Tired of genetically modified food? Every day, Americans are moving more toward eating natural, locally grown food that is free of pesticides and preservatives — and there is no better way to ensure this than to grow it yourself. In The Heirloom Life Gardener (Hyperion, 2011), Jere and Emilee Gettle, cofounders of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, offer a wealth of knowledge to every kind of gardener — experienced pros and novices alike. In this excerpt about urban gardening from Chapter 7, “City Farmer,” learn why living in a city doesn’t have to mean living without homegrown food.
Though I’m a country boy at heart, I can’t deny that there is something magical about big cities. I love being in a skyscraper and looking out at the rooftop and backyard gardens dotting the cityscape. People get so creative with small spaces! In the Ozarks, there’s no shortage of arable land to work with. But not everyone lives in a place with so much space. If you live in a gardenless apartment, or you have just a tiny little yard, it is still possible to harvest delicious vegetables and herbs. Through urban gardening, if you have a patio, balcony, sunny windowsill, or even access to a rooftop, you can make your own little garden patch.
Planting vegetables in pots or other containers is a fun way to start a garden in a small space. Most plants like full sun, so place your pots accordingly. If lack of sunlight is an issue on a small patio or in a yard, a dedicated gardener can move the pots once or twice per day, as the sun moves across the sky.
The size of the container is important, and you should choose according to how big the crop will grow.
Small pots (three to six inches across) can grow some plants to maturity, such as smaller lettuce leaf plants and herbs like basil, thyme, chives, rosemary, and lavender. Medium-size pots, which range from eight to ten inches across, can hold a few different plants at a time. Planting similar species together, such as a couple of pepper varieties, makes for easier care and a vibrant mix. Large pots (twelve inches across or larger) are perfect for big plants, such as tomatoes, squash, eggplant, and cucumbers.
Any type of container can work to grow vegetables in, as long as it has a drainage hole. My favorites are terra-cotta, because they’re sturdy and classic-looking. There are also metal, wooden, ceramic, and more modern man-made materials that can withstand a variety of weather conditions and last for a long time. Pretty much anything that holds soil will work, as long as it has a hole to allow for drainage. I used to make little wooden boxes out of lumber in which to grow strawberries. Figure out what works for you, based on what you’re growing and your budget.
For container growing, soil should be a mixture of compost, soilless potting mix, and a little sand. This ratio of soil-to-sand is important because it keeps the “soil” loose in your container—real garden dirt tends to get too compacted and hard. Come up to a few inches below the top of the pot. Sow seeds directly in pots, as if you were starting them in a garden. Germination takes five to fifteen days for most vegetables, depending on what you’re growing. While you’re waiting, keep the soil moist. When the seeds sprout, help them along by keeping the soil damp, but avoid over-watering by checking moisture levels regularly. If soil clumps like cake, wait for it to dry out a bit.
One of the best things about container gardening is that you don’t have to deal with weeds, which is a dream for most gardeners. Containers also give you more control over what happens to plants, since there aren’t as many pests or random animals crawling around while they’re growing, and you can bring them indoors if a frost is expected. As they grow, make sure to harvest your container plants regularly in order to encourage continued production.
Europeans have been perfecting the art of pretty little windowsill gardens for centuries, and many a fire escape and balcony throughout New York City has a colorful garden hanging from it via window boxes.
There’s a dizzying array of different kinds of window boxes to choose from. They range in size from two to six feet long, and they’re often pre-drilled so that you can mount them on a wall, add brackets to hang them from a rail (you can purchase brackets at any hardware store), or suspend them directly from a fire escape. Try planting a selection of both lovely and tasty vegetables and edible flowers together in one container. A single box can hold multiple crops at once: salad greens, edible flowers (such as nasturtiums), attractive herbs, and lively little peppers. Window boxes are available in a variety of materials, such as wood, metal, iron, and of course, plastic (and you can easily build wooden boxes at home for a fraction of the cost of store bought ones). Wherever you get your containers, make sure to obtain the proper hardware if any is needed to attach them securely. Once a box is filled with soil, water, and growing plants, it can get very heavy.
