Page data
Part of Three Acres and Liberty
Type Book
Keywords agriculture, public domain, farming, food
Authors Steve Solomon
Charles Aldarondo
Published 2021
License [ Public Domain]
Ported from
[see first revision]
Impact Number of views to this page. Views by admins and bots are not counted. Multiple views during the same session are counted as one. 253

Vacant city lot cultivation[edit | edit source]

In this book, necessarily, we have to take much upon the reports of others, checking them by our own judgment and experience. The startling accounts of what has been done and is being done on plots of about a quarter acre to each family, however, can be easily re-verified by any one who will go or write to Philadelphia, or examine any present experiment or model gardens. These show what can be done even by unskilled labor, with hardly any capital, on small plots where the soil was poor, but which are well situated.

The directors say: "The first Vacant Lot Cultivation Associations were organized when relief agencies were vainly striving to provide adequate assistance for the host of unemployed. The cultivation of vacant city lots by the unemployed had already been tried successfully in other cities. The first year we provided gardens,seeds, tools, and instruction only, for about one hundred families on twenty-seven acres of ground. At a total cost to contributors of about $1800, our gardeners produced $46,000 worth of crops."

The applicant is allowed a garden on the sole condition that he cultivate it well through the season, and that he do not trespass upon his neighbors. He must respect their right to what their labor produces. A failure to observe these rules forfeits his privilege.

During twenty years, more than eight thousand families have been assisted, many old people who could no longer keep up the rapid pace of our industrial life, cripples whose physical condition held them back in the race for work, persons who on account of sickness or other misfortunes have been thrown out of the competition in modern business, and unfortunate beings who, though clear in mind and strong in muscle, have been forced to the ranks of the unemployed--these have all had an opportunity opened to them: opportunity to enjoy all of the fruits from nature's great storehouse which their own labor and skill might secure.

The war has forced France, Italy, and England similarly to utilize natural opportunities for subsistence in their enormous tracts of unproductive lands. In Mexico all proprietors will be required to designate what they propose to cultivate and the remainder will either be allotted temporarily for agricultural purposes to those desiring them or it will be cultivated under government management.

There is no remedy like that for poverty.

The first man who applied for a vacant lot garden came to the Philadelphia office after the announcement in the papers, so weak and emaciated that the doctor was afraid the poor fellow would be unable to get out of his office without assistance. He was a widower with three girls and a boy, the oldest girl about seventeen.

He received a garden which contained only about one fifth of an acre. Later he observed that a part of another little farm was left untouched on account of being very rough, full of holes, and covered with stone and bricks. Part of this farm was below the street grade and subject to overflow, but it was larger than the others--nine tenths of an acre. He offered to exchange, saying he did not mind the extra work.

His offer was accepted. In a few days the stones and bricks had been thrown into the holes and covered with dirt. The low places had been filled in. It was a work in which the whole family joined. A small house was rented in the immediate neighborhood in lieu of their one room near the foul alleys of the city slum.

Every inch of the soil was utilized. A rosy hue took the place of the pale, wan cheek of a few months before. And now the harvest has come, and the winter's store can be enumerated. Thirty bushels of potatoes, four bushels of turnips, one bushel of carrots, thirty gallons of sauerkraut, fifteen gallons of catsup, five gallons of pickled beans, one hundred quarts of canned tomatoes, fifty quarts of canned corn, twenty quarts of beans, one thousand or more fine celery stalks, and many other things. Warm clothing has replaced the badly worn garments of nine months ago. A few pieces of furniture have been added. The boy has been provided with a small capital for his little business. ("Vacant Lot Cultivation," Reprint from N. Y.

_Charities Review._) Better labor would of course get even better results.

The personal benefits that have come to a few individual cases, are largely the same that all the gardeners enjoyed in New York and elsewhere.

