For Urban Farming Wisdom, Look to Japan

Japan's efficient garden plots could be a model for how to keep feeding ourselves, even as sprawling cities devour land


Azby Brown

My neighbors are farmers. They regularly bring us cabbages, cucumbers, bitter melon, tomatoes, eggplants, persimmons, and other local specialties, and their arrival on our doorstep with a box of fresh-picked produce is as much an announcement of the changing seasons as the color of the sky or warmth of the wind. Our conversations often turn to rain, mulch, tools for tilling, and fruit yields from the old but still-productive trees they tend. They offer advice on reviving my stunted tomatoes, and we debate the relative merits of baseball caps for working the fields under the hot sun as opposed to the traditional straw kasa . None of this would be remarkable except that we live in the middle of Yokohama, a progressive city of 3.6 million people, and our houses are so densely packed that they almost touch. My neighbors are Japanese urban farmers, and have been for decades.

Urban development in Japan often leaves small farm plots, rice fields, and other rural features intact while houses and apartments spring up all around them. When American housing developments are built on farmland, nothing of the farm remains. The land is bulldozed and flattened in large multi-acre chunks, the ground cover scraped away to be re-sodded later, new drainage and roadways built. In contrast, the Japanese pattern is generally more piecemeal, old households remaining in place while new dwellings are erected on selected plots.

The farmers in my neighborhood belong to families that, like my Japanese in-laws, have been here for generations. They are mostly elderly now, but the group includes a few younger men who discovered a knack for growing vegetables early on and have temperaments that compel them to do it. Their farming is something deep and rich—an anchor to the land, and a means of reinforcing social bonds. When Masahiro shows up unannounced clutching a bag of persimmons in his calloused hands, saying almost apologetically, "Oh, we picked a lot this year, you'd be doing us a favor by taking some," we feel like we've received a sincere gesture of regard, the fruit of the actual labor of his family.

We also know that the farmers in the neighborhood are monitoring the health of our environment, and can share an excellent perspective on the weather and other conditions that stretches back decades. And "farm time," when we procrastinate by loitering around the fringes of the plot, is an occasion for discussions that can veer productively into deeper shared concerns, political ones perhaps, or interpersonal, or even philosophical, as well as for teaching the local kids a few things about food, water, the weather, or insects. It's an activity that binds generations in a way few others do.


Azby Brown

This particular plot is only about 10 by 20 feet, but its significance and positive impact on all of us are far larger than its dimensions suggest. And it is only one of dozens within a several block radius, each with its own story. Japanese urban conditions are nearly unique, of course, and it might seem difficult to draw lessons from their experience that will resonate with Americans. Urban farming initiatives have taken root in most American cities, but the trend towards increasingly dense urban space in the U.S. seems likely to continue, and many cities may even witness population explosions that could sharply reduce the number of available vacant lots. Yet even now, in situations where little land is available for food production, the Japanese approach can stand as an excellent model.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the farm plot in my immediate neighborhood is how it takes advantage of the peculiarities of the site to make maximum use of available sunlight. It is actually a trapezoid, hemmed in by houses to the north and east, and by a high concrete railway embankment to the southwest. The only access is a narrow, winding footpath that leads eventually to the street. The railway ensures that sunlight is blocked only when trains pass, and though this is every 10 minutes or so, for all practical purposes the sun exposure is perfect. On the other hand, the trains generate large gusts of wind, so the farmers have planted hedges, shrubs, and mulberry bushes around the plot as windbreaks. They have even erected a waist-high paling fence, marvelously ad-hoc, made of old twigs and branches, odd lengths of bamboo, broken umbrella poles, and a few lengths of steel rebar, all tied together with baling wire. They have encouraged vines to engulf it—legumes mostly, like peas and a Japanese variety related to the fava called sora mame . In the best Japanese fashion, this fence serves two purposes at once, providing extra windbreak and maximizing growing area by going vertical.

At first I was concerned that the large Japanese persimmon tree and mullberry bushes almost due south of the plot were seriously interfering with the sunlight. I could see that the persimmon shaded the house from the western sun, while a large shii tree—a broadleaf evergreen that provides edible acorns—shaded the house from the south. But the persimmon seemed wrong in relation to the plot itself. When I brought it up, the farmer pointed out that the space under the spreading branches of the tree and protected by the mulberries has special characteristics ideal for other plants, particularly a wild vegetable called fuki . This microclimate is noticeably shadier, cooler, and moister than the surroundings most of the year, cool and moist enough for moss even in the summer, and in the winter, when sunlight counts most, the tree loses its leaves and lets a little more sunlight in for the winter vegetables.