Hanging baskets are another fantastic choice for city gardeners—as they are the ultimate space-saving solution and a vibrant addition to a balcony or patio. Though baskets are most commonly used to grow flowering plants and vines, you should also consider putting in peppers or brightly colored lettuces. To avoid soil leakage, line baskets with a layer of attractive, natural-looking coconut husks. With both window boxes and hanging baskets, keep up with the harvest once it begins. Remove plants right away once they are exhausted, and then put in something else.
There’s no shortage of rooftop space in urban areas, and some cities are experiencing urban gardening movements, where determined, passionate gardeners are taking over spaces above street level to grow their own food. In Brooklyn, New York, for example, an organization called Eagle Street Rooftop Farm has transformed the rooftop of a warehouse into a 6,000-square-foot organic vegetable farm with 200,000 tons of soil and dozens of crops. And fancy hotels in many big cities around the world have “greened” their rooftops and started organic gardens up there to supply produce for their restaurants.
To try your own rooftop garden, you can bring up containers and work in pots, or you can install raised beds. Using containers allows you to move the plants easily.
Building beds will allow for more plants. With preparation and careful planning, it is also possible to cover a whole roof with beds, soil, and a drainage system. Whatever your goal is, the first step in rooftop gardening is to consult a structural engineering expert, who can tell you what is allowed and what will work for your building. A gardening operation—even a small one with a few terra cotta pots—can weigh a lot. Make sure that your rooftop oasis won’t cave in or otherwise cause damage to anything below it. After you consult an expert, file any permits necessary before getting started.
If you live in a big city and have a small space, maximize the productivity of your plot by using intensive and succession planting methods. Select plants that yield quickly. Lettuce, spinach, mustards, radishes, and bush beans can all be harvested in fifty days or less. Avoid planting crops that sprawl or get really bushy.
Succession planting in a small space is fun and efficient. Once a crop is exhausted, pull it up and plant a new crop. A great schedule for succession planting in an urban area would be to put in a cool-weather crop such as lettuce or spinach several weeks before the last frost. By mid-May (or slightly later or earlier, depending on where you live), that crop will be pretty much done producing. Pull the plants up and put in tomato seedlings. Tomatoes get big, so stake them as soon as you transplant them, so that as they grow they will climb. You can harvest them through the first frost in the fall. Throw green beans in as well around the time you transplant the tomatoes. They’ll last through August or so, at which point you can pull them up and put in turnips or rutabagas for the cold months. Succession planting will work best if you understand and plan around how long crops take to mature and which like cooler or warmer weather.
If you notice that your plants are looking a little runty, that might be because they don’t have enough nutrients (all plants need nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). Add compost, mulch, or natural fertilizer to the soil between plantings, or spray the plants with fish emulsion.
For sprawling plants, like cucumbers, tomatoes, edible gourds, small-fruited winter squashes, and melons, to keep them from roaming over your plot train vines up a trellis using garden ties, string, or twine. This frees up space and protects the fruits from disease and fungus, which can be more of an issue in compact spaces. Be careful not to secure vines too snugly—you want them to be able to grow freely.
If I lived in an apartment, the first thing I’d do is look for a community garden in my neighborhood. A community garden is essentially a large “green space” where city residents gather to cultivate small plots of vegetables and other crops.
Most cities have them these days, as they’ve been sprouting up more frequently in recent years. Members are volunteers who work individual or shared plots. Depending on how big a city is, and how popular a particular garden is, plots may be given to folks on an apprenticeship basis, after they demonstrate commitment to helping maintain the space. But often all you need to do is pay a membership fee to receive your assigned space.
Community gardens are a tremendous resource for novice gardeners, because they provide an environment in which knowledge and camaraderie can be shared with neighbors. Many gardens hold events, including workshops about topics such as composting and harvesting, kids’ days, senior center hours, and seed giveaways. To find a garden near you or learn more about starting a plot of your own, visit the American Community Gardening Association.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Heirloom Life Gardener by Jere and Emilee Gettle, published by Hyperion, 2011.
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