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Tomato Talk With John Taylor

Dr. John Taylor is well-known to the PGP communities at Global Gardens and Hello!Howard (and almost 20 gardens and urban farms throughout Chicago), where he ran a research project in 2014 to study tomato cultivars in urban growing conditions.

John is interested in more than the best tomato to grow in your backyard or community garden plot, however. As an agroecologist, former Chicago resident, and longtime gardener, he’s always been curious about what other people grow and do in their gardens and why. He has done research to map food production in the city down to the level of the residential lot, revealing that the area of backyard and vacant lot home gardens in Chicago far exceeds that of community gardens and farms combined!

And because of Google Earth, he didn’t even have to prowl through alleys, peering over fences.

John Taylor

All humor aside, however, this finding inspired a ground-level study with Dr. Sarah Taylor Lovell that looked at the social and ecological dynamics of the home food gardens of African American, Chinese-origin, and Mexican-origin households on the city’s south side. Drs. Taylor and Lovell recently published preliminary findings from this study in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems

John sends us this report on the study:

For this project, we interviewed gardeners, inventoried the food and ornamental plants growing on their lots, and analyzed the chemical and physical properties of garden soils. We found that some gardens appear to produce substantial amounts of food for the household and the larger community. Migrant gardeners in our study conserved food plants with roots in the developing world, or the “Global South.” They imported these plants from their countries of origin and shared seeds and cuttings with friends, relatives, neighbors, and even university researchers. For me, as a self-professed plant geek, one of the pleasures of the research was encountering unfamiliar crop plants in Chicago backyards, including a species of Jaltomata grown by a Mexican-origin gardener for its small, purple fruit and the tender Madeira vine (Anredera cordifolia) in the backyards of three Chinese-origin gardeners

Food gardens often include ornamental plants. A source of pleasure, these plants may also have ecological benefits. Large trees provide shade and reduce air temperatures, and both woody and herbaceous plants provide habitat for urban wildlife. There may be tradeoffs, though, between these ecological benefits and food production. Shade trees and shrubs, for example, compete with food plants for water, nutrients, and light. Not surprisingly, trees and shrubs were largely absent from the gardens we studied. The number of different species of herbaceous ornamental plants, on the other hand, varied widely across gardens and appeared to be influenced by culture, social ties, and motivation for gardening. On average, the gardens of African American households included the greatest number of ornamental plant species and those of Chinese-origin gardeners the smallest.

Our research has only begun to explore the rich social and ecological dynamics of these gardens. It suggests, though, that home food gardens have the potential to make a strong contribution to urban systems at the level of the household and larger scales. Additional research, support, and outreach to home gardeners—especially underserved populations—are needed to fully realize that potential.

You can access the full article here

John is still preparing the data from the tomato study; we’ll post his results here as soon as they are released!

John Taylor
Assistant Professor of Sustainable Agroecology
Chatham University, Pittsburgh, PA
jrtaylor@chatham.edu