Mike Lieberman was living in a concrete jungle in Brooklyn when he got the urge to grow his own food. Unfazed by the lack of space that was de rigueur with city living, he created a container garden on his fire escape that sparked a passion to learn more about food and its impact on the environment. Although his garden thrived in the tiny 2’ x 3’ space, he had a few detractors who groused that his new hobby was a fire hazard.
“I had everything up against the rails and was able to leave ample foot space if the fire escape ever needed to be used,” said Lieberman. “But there was a fire code and technically it was illegal, so I started thinking about getting a bigger space.”
Lieberman found plenty of space by moving to California where he promptly started a larger garden on his balcony. Compared to his humble fire escape garden, it seemed like a farm because he was able to grow more of everything and take advantage of the milder West Coast climate. Despite having no gardening experience, he learned by trial and error and wasn’t afraid to experiment with different varieties of plants and seedlings.
“I attempted to read a few gardening books, but they were rather boring,” said Lieberman. “So I started thinking about what people did 500 years ago before they could Google something, and the simple answer was to just do it! So I just started doing it, and although I’m by no means an expert, I like to share the knowledge that I’ve accumulated along the way.”
Lieberman’s gardening experiences and philosophies have attracted thousands of fans who converse with him on his blog, Twitter, Facebook and his web site at www.urbanorganicgardener.com Every day he enjoys fielding questions from wanna-be gardeners who have endless questions about how to get started, what to grow, and how to fend off insects. Lieberman also has advice for budget-conscious consumers who don’t think they have enough resources to support a container garden.
“Some people see that the high end containers such as Earth Boxes are about $60 each, and they get discouraged,” he said. “But I built my own for about $5 each and can show people how to do that. I initially got into this because I wanted to be healthier and grow my own food, but now I’m passionate about educating people and spreading awareness.”
Greens are the star attraction in his garden, which includes Swiss chard, cilantro, parsley, and lettuce in addition to red winter kale, onions and edible flowers. For those who want something on a smaller scale, he says a good sunny windowsill is all that’s needed for sprouts and herbs.
It’s no surprise that Lieberman’s diet is predominantly plant-based and includes only an occasional smidgen of raw goat cheese he buys from a local farmer. He purchases nearly all of his food that he doesn’t grow himself from local farmer's markets and co-ops, and encourages people to develop relationships with farmers so they can know what produce is in season and get extra freebies from time to time.
“I tell people to go to farmer’s markets the last half an hour before they close because it’s usually a bargain frenzy!” he said.
One of the biggest rewards of growing his own food is that he has been able to inspire others to think about where their food supply comes from and how it is processed. He believes that because we are living at a time when we don’t have to be dependent on what we grow, most people are used to buying anything they want at any time of year without having a clue where the food was grown or what pesticides might have been sprayed on it.
“When you start growing your own food and realizing all of the things that go into it, you become much more appreciative of it,” said Lieberman. ‘And nothing compares with having a home cooked meal every evening with food you have picked from your own garden.”