The Essential Urban Farmer


The Essential Urban Farmer, reviewed by Helen Krayenhoff

Be forewarned: This is a rave, not a mere review! The Essential Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter and Willow Rosenthal, just published by Penguin Books, is a tome packed with hard-earned personal wisdom and experience now made available to anyone ready to journey through its 500 pages. It is truly a gift to all who feel the pull toward personal and community food sustainability. Growing food in the city is not a new subject by any means, but the approach here is fresh and very timely indeed.

Novella Carpenter is well known for her bestselling book, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. She is also part owner of the Bio-Fuel Oasis (and urban farm center) on Sacramento Street in Berkeley. She has many years of experience navigating the unique possibilities and challenges of farming in Oakland. Willow Rosenthal is the founder of City Slicker Farms. I remember when she bought her first empty lot in West Oakland with the idea of creating an oasis in the food desert there. A couple of years ago she left that wildly successful project in other loving hands in order to embrace new food-growing adventures and to write this book with Novella.

The result is a book that can energize and inspire. It’s the kind of inspiration that creates energy in a tired body and spirit in the middle of winter. I read every page from start to finish. The book offers many practical projects as well as new ways to think about them. As a longtime commercial grower and gardener, I’ve grown weary of opening the gardening magazines and reading the same information over and over, year after year, with different photos being the only change. They all say to plant your warm-season crops six weeks before the last frost date, but how does that help us in a climate where most years don’t bring a real hard frost? The Essential Urban Farmer says “We want to help you plan for year-round growing and escape the last-frost-date mania,” then the writers give us the real information we need to plan our crop timing:

“There are three environmental factors that [affect] plant growth: the number of daylight hours; the intensity of the light; and the intensity of heat, including air and ground temperatures.” Following this comes clear and detailed information that gives us everything we need to know to make the informed decisions about when to plant in our area (this book covers all of the United States) and even where to plant in our yard’s specific microclimate.

Feeling inspired to occupy your own food system and make the leap into production growing? Part one of this book takes us through all the steps: finding space to farm (including tips on how to approach a land owner); making sure the soil is safe to farm and what to do if it isn’t; creating a farm layout without reinventing the wheel: choosing farm-building materials and tools in a thoughtful way; planning what to grow; and deciding whether to include animals.

Part two gives detailed instructions for how to raise vegetables and fruit, covering such topics as building beds, container gardening, propagation, planting, maintenance, irrigation, and harvesting. Saving our own seeds is covered very well as is fruit tree selection, planting, care, and pruning.

That the writers have plumbed the depths of their subject becomes evident as they approach an issue some of us are loath to acknowledge, harvest shame: “One would think that harvesting from your urban farm . . . would be the simplest and most satisfying task . . . In fact, we’ve found it to be the exact opposite, with many urban farmers resistant to picking their produce.”

And with their characteristically understated humor, they also address the challenges of harvesting as they provide guidance on when and how to harvest:

“Picking beans and peas requires sustained, systematic attention. Take it as a test of wills, yours against the plants’ ability to make more pods. You want to win, don’t you? Keep at it. Don’t go sit in that lounge chair yet!”

Carpenter and Rosenthal make a case for using our small urban farming spaces effectively. In “Planning What to Grow and Raise,” they bring up some more obvious ideas, such as choosing crops with high yields in relation to space and those that produce food for the longest season in a given climate. But they also suggest criteria most people don’t think about, such as whether the foods are high in nutrients or expensive to buy in the store.

Many of us will find it refreshing to think outside the traditional spring planting blitz of warm-season crops like tomatoes, summer squash, peppers, and so forth. Even if we use this part of the book to help us plan a small farm/vegetable garden there’s no reason not to utilize our capacity to produce the most food possible, and if we wind up inviting our neighbors to help with the harvest, it just becomes a win-win.

Although I don’t keep farm animals, I found part three, in which the writers cover urban animal husbandry, to be fascinating and instructive. I was even inspired to a momentary fantasy about keeping bees. But as I read on, I learned that my shady backyard would never support a healthy hive and that I would need consider whether the bees’ flight path would disturb the neighbors.

The appendices are chock full of charts covering planting and propagation, nutrients for crop rotation, and much more. Appendix 13, “Starting an Urban Gardening Business,” is forthright about the challenges involved in making the transition from home gardening to running a full-on urban farming business. After owning a plant-based business for years I can say that the book’s assessments and suggestions ring true.

With so much great information jammed into the book, it’s a relief to find that the index is functional and complete.

These two women write with heart and openness. They have mined their vast combined experience deeply and given it freely. They offer not only their hands-on experience with growing food and raising animals but also their hard-won perspective on what works and what doesn’t, how to go into farming without romanticizing the hard work and stresses, and how to evaluate what animals are right for our space, lifestyle, and ethics. They ask us to look at ourselves honestly and find an organizing model that works best for our lives, families, and community.

Every page is thoughtfully written with refreshing clarity. They never take a shortcut. They want us to succeed, they want to see us all eat well and use the process of growing food in the city to heal our bodies, the body politic, and our community. I am so grateful to Novella Carpenter and Willow Rosenthal for the time that went into this book. It’s a gift from the heart and a steal at $25. You will have it around for years. My copy already has many bookmarked pages and tea stains. 

Reviewer Helen Krayenhoff is co-owner of Kassenhoff Growers, a certified organic plant nursery located in Oakland and Alameda. You can find out more at Helen is also an illustrator ( and the Art and Garden editor at Edible East Bay.


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