Clever Rabbits or Not, Parking Lot Farm Is Seeing Results
Asphalt jungle: Ohio State's Joe Kovach poses with strawberry plants in his burgeoning "parking lot" planting in Wooster. In research related to urban farming, Kovach is studying the best ways to grow food on old pavement. (K.D. Chamberlain image.)
Ohio -- Even a garden in the middle of a parking lot can have a problem with
coming through part of the gate,” said a rather amazed Joe Kovach, an Ohio
State University scientist who has set up a lushly growing and ostensibly
fenced-off fruit and vegetable test garden on an old asphalt parking lot in
Wooster in northeast Ohio.
actually saw one leave (the garden),” Kovach said. “It pushed its way right
out. They were using the wire on the gate as a trap door.”
the hole with some Plexiglass. The rest of the fence, meantime, is working, he
said. Deer and woodchucks, too, have lately been spotted around but not inside
Video (1:21): Joe Kovach discusses his urban farming “parking lot” research.
As Kovach talks, a wren sings from a tree nearby. A robin chirps in apparent alarm from somewhere deep in the garden.
animals are just a few examples of the biological diversity, both helpful to a
garden and less so, that Kovach is cultivating. Some of that diversity has to
do with the crops themselves, in terms of their types, genes, sizes and fruiting
of the diversity has to do with what, exactly, comes to live in the garden,
especially the small things, such as insects, spiders, bacteria and fungi, that
often can actually benefit crops.
ideally, is creating a stable ecosystem, which in a garden can maximize food
production while minimizing costs and losses from pests, Kovach said.
same ecological principles apply no matter what ecosystem you’re in,” he said.
Even in one
rising from blacktop. Among those principles: greater diversity means greater
The garden, which covers an
eighth of an acre, grows in and on the parking lot of an obsolete, closed dormitory at Ohio State’s
Agricultural Technical Institute on U.S. 250, about a mile south of downtown
Wooster. It’s part of a wider Ohio State effort to learn about and improve
“We have a
lot of abandoned parking lots in the big cities of Ohio, including Cleveland,
Columbus, Youngstown and Dayton,” said Kovach, who’s an associate professor of
entomology with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, which is
also part of Ohio State and is located next to ATI. “So we’re trying to figure
out ways to make that land more productive, and one of the options is to try to
grow fruits and vegetables there.”
Photo: Blueberry bushes (with orange ribbons), apple trees, peach trees and more grow in part of Kovach's parking lot garden. The beds in the foreground lie in trenches of stripped-away asphalt, one of the study's three "treatments." High tunnels rise in the background. The paint lines that once marked parking spaces remain visible. (K.D. Chamberlain image.)
three growing methods: in pots and in raised beds set on top of the asphalt,
and in beds created by taking out strips of the paving.
Kovach is also
trying all three methods under high tunnels, which are inexpensive plastic
structures that resemble greenhouses and that protect crops from wind and cold.
growing kale, apples, peaches, basil, strawberries, raspberries and
blueberries, among other crops, with all of them watered by drip irrigation,
which Kovach calls “cheap insurance” against drought.
is to compare how all three methods work, how much food they produce, and the costs
and labor involved, and then to share the results with urban farmers, said
Kovach, who also has an appointment with Ohio State University Extension.
In the end,
he said, the work can help people in cities grow fresh, healthy produce in the
cheapest, simplest and best way possible -- on otherwise wasted old parking
also looking at more than that,” he said. “We’re looking at the implications
that growing in a parking lot has on insects and diseases and how the
environment there is changed compared to traditional agricultural settings.”
growing in high tunnels on the asphalt, for example, survived this spring’s
frost without damage. The other peaches didn’t, including both the “control”
peaches growing on unpaved ground and the ones on the asphalt but not in the tunnels.
The asphalt, it seems, captured daytime heat, while the tunnels held it in at
night. “I thought there would be some protection (from the combination), but I
didn’t think it would be this great,” Kovach said.
common peach disease called peach leaf curl has appeared. It causes a peach
tree to lose its leaves, but then to grow new ones. This weakens the tree but
isn’t fatal. Typically, farmers prevent it by spraying a fungicide. But “I’m
trying not to do anything” to control diseases and pests, Kovach said, “because
I’m trying to see what happens” for the sake of the research.
Photo: Kovach checks a peach tree in his garden. Some of his peach trees -- the ones growing over asphalt and under high tunnels -- survived this spring's frost without damage. (K.D. Chamberlain image.)
strawberries in the high tunnels, on the other hand, were ready to pick earlier than
Kovach has ever seen. In his previous studies with strawberries, the earliest start
of harvest was May 10. “This year we picked on May 2, which is pretty darn
early,” he said. “Part of that was due to the high tunnels, and part of that
was due to the early spring.”
He’s also using
a system called plasticulture with the strawberries. As part of it, the plants are
planted in September, not May, yet still bear fruit the next spring. “You save
yourself four months but get the same yields,” he explained.
however, have had a harder time. The established plants that were transplanted
into the garden last fall “didn’t overwinter well,” he said. “We lost a lot to
spring, in a windstorm, the plastic covering blew off the high tunnels and “really
beat the hell out of the plants,” Kovach said.
Meanwhile, some plant-sucking mites are a more recent problem for the raspberries. They're not uncommon in the greenhouse-like environment of a high tunnel, Kovach noted.
But he said he’s anticipating the arrival of some different, friendlier mites --
predatory ones that eat pests, not plants.
blueberries, for their part, are booming, with good pollination and harvest
having started two weeks ago. Yields so far are “impressive,” Kovach said. But
birds, which generally are good to have in a garden because many kinds eat pests,
have taken to eating the blueberries, too.
had any bird issues in my blueberry plots” in other studies in other locations,
Kovach said. “This year we would come out to harvest, and every morning the
birds would fly out (of the bushes).
sure why there’s a difference,” he said, but a nearby line of bird-friendly trees
may be part of it. He recently installed bird netting over the bushes to stop
going to have tons of berries” either way, he said. “And this is on a parking
lot, right? And look at the size of those apples already.”
Photo: A strawberry ripens in one of Kovach's plantings. The plants shown here are growing in tray-like metal boxes attached to wire mesh fencing. Three levels of trays are stacked like bookshelves on the fencing, a kind of space-saving "vertical gardening." (K.D. Chamberlain image.)
happens the rest of the summer, which will be the project’s second full growing
season, and its first with all of its cylinders firing, “will really be more
sensitive for teasing out any differences between the (three) treatments in terms
of yields and pests,” Kovach said. “We’ll be sampling for insects to see what
sort of difference the asphalt makes, and obviously we’ll be looking at
Otherwise, though, “We’ll just be
letting things balance.
everything seems to be looking pretty good,” he said.
will give free tours of his garden, which is located at 1427 Dover Road south
of Wooster, at 4 p.m. on June 28, July 26 and Aug. 30.
information, go to http://go.osu.edu/KbN or call
and OSU Extension are all part of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural,
and Environmental Sciences.
Editor: A recent related press release, “Urban Farming in a Parking Lot? See It in Action in Wooster,” is at http://go.osu.edu/KbN.