City Life

Eat Local - Really Local

Perhaps the key to weaning our dinner tables off of fossil fuels is to start right in our own backyard, or apartment balcony, or even south-facing window.

By Jason Allen
Published July 14, 2010

So it's Tuesday night, and it's time to pick up the farm share from our CSA. Of course, we pick ours up at the actual farm itself, so I grabbed the keys and headed out to the door. Went straight for the car, and opened up the driver side ... so I could fish out a couple of reusable bags.

Then I closed the car door, locked it, and proceeded to walk to the farm, a block away from my house on the corner of Peter and Pearl Streets in Strathcona.

While the local food craze has swept North America and has even trickled up to places as large as national grocery store chains, most people still consider anything grown in Ontario to be local.

Russ Ohrt at Backyard Harvest brings 'local' to a whole new level, taking his extensive farming experience and adapting it to the big city. He calls it "urban agriculture".


Most people who stop by Ohrt's yard are inspired by his "farm," but some express a concern over the safety of the produce. Given Hamilton's industrial history and still-active smokestacks not too far away, is it safe to eat something grown practically downtown?

To Ohrt, it's a chicken and egg problem. Do we clean up all the pollution before we start growing our food this close to home? Or do we start growing our food right here so it requires less oil to produce it and bring it to market? Ohrt's produce is grown without chemicals and is eaten fresh, which preserves nutrition and decreases chemical content and enhancing taste.

Anyway, since pollution travels it isn't just downtown farms that are affected by Hamilton's manufacturing sector. Between the agricultural spreading of biosolids to your neighbor's pesticides being carried on the wind, in an area as densely packed and filled with industry as Southern Ontario, who can tell?

While Ohrt's property is large for an urban yard, he started his business to educate residents about urban agriculture and to access more space to grow. His clients include one family who had him design their garden and tend it, supplying them with fresh, ultra-local produce. In other cases, Ohrt simply leases land in the neighbourhood from individual property owners and harvests the vegetables for himself.

Besides the CSA, Orht has been selling his produce at the "Maker's Markets" around Hamilton's west end and at a roadside produce stand in front of his home, cleverly disguised as a garage sale. Russ is now up to seven backyards in his 'farm', and with his table at the Maker's Market selling out most weekends, he is on the lookout for more land to till.

Food Security

It all feeds into the issue of food security in Hamilton and area. It's commonly understood that every calorie of food that comes from a supermarket typically takes 12 calories of fossil fuels to create.

Uber-local food that uses no pesticides, herbicides, diesel tractors or refrigerated transport trucks would seem to position Hamilton well for the changes to come.

And to those who say we could never grow enough to make a difference, I'm afraid history would disagree. During World War II, it's estimated that 40% of the vegetables on the average American's table came from Victory Gardens.

Yet we've come a long way from the government encouraging people to grow gardens out of patriotic duty, and Ohrt even wonders if we have retained enough of those skills. That's why in our house, we have begun with four simple Square Foot Gardens to get us started.

We're now in our second year, and our veggie patch looks like a scene out of a John Wyndham novel - in the best way possible.

Start Now

Perhaps the key to reskilling our society is for more people to be willing to just 'give it a go' now, before those skills become crucial.

And perhaps the key to weaning our dinner tables off of fossil fuels is to start right in our own backyard, or apartment balcony, or even south-facing window. The possibilities are only limited by your patience, courage, and selection of seeds.

If you're interested in learning more about Ohrt's ideas, including leasing your yard, or having him come to your yard to show you how to grow your own victory garden, you can contact him at 905-296-4479 or

This article was first published on Jason Allen's personal website. An earlier version of this article appeared in Fall 2009, in The Park Bench, Strathcona Community Council's Newsletter. The information regarding food security and peak oil are recent additions.

Jason Allen is a chronic hive whacker in the Kirkendall Neighbourhood.


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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted July 14, 2010 at 09:35:11

Great article Jason. I too took the plunge and started a garden on my south facing balcony. I started out with herbs, then moved on to potted peppers, tomatoes and cherry tomatoes. I'm even giving strawberries a try using this clever planter.

Even in planters and pots and with my less than perfect horticultural skills the plants are still thriving. (No triffids though Jason.) I would definitely recommend anyone to give it a try, its no where near as difficult as most people think.

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By AnneMariePavlov (registered) | Posted July 14, 2010 at 09:38:41

I live in a west-facing apartment, so no growing for me, sadly. BUT, I have had the pleasure of trying Russell's homegrown garlic, which I purchased at the Makers Market in front of Christ Church Cathedral on James, and it was the BEST garlic ever!!! I even wrote about it in our community newsletter, the North End Breezes!

Comment edited by AnneMariePavlov on 2010-07-14 08:38:58

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 14, 2010 at 18:32:51

I also know Russ from his time at the North Hamilton Community centre - even in old lots in the North End, his work was amazing. Every time I ride by his house (which is often, since the street cuts right through Victoria Park), I smile.

Most of my own efforts have been in buckets, and they've been going fairly well. My one design revision for next year would be some sort of reflector - tinfoil or old mylar chip bags even, to keep the bright summer sun from drying out the soil through the buckets. And as for growing mediums, shredded newspaper mixed in definitely seems to help retain water. I'm still a total novice, but it's amazing how much better I am than a few years ago.

I really would like some triffid seeds or cuttings, though, if anyone has some. Might help deal with the over-abundance of cats and racoons in my neighbourhood...

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By jasonaallen (registered) - website | Posted July 15, 2010 at 08:50:09

We followed the Square Foot Garden soil ammendment guide as closely as we could. We build 4, 4x4 raised beds, and filled them with peat, manure, and top soil. The first year went ok, but the main impediment was how late we planted (we foolishly waited until May 24th).

This year, we got a bunch of seeds in the ground as soon as it was safe to do so, and were picking Brocooli by the middle of June. It's a learning experience, and we have been reading as much as we can, as well as asking neighborhood experts like Russ - who has been generous not only with the portions in the CSA, but with his knowledge as well.

This year we are working on figuring out a fall planting (if all goes well, we'll be harvesting up to - and beyond - the first frost). Next year we're going to try and start figuring out pest and disease control.

WRCU2, you are absolutely right. Russ is a pioneer, and sets a great example for all of us. Ann Marie - I would talk to Russ next time you see him and see if he can suggest some shade tolerant veggies you could grow in a West facing window. It might be worth trying.

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By AnneMariePavlov (registered) | Posted July 20, 2010 at 11:42:35

Just ate a pear purchased at Food Basics. I was in a bit of a rush when I bought it, assuming of course that it would be grown locally, since we are in the right season, and in one of the best places in the world for that kind of orchard. Imagine my chagrin when I peeled off the label this morning, which read "Argentina". THAT will teach me to pay more attention! How disgusting is that!?!?

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 20, 2010 at 12:45:28

great article Jason. We rented a plot in the new gardens at Victoria Park, but unfortunately we landed one of the ones on the northwest part of the garden where something is preventing anyone from seeing much growth or harvest. Not sure if it's the soil quality, or over-drainage but we're still having fun, even if it's frustrating to look on the other side of the garden and see monstrous growth and lush plants while we toil away on our scrawny tomato plants and wilting herbs.

Thankfully I always plant some herbs in small pots in our backyard and they are doing magnificently.

At any rate, there is apparently a huge waiting list to get into the Victoria Park gardens which is a great sign that people want to grow their own food again. Our family is thoroughly enjoying the experience of meeting many great neighbours and showing our kids how food grows, even without much to show for it yet. We WILL harvest something by the end of the summer! LOL

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