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Feeling disconnected with nature? Want to get in touch with your inner farmer?

Urban Eatin' may be for you.

The Urban Eatin' Gardeners' Co-op will hold your hand through the entire perplexing process of growing a vegetable garden.

Not only will it recommend what vegetables grow best in your yard, it will design and plant them into a esthetically pleasing, densely packed, English garden-style vegetable patch. It will even tend the garden, if you want. "It's come to this!" an older generation can feel entitled to say. Consultants to plant a garden!

Urban Eatin' understands that. "I think a lot of people want to garden. (But) it's kind of a lost art," said Naomi Audia, one of the co-op's founding partners. "Some people just don't know how to plant a seed. Which is fair. I don't know how to butcher a cow."

Adds Paolo Riva, another founding partner: "Basically, our customers are people really enthusiastic about having a vegetable garden but who don't have the time, and they don't feel confident doing it themselves. So they call us,"

Another of its services is babysitting gardens while people are away on vacation.

The business is part of the urban farming movement. No plot of land is too small, no property owner too time-challenged, or too pink-thumbed (or whatever the opposite of green thumb is).

Urban Eatin' wants to reconnect you. An urban vegetable garden, said Paolo, "puts you in touch with food production. The food industry is like any industry, like the car industry. It separates us from that basic fact of life."

Urban Eatin' had 34 customers its first year in 2009, mostly middle-class families, some of whom had young children.

Typically, their customers are ready to rip up part of their sod for a garden. Most hire Urban Eatin' to plant their vegetables, too.

One customer took out her entire front yard and replaced it with medicinal herbs. "She wanted a tea garden," Naomi said. Another homeowner was just tired of mowing the lawn. Now it's filled with berry bushes, such as blueberries and strawberries, and perennials, such as mint and hyssop. A mulch cover between the bushes keeps out weeds.

Another client was gone the whole summer and Urban Eatin' tended his garden so he could harvest the vegetables in the fall.

Recent clients include Howard Engel and Esther Juce. In a small corner of their backyard, Urban Eatin' managed to pack a bewildering assortment of vegetables: salad greens, peas, chives, onions, three types of tomatoes, peppers, carrots and beets, ringed with marigolds to keep away insects.

Urban Eatin' planted them all on raised beds and covered them with chicken wire to keep away rabbits. It accessed organic seeds and plants from Sage Garden Herbs.

"People think you need to have acres of land. You don't need it," said Engel. "You can grow quite a bit in a small space if it's planned."

The payoff, a fall harvest of organic vegetables, is very nice, Engel said, who has hired Urban Eatin' again this year.

In another three-metre by three-metre garden, Urban Eatin' planted squash, zucchini, peas, peppers, potatoes, a ring of marigolds and green beans. In addition, it planted tomatoes and basil together, called companion planting because the basil wards off tomato bugs.

Urban Eatin' starts with an hour-long consultation at your home. "It's getting the best-suited plants for a given situation," said Paolo. Then comes discussion about design. It's not just 'taters and tomaters' anymore. There are all kinds of weird -- at least to the uninitiated -- vegetables and medicinal herbs out there that Urban Eatin' will recommend, from quinoa (edible grain seed) to tomatillos (spherical green-purple fruit).

"Why are we planting spirea (decorative shrubs) when we could be planting a tomato plant or echinacea or bergamot, something that has more benefit?" asks Naomi.

Another customer is 78-year-old Caroline Harkins. An experienced gardener, she directs Urban Eatin' staff on what she wants done. "They come bouncing in," she said. "I'm getting over the hill a bit. They've just been a big help to me and a joy."

The three partners are all in their 20s. Naomi grew up on a farm and spent 10 years in garden landscaping. Paolo has been gardening all his life and holds a degree in philosophy.

Conservation tops Urban Eatin's philosophy. The more vegetables people grow, the less vegetables have to be trucked thousands of kilometres to get to market here. For another family, its yard had been dug up for geothermal installation, leaving behind clay for topsoil. Urban Eatin' planted buckwheat and clover to create a green manure that is mowed and tilled in, to rebuild the soil naturally.

"We have a mandate to use methods as ecologically sound as we can," Paolo said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 29, 2010 h16

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