An old colored woman--a grandmother--who had just been released from one of the hospitals where she had been treated for a long time for pleurisy, asked for a garden. It was more than a mile to the nearest plot, but she was quite willing to go even that distance if she could get a garden. At first, owing to her weakened condition, she was forced to work slowly and for short periods only, but a little assistance enabled her to get a garden started. The work proceeded so well that more land was added to her small holding, and most of her waking hours were now spent either in or near the garden,working among the tender plants or watching them grow. Before the season was half spent she had developed one of the best gardens in the whole plot. Her surplus produce became so large that she had to devote most of her time to gathering and selling it. Finally she rented a small shed on a prominent street and passers-by often stopped, and regular customers came to buy the freshly gathered produce, the supply being not only abundant, but of great variety.

One of the best gardens, from the standpoint of value of produce as well as for the varieties of products it contained and the artistic arrangement, was worked by a man who had but one arm. Many other successful and profitable gardens were cultivated by men and women of an age when we generally expect them to depend entirely upon others for support.

Many incidents were found where such habits as drinking and loafing around saloons and clubs and abusing the family have been checked on account of the gardener's time and attention being occupied in the little farm.

One of the workers came for work in a condition of mind and body which rendered his services almost worthless. He was scarcely able to carry on his work for a minute beyond what he was shown. Each new move had to be explained constantly, and even then he was often found doing the work in the wrong way only a few minutes afterwards.

Before long, however, he began to see that his place had its responsibilities and that the work of Mother Nature depended on his doing his part and doing it well. By the time the crops were ready to gather and market he came to realize that the cost of production must come under the amount received from the sale of the produce so as to prevent loss. By the end of the season he had learned so to utilize his time and to organize his work and execute our plans that we were able to recommend him to a farmer who was looking for a handy man about the place.

In twenty years our Associations have made demonstrations of the following facts, each demonstration proving more clearly than the former ones:

First. That many people out of employment must have help of some kind.

Second. That a great majority of them prefer self-help, and many will take no other. Nearly all are able and willing to improve any opportunities open to them.

Third. That to open opportunities to them does not pauperize or degrade, but has the opposite effect of elevating and ennobling. It quickly establishes self-respect and self-confidence. The best and most effective way of helping people in need is to open a way whereby they may help themselves. The most effective charity is opportunity accompanied with kindly advice and a personal interest in those less fortunate than ourselves.

Fourth. That the offering of gardens to the unemployed with proper supervision and some assistance by providing seeds, fertilizers, and plowing accompanied with instruction, is the cheapest and easiest way of opening opportunities yet devised.

Fifth. That it possesses many advantages in addition to providing profitable employment; among others, that the worker must come out into the open air and sunshine; must exercise, and put forth exertion,--all of which are conducive to health, and, most important of all, he knows that all he raises is to be his own. This is the greatest incentive to industry.

The Vacant Lot Cultivation system is a school wherein gardeners are taught a trade (to most of them a new trade), farming, which offers employment for more people than all the other trades and professions combined: a trade susceptible of wide diversification and offering many fields for specializing. But little capital is required; any other field would require large outlay. Its greatest advantage,however, is that the idle men and the idle land are already close to each other--the men can reach their gardens without changing their domiciles or being separated from their families.

It was not until after several years that the full effect of the work was realized. A few gardeners each year from the beginning have, after one or two years' experience, taken small farms or plots of land to cultivate on their own account, or have sought employment on farms near the city; but the number is quite small compared to the whole number helped. Now more than ten per cent of those that had gardens previously have for the last two years been working on their own account. Out of nearly eight hundred gardeners, more than eighty-five either rented or secured the loan of gardens that season and cultivated them wholly at their own expense, and many others would have done so had suitable land been available. The number of gardens forfeited on account of poor cultivation or trespassing was only two out of 800 plots given out.

The first important advance was early in the spring of 1904, when it became known that a large tract of land that had been in gardens for several years would be withdrawn from use. A number of the gardeners came together to talk over the situation. One proposed that they form a club to lease a tract of land and divide it up among themselves. The plan was readily agreed to, and a nine-acre tract on Lansdowne Avenue was rented at $15 per acre per annum. Some sixteen families became interested' and Mr. D. F. Rowe, who had been one of the most successful gardeners, became manager They had the land thoroughly fertilized and plowed, and then subdivided. Some took separate allotments, as under the Vacant Lot Association's plan, and others worked for the manager at an agreed rate of wages per hour.

