Become an Urban Gardener

Tips for starting an urban garden.

| March/April 1984

By the spring of 1981, more Americans were tending gardens than during any other peacetime period in our recent history. A 1983 Gallup survey reveals that 42% of American householdsover 35 million families—raise some or all of their own vegetables. The reasons for such a pervasive trend? Well, the rising cost of living and a growing conservation ethic seem to have combined to make gardening a more attractiveand often downright necessary—family activity. Folks everywhere who want to take a hand in producing their own food for less expense are plowing up their backyards and sowing seeds for everything from artichokes to zucchini.

And yet, thousands of other families did not put in gardens last year . . . and possibly won't again this year. The reasons most often cited by non gardeners for their inaction are insufficient knowledge and a lack of available land. The average suburban or inner-city home has no room for a vegetable plot, they say. Furthermore, such individuals often claim that it's terribly difficult for beginners to acquire the know-how that can transform them from greenhorns into green thumbs. These ideas, of course, are just plain wrong: Most city and housing development lots do have at least a small corner that could conceivably be turned into a productive urban garden, even if the terrain is sloping, hilly, or a bit rocky. Moreover, urban dwellers don't have to worry about spoiling the aesthetic value of what little land they have, since a well-tended vegetable gardenwith its neat rows of mulched plants and fragrant herbscan be quite an attractive spot.

The problem of lack of knowledge is easily remedied, too. Fledgling horticulturists can check their local libraries and bookstores for references on the subject. Most communities also have quite a few veteran growers in residence who are almost always willing to assist beginning urban gardeners. In addition, all countiesurban and ruralemploy agricultural extension agents who have a large supply of helpful (and often free) literature on recommended crop varieties, methods of pest control, and tips for canning and freezing. Most extension agents will also help gardeners make chemical test analyses and set up fertilization schedules.

What follows in this article, then, is a collection of hints and suggestions geared to the first-time gardener who may be just a bit bewildered by the technical advice often found in gardening manuals. Furthermore, my "primer" is designed to cover the problems an urban vegetable grower would be likely to face (but most of the information is general enough to apply to just about any garden plot).

Urban Garden Design 

Planning the urban garden is much like designing any garden, except that the inherent space limitations force you to pay closer attention to the characteristics of the land available. Very early in the year (or, if possible, during the previous autumn) you should carefully survey your whole lot to determine the optimal garden space, keeping in mind that young vegetables need lots of sun and good drainage. I've found that the minimum space needed to produce all the vegetables a family of four will need for one year is about 60' X 60' . . . but your plot need not be that large, nor should it necessarily be a symmetrical square or rectangle. Instead, fit the garden to your land, taking into consideration the directions of slopes and locations of low spots (and don't worry if the area turns out to be oval, triangular, or even shotgun- or skillet-shaped). Once you've chosen the location, make a rough sketch of the area for future reference . . . including angles and degrees of slopes, position of sunrise and sunset, soil depth, and drainage patterns.

During the survey, keep in mind that, to accommodate the peculiarities of the topography, your gardenrather than being one compact unitmay have to be divided into several separate areas. And don't forget to make use of your "marginal" land: Lot lines, old flower gardens, and odd-shaped corners can be used for raising herbs or leafy vegetables such as lettuce and chard. In addition, feel free to include patios or back porches in your overall plan, since such plants as cherry and plum tomatoes and small herbs (basil, chives, parsley) grow beautifully in long window boxes, hanging baskets, and wooden barrels.

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