Somewhere in Chicago’s South Side, University of Denver alumna Bweza Itaagi (BA ’14) is planting food in parking lots and on abandoned train tracks. As a sustainable program steward at the urban gardening and farming organization Grow Greater Englewood and co-leader of Chicago food justice organization Urban Stewards Action Network, Itaagi devotes her life to farming in big cities’ most underserved places.
In the predominantly Black neighborhood of Englewood, once a mecca of commerce that has seen its population shrink and many of its businesses shutter, residents struggle with food insecurity and access to land for gardening.
In her role at Grow Greater Englewood, Itaagi plans large-scale projects that convert vacant or abandoned land and structures into thriving community gardens where residents can grow their own food, a practice she considers socially empowering and supportive of improved nutrition.
“[Gardening] is a practice that people have lost over time as we’ve moved into cities and as we’ve become more industrial in our lifestyle, but there’s such joy in knowing that you grew something in your own home that you can pick and then cook and eat,” says Itaagi, fittingly surrounded by houseplants on the other end of a Zoom call.
Although Itaagi works with large-scale community projects, she is also an everyday teacher to people looking to grow their own crops in their houses or apartments.
“Something that I have learned is that you can grow food in anything, no matter the scale, no matter the size,” Itaagi says. An old dresser drawer makes a great planter, while a coffee mug can host a tiny succulent.
Before converting all your furniture into rhubarb beds, Itaagi recommends new gardeners follow three easy steps. First, assess the spaces in your home, apartment or backyard that could be sufficient for growing. Second, monitor the amount of light the proposed spaces receive throughout the day, and then pick out a crop compatible with that light. Third, buy some seeds, research what type of soil is best for your crop, and start growing.
Many gardeners can grow whatever kind of crop they want in their home. Individuals new to urban farming often start with herbs and greens like lettuce, arugula and green onions. They’re easy to grow and harvest. Some plants like root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, beets) need more depth and space, but a 5-gallon bucket can easily do the trick.
Once the growing begins, a lot of plants will benefit from some assistance. The seed packet or some online guidance will help gardeners determine how to feed their food.
And don’t forget the H2O, Itaagi says, noting that the most important part of growing is watering. She conducts a small “field test” with all her crops. If she sticks her finger into the soil and it is dry 2 inches beneath the surface, she waters the plant. While every plant is different, she says, you cannot go wrong with this rule of “green” thumb.
Itaagi views home gardening as an accessible, affordable and positive experience. Not only can people cultivate a fulfilling hobby, but simply having plants at home significantly increases a space’s air quality. As an added bonus, houseplants help improve mood and productivity.
Now a powerful figure in the urban gardening community, Itaagi began her DU career on a pre-med track. But after almost two years of studying cognitive neuroscience at DU, she attended a talk by DJ Cavem, the Denver-based musical artist and urban farming entrepreneur known for his environmental activism. Seeing a young Black man addressing the role food plays in health issues in the Black community caused Itaagi to reconsider her plans.
“It was just really a pivotal moment that made me realize I could still do the work of public health and making sure that communities are healthy but on a more preventative level instead of going into the medical field and treating existing health issues,” Itaagi says.
The combined health and social justice aspects of gardening inspired Itaagi, leading her to an internship at Denver’s GrowHaus and to a master’s degree in sustainable urban development.
As a member of the Black community, Itaagi saw teaching people of all ages to grow their own food and transforming damaged cityscapes as a powerful way of “undoing generations of pain and harm.
“I see it [growing food] as a very radical and revolutionary act and especially as a Black person in America,” she explains. “We have so much pain and generational trauma associated with agriculture, understandably, because our ancestors were forcibly enslaved and forced to do agriculture for so long. I see this resurgence of young Black people and Black people of all ages within the U.S. really reclaiming growing their own food and connecting with land as a source of resilience and empowerment.”