Milk Crate Urban Farming
January 2, 2016
There are a number of reasons that portable urban farming is a smart move, but often the containers chosen require heavy machinery and big trucks to lift and transport. That’s all fine and dandy for urban growers who have instant access to such equipment, or the funding to rent them. For most startup urban farmers, this is not cost effective, and it’s certainly not as green as muscle power. So, when I stumbled across the Bowery Project in Toronto, I knew that any would-be urban grower should consider the option of using mild crates – big, small, or personal balcony.
Contaminated ground, pavement, and permanency are all issues that urban farmers face in any city, and probably every country. Milk crates make a great raised garden building component, providing both the growing container and a stand. They’re made of rugged injection molded resins that will hold up for long use outdoors. Both sidewalls and bottoms drain freely, and because of the open framework of both, with the right liner you’ve got a fabric pot in a rigid holder with handles. They also come in 2 sizes: 12″ x 12″ and 12″ x 18″ inch with a depth of 10.75 inches.
Weed barrier fabric will work as a liner, but you will have to replace it more often than heavier 16 mil groundcover fabric (the stuff with the stripes). Cost may be an issue that makes using the least expensive option possible more budget friendly, just be forewarned that you’ll have to do them all over in a year or two, which raised the cost considerably over time. Why? Because cheap weed fabric from the local big box store just is not made to last forever, and once it starts sprouting holes, you’ll have no choice but to invest the same amount of money and labor into keeping your potting mix where it belongs.
Since landscaping or groundcover fabric comes in rolls, you’ll have to fashion the liners in your growing crates. A closeup peek at how Deena and Rachel approached the prospect offers a fast, simple solution. It looks like they’ve cut strips from a 3′ wide roll that are at least 2″ longer than the inner crate wall and floor width. Then they were stapled in place after folding over the excess for added strength, as well as a cleaner finish on the visible tops of the containers. Note that the extra couple inches were wrapped around the corners to stop growth media from spilling out of the crate, and you need a good utility stapler. Once filled, the medium will hold everything in place very nicely until it’s disturbed. If you study the corners in the picture below, you’ll see what I’m trying to describe.
This is an environment so much more friendly to strong root development than a plastic, ceramic, or solid wood container. That air flow through the sidewalls and across the bottom of your planted, fabric-lined milk crate causes air pruning of the root system, which creates root masses that support a more vigorous plant and better fruiting above the soil line.
The ladies at the Bowery Project say that you can move an entire 5000 crate farm in 24 hours – all you need is people and a few pickup trucks. And if you can get a few trailers involved, the transport project will go even faster, using less fuel. But at least milk crate planters are light enough that most teenagers and adults can easily pick them up and carry them. Naturally, doing so gets a bit trickier when you’ve got tall trellised plants like pole beans and tomatoes growing in them, but it is certainly possible.
One thing that the mention in the video below is that the depth of a milk crate is perhaps not best suited to growing large fruiting plants, like tomatoes, but they do it anyway. Toronto summers, however, are quite a bit different than those in the South, like Atlanta. In a warm climate, the season is also longer, so you might consider increasing your rooting space by lining and filling the stand with potting mix for a stronger foundation for tomatoes. Just be aware that a barrier between the roots and contaminated soil will need to be put in place, and moving a double depth milk crate planter won’t be as simple as the single layer root system would make it.
While the Bowery Project was always meant to be a mobile urban farm, your focus might not include constantly being uprooted. One more perk that growing in milk crates affords you is being able to transport crops to farm markets intact, giving your customers truly fresh picked produce – a big plus with fast to wilt items like lettuces and herbs. The ladies in Toronto set up small plots wherever they find a vacant piece of ground. It gets the neighborhood’s interest, makes them constantly ready to expand good food awareness at events anywhere in the city simply by arriving with already maturing plants in a customizable container garden, and conquers all the other issues so many urban farmers face.
Okay, you’re sold! You might have some old milk crates stashed somewhere, or know how to get some close to home. Maybe you’ve decided to buy them, which is great because they will be free of cracks, and ready to give you decades of dependable service. Before you do though, a word of caution… the ornamental variety ‘organizers’ sold at Target and office supply stores are not as rugged as a REAL milk crate, but they will work for a year or two. The good news is that you can get true milk crates, but it takes some hunting to find them at a really reasonable price. The cheapest ones I found are made for dairy farmers, and are only $8 bucks apiece. Where else can you get a planter and stand for $16 plus shipping? Need a few hundred or thousands for a large installation? Try contacting them direct for a better price. Check out the options from FarmPlast.
Learn more about the Bowery Project in Toronto on their website: BoweryProject.ca. All images courtesy of the Bowery Project.
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