There are many lessons to be absorbed from this tiny farm plot: read the site, work with what's there, make peculiarities work to your advantage, pay attention to the wind as much as to the sunlight, and go vertical when necessary.




Azby Brown

I've seen other manifestations of "vertical" farming both in my neighborhood and elsewhere. Of course stakes and trellises are ubiquitous, and in most cases urban farmers here arrange their crops in a fairly straightforward order of height, with the tallest climbers along the northern edge of the plot. Though tall plants might be better off in the center, to get sunlight from more sides, it's too likely that they will shade other crops that way. I've seen plots that take advantage of a light-colored wall to the north to reflect sunlight coming from the south back onto tomatoes and eggplants. It might be less than ideal, but I've learned that urban farming is full of compromises.

One of the more exciting recent urban farming trends is a happy coincidence between culinary evolution and environmental consciousness, and deeply rooted in tradition. The goya , known as "bitter melon" elsewhere, is a climber that has long been a part of Okinawan cuisine. It is an ideal crop to use as a "green curtain," in which leafy plants are trained to grow up a lightweight trellis, ropes, or net, in order to shade the exterior walls of a building and reduce energy consumption. Trellises like these were a common feature of traditional Japanese houses, which were most often engulfed in morning glories. The government in recent years has been encouraging the use of green curtains, and people have learned to love the bitter taste of goya (and its reputed health benefits). And because goya is a vertical crop, it is ideal for Japan's tiny garden plots. It's a true win-win situation.

Vertical thinking in Japanese urban farms is manifested in a variety of other ways as well. Hanging pots of herbs and other plants are common pretty much everywhere in the world, but here it can be the only way to find space to grow things. And a friend of mine who lives in a western suburb of Tokyo has worked around the serious spatial limits of his backyard—only about eight by 10 feet—by building a small vertical farm comprised of steep cinderblock terraces that forms the rear wall of his yard. Each step of the terrace is only about two feet wide, and rises about two feet higher than the one below it, to a total height of about eight feet. The brilliance of his solution is that each level gets full sunlight, while forming a microclimate appropriate for different crops: strawberries and root vegetables that like it cooler are planted below, lettuce in the middle, and tomatoes highest up. As an architectural feature, it also looks striking.

Lastly, Japanese farms have always included elements of wetlands, an essential feature of the natural landscape that provides habitat for many species, regulates water flow and absorption, and stabilizes the temperature and moisture content of the air. On farm plots, ponds serve similar purposes, and even ornamental Japanese ponds, home to carp, turtles, and frogs as well as the innumerable insects on which they feed (and attractive to birds as well), usually share these characteristics. Few urban farmers have space for ponds of any notable size, but they have discovered ways to bring the benefits of wetlands into tiny areas. The shadier corners of my friend's terraced yard are ideal for aquatic vegetables like kuwai ; grown in large, water-filled plastic buckets, it tastes like water chestnut but is unrelated. Even in this "unnatural" setting the water attracts wildlife and serves its environmental purpose, with the undeniable advantage of being moveable. I've seen lotus root grown in buckets—one plant per bucket because of the large size of the floating leaves. And I've come across all manner of troughs, ice chests, old aquariums, and even bathtubs being pressed into service here to grow aquatic plants in tight situations.

Techniques similar to some of these are already familiar outside of Japan, but it is eye-opening to see how they've been adapted to the hyper-constrained spatial conditions the country has long experienced, where almost every element must serve more than one purpose. And it's difficult to convey the uncanny way that people like my neighbors identify promising farmland among the chaos and jumble of the city. Significantly, although printed information about some aspects of these enterprises may be available, for the most part the knowledge is passed down orally, from person to person.

As we increasingly wonder how to integrate farms and other green spaces into our evolving urban fabrics, we would do well to examine these Japanese examples closely, to try to grasp their principles. But we should also try to discover how the human relationships that make them so successful, as well as the enthusiasm and pride of place that sustain them, are nurtured.