The Art of Urban Mobile Gardening

The local food movement has opened the door to a new crop of would-be gardeners who lack access to a patch of earth on which to plant a garden (myself included). For some, the land dilemma can be resolved by planting seeds in a shared community garden. Other space-challenged gardeners install planters and flower boxes on roofs and balconies, like this enterprising New Yorker, who developed a self-watering vegetable garden on his Manhattan fire escape last summer, using PVC buckets and two-liter soda bottles.

But what about the folks who don’t have even an inch of outdoor space to call their own? Or on-the-go types, who for reasons unknown prefer to tote their pocket-size gardens around town with them? Eschewing the constraints of traditional, land-based gardens altogether, some gardening hobbyists instead choose to grow plants on mobile platforms that can be wheeled, carried or floated from place to place.

The most practical venue for a mobile garden is a wagon or trailer. In Portland, OR, for example, gardening educators use a 6- by 14-foot mobile garden that can be towed by a truck to teach about native species. Others can be pushed or pulled by hand, towed behind a car or bicycle, or chained to a street pole. Of these, the design firm Food Map created perhaps the most elegant (and at $255, easily the most expensive):a wheeled cart with a stylish white plastic planter box.

Limiting excess weight is a goal for most cyclists, but tricked-out bikes and motorcycles, laden with soil and plants are a mobile gardening staple. This prototype, described as a “bicycle window box- for the transient gardener” offers a simple solution for “the cyclist who is always on the move, or cycle tourist needing nutritious strawberries and beansprouts,” according to the landless author. Other bike-garden inventions include the bicycle-mounted greenhouse, for the four-season grower, and the flower garden mounted on the sidecar of a scooter, photographed in Israel, which scores high marks for both form and function.

The French company Bacsac is the only business I know of that’s entirely devoted to mobile gardening solutions. Their offerings range from cloth pots and satchels to a larger garden plot mounted on the roof of a car that looks like an overstuffed mattress (pictured above).

As mobile gardeners get further away from the practical considerations of simply growing plants, they enter the realm of art, and several artists have adopted mobile gardening as a medium for artistic expression. It’s striking, for example, to see green flowers and trees floating offshore, where they don’t belong. In 2005, a floating garden on a barge that artist Robert Smithson conceived of in 1970 finally orbited Manhattan for a couple of weeks, 30 years after his death. “It calls to mind voyages of discovery and loss, beginning with the Ark itself, which also put nature into a boat,” wrote Mark Stevens of the installation in a New York Magazinewriteup.

Last August, photographer Mary Mattingly followed Smithson’s example by renting a shipping barge and converting it into The Waterpod, a floating artist colony with vegetable gardens and chickens. Looking forward, the Chicago Transportation Authority recently gave the green light to a mobile garden on a flatcar train proposed by University of Illinois art student Joe Baldwin that would be dragged behind passenger cars on the city’s elevated train system. That garden is expected to get in motion in spring 2011.

A mobile garden can of course be planted on anything that moves, and my personal favorite is the baby stroller mobile garden, modeled here by the artist Tattfoo Tan. As part of an art installation in October, Tan, joined by artists Simonetta Moro, Eve Mosher and a group of college students, paraded a motley assortment of mobile gardens adapted from office chairs, strollers, and shopping carts down 14th Street in Manhattan, leaving them at designated points where they thought food could be grown.

The most celebrated mobile garden of the past year was Truck Farm, a 1986 Dodge pickup truck owned by Brooklyn filmmakers Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis. Their garden was a bit more elaborate than most mobile gardens, as they drilled drainage holes in the truck bed and laid down a root barrier and several layers of soil, clay and Styrofoam (see the process in this video). The two truck farmers even started a CSA program, charging subscribers $20 for some food from each harvest and a DVD at the end of the project. Part of Truck Farm’s message was political, as it was meant to raise awareness about the lack of fresh produce in some urban areas, but Cheney and Ellis did it for the same reason as most other mobile gardeners. As Cheney told the New York Daily News in August: “I don’t have a rooftop to grow any food, [so] it seemed like the logical thing to try.”