The whole nine acres were thoroughly well cultivated, and a magnificent crop harvested.

As soon as there was produce for sale, a market was established on the ground and a regular delivery system organized which later attracted much attention. It was carried on by the children, of nine to twelve years of age, from the various families. Each child was provided with a pushcart. There were many and various styles, made from little express wagons, baby coaches, and produce boxes

The children built up their own routes, and went regularly to their customers for orders. They made up the orders, loaded them into their little pushcarts, charged themselves up with the separate amounts in a small book, and at the end of each day's sales each child settled with the manager and was paid his commission (twenty per cent of the receipts) in cash. These little salesmen and salesgirls often took home four to five dollars per week and yet never worked more than three to five hours per day. The work was done under such circumstances that to them it was not work but play.

You can get the full report from the Philadelphia "Vacant Lot Cultivation Associations." It's interesting.

"The greatest value that our little garden has brought us," said a French woman, mother of a goodly number of rather small children,"has not been in the fine vegetables it has yielded all summer, or the good times that I and the children have had in the open air, but in the glasses of beer and absinthe that my husband hasn't taken." "Quite right, mother, quite right," came from a man near by. "The world can never know the evil we men don't do while we are busy in our little gardens."

Further, pillage of crops, which was always urged as an objection to raising fruits or truck on open grounds, has proved to be a baseless fear. Where any of the gardeners are allowed to camp or put up shacks on the patches, theft does not occur and various superintendents repeat that "the few and trivial cases of stealing from vacant lot plots or school gardens were almost all at the places that were fenced."

Perhaps our locks and bolts tend to suggest breaking in.

The Garden Primer issued by the New York City Food Supply Committee gives simple but incomplete directions for planting and tending a vegetable garden. For those who need that sort of thing, these are just the sort of thing they need. They will be useful if you do not follow them. The Primer tells you how to get some kind of parsnips,chard, spinach, common onions, radishes, cabbage, lettuce, beets,tomatoes, beans, turnips, peas, peppers, egg plants, cucumbers,corn, and potatoes.

Don't grow these things, unless it be for your own immediate use.

Every one grows them and ripens them all at the same time. In many places these are given away or thrown away this year. Grow anything that every one wants and has not got, like okra, small fruits, etc.;you can get a much better return in cash or in trade than by spending your time "like other folks" who do not think.

So I refer to these directions for their instruction, and for your warning However, they give the following admirable injunctions.

"Help Your Country and Yourself by Raising Your Own Vegetables."

As we will likely have to send to Europe in coming years as much or even more food than we did last year, there is only one way to avoid a shortage among our own people, that is by raising a great deal more than usual. To do this we must plant every bit of available land. (Of course, we can't; the owners won't let us. Ed.)

If you have a back yard, you can do your part and help the world and yourself by raising some of the food you eat. The more you raise the less you will have to buy, and the more there will be left for some of your fellow countrymen who have not an inch of ground on which to raise anything.

If there is a vacant lot in your neighborhood, see if you cannot get the use of it for yourself and your neighbors, and raise your own vegetables. An hour a day spent in this way will not only increase wealth and help your family, but will help you personally by adding to your strength and well-being and making you appreciate the Eden joy of gardening. An hour in the open air is worth more than a dozen expensive prescriptions by an expensive doctor.

The only tools necessary for a small garden are a spade or spading fork, a hoe, a rake, and a line or piece of cord.

First of all, clear the ground of all rubbish, sticks, stones,bottles, etc. (especially whisky bottles).

Choose the sunniest spot in the yard for your garden.

Dig up the soil to a depth of 6 to 10 inches, using a spade or spading fork. (Deeper for parsnips and some other roots. Ed.) Break up all the lumps with the spade or fork.

If you live in a section where your neighbors have gardens, you might club together to hire a teamster for a day to do the plowing and harrowing for you all, thus saving a large amount of labor.

