Miss Kale: One Girl’s Bumpy Journey to Becoming an Urban Farmer

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Living in a brick loft in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, two blocks over from Skid Row, the largest homeless shelter in the country, may not seem the ideal place to start one’s journey toward becoming an urban farmer, but dreams can begin anywhere.

The idea started when my 97-year-old grandmother, who comes from the seasonal foothills of the Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York, had sent me a copy of Capper’s magazine. It was completely different than what I usually had to read for work—fashion, action sports, and lifestyle magazines—and I was intrigued. After browsing through her Capper’s which was filled with her colorful commentary on Post-its, I started to wonder about the possibility of raising a chicken on the fire escape stoop outside my window. After all, I did have a couple of geraniums out there and a row of herbs.

Lemons, kale and a Valentine’s Day strawberry! Photo By Kathleen Gasperini.

However, it was apparent that a chicken on a fire escape stoop wouldn’t be “free range,” and anyways, I had two cats—but my second idea, which was still a long-shot, became embedded in my bones. Maybe, I thought, I could grow, like, kale or something, and become an “urban farmer.”

Fast forward three years and three moves into three different lofts, all within the same five-block radius, and I found myself in a penthouse with a small roof patio. Here, I thought, I could grow my roof garden and be a real urban farmer. Maybe even have three tomato plants and kale.

By this time, rooftop gardens were sprouting up on top of some of the refurbished old buildings in the area, cared for by local organic restaurants, or citizens dedicated to greening LA’s rooftops. After deciding that chickens on the fire escape landing wouldn’t work and trying to grow a tomato plant indoors (which grew and grew but never produced), I too, had joined forces with other rooftop garden neighbors and helped with one such plot where we grew tomatoes and flowers and even had a huge compost tumbler on the roof.

One sunny LA day, while dumping some coffee grinds into our tumbler up top, my friend Minh Son and I felt a huge jolt. We looked at each other and knew that we were in for it. Rooftops are not the spot to be for an LA earthquake since most do not have railings, among other reasons.

Within five seconds of the jolt, and just before we got the cover tightly back on the composter, the building started rolling like a double-masted schooner on the high seas, heaving up and down on what felt like huge, rippling waves. Keeping our balance was a chore, and unfortunately, I looked up across the city and noticed the tallest buildings in downtown swaying even more, which added to my growing sense of vertigo. This was not a good situation. We might get flipped over the side, drowned in the sea of asphalt eight stories below.

We gradually made our way to the fire exit on the roof and ran down flight after flight after flight of stairs and popped out into the street along with everyone else in our building. Only I was carrying a crushed tomato and Minh Son was carrying a spade. Suddenly she freaked out, “The cover’s not on the composter!” A quick-witted fireman at the building stopped her before she darted back up to the roof. Minh Son is a rooftop farming genius, but had lost a bit of perspective in the mayhem.

Meanwhile, I’d spent a pretty penny on my new penthouse roof patch, bought a tiny lemon tree and a wine barrel for its home, hauled bags of soil up my narrow spiral staircase, and dragged a bookcase rack from a previous tenant out to the patio to hold an assortment of plants, one of which was kale. Unfortunately, about a month into living in this loft, I quickly realized that at 10 stories high, winds were a problem, there were rarely any birds other than cool soaring city hawks, and the sun scorched the cement, radiating unbearable heat and causing a hardship for my potted garden and the hardy kale. In the end, my total crop yield was one lemon.

So, I moved again. This time, to the beach. With my little lemon tree in a barrel.

Even though it’s still considered Los Angeles, Venice Beach has its own vibe, and best of all, its own community garden! I applied and waited for months until there was an opening. Once a plot came available, I couldn’t wait to start my little patch of a raised garden bed and of course, planted kale.

Perhaps it was the result of my pent-up years of trying to be an urban farmer in a loft coupled with visiting the farmer’s market each Friday and paying some $2.50 for a bunch of kale that was at the root of the cause of why I ended up planting so much kale in my little plot of urban-farm-landia. Curly kale, Dinosaur kale, Siberian kale…it all grew to such abundance that kale ended up in at least one meal a day for weeks, not to mention numerous smoothies.

Kale, beets, strawberries, mint and lemons from my urban garden. Photo By Kathleen Gasperini.

I had so much kale that I started bringing it into work—in a trash bag. I got everyone hooked on kale. We’d have kale chips for our weekly conference meeting snack. Clearly, the nickname “Miss Kale” was not too much of a stretch.

However, I’m happy to say, thanks to my grandmother’s Capper’s, and since then, my Mother Earth News subscription, and now Mother Earth Living, I feel confident that I’ve become an urban farmer. My little lemon tree survived and I’ve gotten her a little brother—a dwarf avocado tree. I even grow strawberries.

Kathleen Gasperini is internationally acclaimed as an industry leader when it comes to global youth culture marketing, research and branding strategies. She is the co-founder of Label Networks, the leader in global youth intelligence and branding for clients ranging from Apple Computer to Adidas Originals. Formerly Kathleen worked among leading youth culture magazines, as the Senior Editor of Powder and Snowboarder magazines, and the editor of Women’s Sports & Fitness. She was the technical writer for the IMAX movie “Extreme,” and is the co-founder of the non-profit youth-focused foundation, Boarding for Breast Cancer, for which she received a Humanitarian Award from Snow Sports Industries of America.

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