Successful urban gardening is a challenge for those of us who try to grow vegetables and fruits in small spaces. My own backyard is a case in point, being long, narrow and almost entirely shaded. Plenty of tomatoes and peppers have been grown in the narrow, sunny strip along the fence, but there's precious little room otherwise for exploring new options. And growing melons? I thought it was out of the question — until this year.
Inspired by a co-worker who grew six butternut squashes in a tiny plot, I decided to punch through the urban-gardening barrier by using an overlooked rectangle of dirt tucked into the front yard. The 3-by-7-foot plot next to the front door looked like an inhospitable environment by any gardener's standards. Backed by a wall and bordered by a concrete sidewalk, the soil was often dry and powdery. The sun shone on this small-space garden for only a few hours in the morning. Would anything grow in these inhospitable conditions? I was willing to risk a few seeds to find out.
In late May I planted the desert-like plot with one hill of 'Kansas' cantaloupe seed from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. A couple shovelfuls of compost got dumped into the hill before planting, along with some straw mulch afterwards. A few feet away, a second hill got planted with a few 'Moon and Stars' watermelon seeds. Over the new few weeks, I watered the plot daily and waited to see what would happen with the hills.
All of the seeds germinated and the plants grew quickly as summer progressed. About once a week I'd pull new vines up onto the older ones to keep my urban-gardening experiment confined to its designated space. By late June, the rectangle was a jumble of intertwined cantaloupe and watermelon vines loaded with blooms and buds. By early August, my small-space garden had produced its first fruit — a 'Kansas' heirloom muskmelon with mild orange flesh. I called it my melon miracle.
Since then, the 'Kansas' vines have continued to produce fruit: four melons have already been eaten and two more are still ripening. Although I'd written off 'Moon and Stars' as a failure in July, its vine is nourishing a beautiful speckled watermelon in September that, while not particularly large, promises to be a tasty treat for the household sometime soon.
The average first-frost date for my region falls in mid-October. I'm pondering whether my urban-gardening experiment could be located in a favorable microclimate, where the house's wall will protect the plot from cold north winds. The space is small enough that I can easily toss a blanket onto the vines when frost threatens, or I could keep the experiment going by assembling a mini hoop house with PVC pipe and plastic sheeting. Even if frost kills the vines in October, my 3-by-7-foot plot will have produced an impressive yield: six cantaloupes and one watermelon, all homegrown with no chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
Seeds are fairly inexpensive, so why not look around your own yard for a small plot suited to an experiment in small-space urban gardening? The results might surprise you.
Rebecca Martin is an Associate Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, where her beats include DIY and Green Transportation. She's an avid cyclist and has never met a vegetable she didn't like. You can find her on Google+.