After your garden has been well dug, it must be fertilized before any planting is done. In order to produce large and well-grown crops it is often necessary to fertilize before each planting. Very good prepared fertilizers can be bought at seed stores, but horse or cow manure is much better, as it lightens the soil in addition to supplying plant food. Use street sweepings if you can get them.

The manure should be well dug into the ground, at least to the full depth of the top soil. The ground should then be thoroughly raked,as seeds must be sown in soil which has been finely powdered.

Lay out the garden, keeping the rows straight with a line. Straight rows are practically a necessity, not only for easier culture but for economy in space.

After you have marked all of your rows, the next step is opening the furrow. (A furrow is a shallow trench.) That is done with the hoe.

(Best and quickest with a wheel hoe. Ed.) After the furrow is opened, it is necessary that the seed be sown and immediately covered before the soil has dried In covering the seeds the soil must be firmly pressed down with the foot. This is important.

In buying seed it is best to go to some well-established seed house,or, if that can't be done, to order by mail rather than to take needless chances. With most kinds of seeds a package is sufficient for a twenty-foot row.

Begin to break up the hard surface of the soil between the plants soon after they appear, using a hand cultivator or hoe, and keep it loose throughout the season. This kills weeds; it lets in air to the plant roots and keeps the moisture in the ground.

By constantly stirring the top soil after your plants appear, the necessity of watering can be largely avoided except in very dry weather. An occasional soaking of the soil is better than frequent sprinkling. Water your garden either very early in the morning or after sundown. It is better not to water when the sun is shining hot.

The planting scheme can be altered to suit your individual taste.

For instance, peas and cabbage are included because almost everybody likes to have them fresh from their garden; but they occupy more space in proportion to their value than beets and carrots. Therefore a small garden could be made more profitable by omitting them altogether, or cutting them down in amount and increasing the amount of carrots, beets, and turnips planted; or any of the vegetables mentioned which may not be in favor with the family can be left out.

The kind of season we have would change the date of planting. In raising vegetables, as in everything else, one should use one's common (or garden variety of) sense. A good rule is to wait until the ground has warmed up a bit. Never try to work in soil wet enough to be sticky, or muddy; wait until it dries enough to crumble readily.

Gardening is not a rule of thumb business. Each gardener must bring his plants up in his own way in the light of his own experience and in accordance with the conditions of his own garden. A garden lover who has a bit of land will speedily learn if his eyes and his mind,as well as his hands, are always busy, no matter how meager his knowledge at the beginning.

There is plenty of land--if you can only get it.

Says Carl Vrooman, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, in regard to the food problem:

"Millions of acres of farm land are being held out of use and other millions of acres are being cultivated on a wasteful and inefficient basis. Land values have risen at an unprecedented rate. They are based not upon what the farm will earn at the present time, but on an expectancy of what it will be worth in the future. The farmer's son or the tenant farmer, with little or no capital, cannot hope to acquire possession of a farm w hen the price of land is SO high that his earnings would not pay the interest on the investment. The result is that land remains idle or in the hands of tenants, and thousands of farmers' boys desert the country for the city.

". . . . What we need, and need badly, is a program of taxation which, without throwing additional burdens on the bona fide farmer,will place land now idle within the reach of men of limited means who possess the ambition and the ability to cultivate it."

You can see that poor ignorant people, women, boys, cripples, old men, often on less than 100 X 150 feet each, not only in Philadelphia, but as war gardeners in New York, and most other towns, have been able to support themselves by their work on the land. You can do much better.

To be sure, they had valuable land and often seeds free, but for such little pieces of land these are small items, and many of them had no certainty of having the land even for a second year,consequently they could not have hotbeds or any permanent improvement. You can make all these things.

Then what can you do? Only remember they had intelligent instruction and did the work themselves, and got the whole product; often the children helped--they thought it fun. It does not pay to farm a small piece of land where all the workers have to be hired. Nor does it pay if one calculates merely to stick in seeds with one hand and pull out profits with the other.