washing, bagging, that I’m really sore by the end of it. I’m happy with the result, but it feels like a chore. I’d love to hand the job off to someone else if I thought they’d have the same standards as me, but I don’t.
Making the farm and the farmstand into a communal space. When I first started, I was a bit shy about “tooting my own horn” but I’ve seen how people respond to locally grown produce and plants. There’s a pride in it and a social aspect that’s hard to get in any other business. And now we’re strengthening that connection with the community by doing summer concerts in the garden and winter markets, where we sell Christmas trees, wreaths, and all sort of local crafts.
Customers also love the plant nursery. We’ve got perennials, shrubs, and trees for sun and shade, pollinator and butterfly gardens, rain gardens, meadows, and tough urban spaces. There’s fruiting bushes, herbs and other edibles too.
What has farming taught you?
I’ve learned that even though nature has a lot of control, you can intervene in those natural processes to make things turn out the way you want. You don’t just plant a seed and walk away to let nature take care of it. It requires lots of observation, patience, and a bit of serenity to know what you can control and what you can’t worry about.
What’s your favorite thing someone has made with the produce from the farm? A neighbor who hailed from the Caribbean made a massive jar of hot sauce with peppers from the farm. It was amazing – I had hot sauce and eggs constantly that year.
How does your CSA differ from traditional CSAs?
With traditional CSAs, someone picks out your produce and puts it in a box and you pick it up. With mine, you get a credit to your account and you use it to pick out your own produce at the farm stand. I want people to get what they want not what I think they should have. It’s also a thrill to see them get excited when they’re making their choices.
How is the plant nursery?
It grows every year (no pun intended). Seriously though we get lots of great interest in our nursery, which isn’t a surprise – Germantown loves its gardens. It’s part of what makes the neighborhood so special.
I love chatting with gardeners about their plots and what might grow best where – sun, shade, direct or indirect sunlight. There’s so many variables with any garden so I offer plants to fit any situation — perennials, shrubs, and trees, pollinator and butterfly gardens, rain gardens, meadows, and tough urban spaces. We also offer fruiting bushes, herbs, and other edibles.
How do you decide what new plants or veggies you’d like to grow each year?
I check seed catalogs and I talk to other farmers. I’m always looking for something more interesting when it comes to greens because I grow so many greens. I grow salad mixes, head lettuce, and cooking greens. I also try varieties of potato, particularly ones that are unusual. Anything I try has to have a short season and not be difficult to grow – I don’t have any extra space to experiment.
Have you ever tried something new that just didn’t work?
I tried growing purple carrots for a short while. They looked great on the farmstand table, but they just didn’t taste as sweet as orange carrots. Some things you can’t improve on. I also tried keeping bees but couldn’t keep them alive over the winter. My neighbor might want to try it in the empty hive on my property. I miss doing it though.
What’s your favorite farm-raised recipe or dish?
In early summer it’s a salad with radicchio, butter lettuce, radishes, and cranberries with a light, lemony vinaigrette. I also add goat cheese, a poached egg, and boiled potatoes. Or curly endive salad with poached egg and bacon.
What are the three most important things an aspiring urban farmer needs to know?
- Make sure you test your soil, preferably before you buy the land. Don’t assume soil is toxic just because you’re in the city – some people do and go right to building raised beds, which is a lot of work.
- Be mentally prepared for lots of work amending the soil — I don’t mean that in terms of toxicity, but in terms of fertility. Usually vacant lots are full of rocks and concrete (which has a very high ph balance and makes the soil ph high too). It takes work to make the soil as rich as possible. It’s difficult but you can’t let it get you down – every urban farmer needs some measure of naivete to believe that everything will work out fine.
- Buy the land from a private owner (like we did), not the city, because it’s a bureaucratic nightmare. We dealt with a few city agencies (particularly the Redevelopment Authority) and it wasn’t a good experience. It’s difficult for the city to release a property if they think it might have value in some other way. Ownership is important because for all the work you’re putting in, you don’t want it to be taken away from you.
What about the groundhogs?
Ugh, groundhogs. My neighbor had a terrier that used to kill them or at least keep them in check, but she’s getting old. I got a dog myself, Charlie, who hadn’t shown any killer instinct for a long time, only some curiosity about their den. Just recently though, he made his first kill.
If he keeps it up, I won’t have to bother trapping and relocating the other groundhogs. Relocating in particular is very hard because they can do a lot of damage.
What businesses are you partnering with in the coming months?
I have a standing order with Birchtree Catering for 20 pounds of salad mix – which is my most lucrative product. I’m also partnering with Michael’s Bread (the owner is my neighbor). In fact, he’s building a bread oven in our garden so he can sell his amazing sourdough bread at the farm stand. He might also make pizza with it for our summer concerts.
What improvements are you planning in the near future?
I would like to get a bobcat. It’s hard for trucks to deliver compost to my property because the ground can be soft. If I had a bobcat they could drop it on the street and I could pick it up there. I rented one once and boy does that make the work go fast!
My other plans are kinda more daydreams at this point — acquiring another piece of land would be great, and trimming the trees above the farm to get some more sun.
VISIT THE FARM STAND
A wide variety of produce and treats every Saturday from 9AM – 1PM. Veggies, fruits, and herbs, homemade sourdough bread, home-brewed kombucha and more.
And don’t forget the plant nursery! You’ll find a wide variety of perennials, shrubs, and trees. From Asters to Wild Violets, the nursery has you covered! See all the varieties here. For July, all perennials are on sale.
Germantown Kitchen Garden
Hours: Saturdays from 9AM to 1PM now thru October, and by appointment. Call Amanda at 610-505-4881 to set up a time to wander around and select some plants for your garden.
215 E. Penn St. (map)
(CSA shares available to purchase at the website)
Follow Germantown Kitchen Garden for more beautiful images like the ones shared in this post (Thanks, Amanda!)