Living in urban environments, space is a precious commodity. Lack of space, sunlight or healthy soil is a real limitation that many people who are interested in growing produce face. While many of us think it to be inconceivable that we can grow vegetables in our homes or backyards, with a little creativity, even the most stubborn of living spaces can easily incorporate a vegetable or fruit garden. In no time at all you can be reaping the benefits of eating healthier & fresher foods, saving money and having fun while doing so!
When considering the possibility of starting a garden for growing fruits and vegetables, it is wise to begin with evaluating the space available and to keep several factors in mind: exposure to sun and shade, degree of accessibility to humans and wildlife, and soil conditions. It is always a good idea to have your soil tested before planting anything which will potentially be ingested. Often the soil has been heavily contaminated or degraded through commercial fertilizers or winter salting. With a little love and care, soil can often be restored through proper composting over time. In the meantime organic compost is easily available for purchase.
If access to soil is an issue, raised bed containers are an easy alternative that allows you to work with a fresh bed of soil. They can be constructed to fit into even the smallest of urban spaces. For an even greater impact, reuse old materials you may have lying around your home when assembling your box! Whatever approach is taken, good soil seems to be the key ingredient to successful gardening.
Thinking big about small spaces
Square foot gardening is an idea catching on in many places. I have a friend on a limited income who reuses discarded pots and other items thrown out by others to raise her produce. Earthboxes are affordable, self-watering boxes designed to simply the growing process. Window boxes are another idea to consider when space is a premium.
When space is really tight, vertical gardening is a great alternative worth considering. Christine Nye, Horticulturist with the Shedd Aquarium suggests a number of possibilities: trellises, railing, hanging pots in trees, walls, fences, even old pieces of lawn furniture. In even the smallest of containers, you can grow fresh herbs to compliment any meal! Heavy wind can be addressed by using a wiring system to keep plants intact. Netting may be needed to protect the fruits and vegetables from squirrels, birds, and other predators during harvest time. Where sun exposure is minimal, consider growing radishes, leafy lettuces, onion or parsley which can grow in partial shade.
Growing food at home may seem quite arduous in the beginning, but help is available. Consider the following sources for assistance:
- Your local garden store.
- Learn by doing. Volunteer with an experienced gardener or at a community garden. I’m taking this approach myself in 2009. So far my gardening knowledge has greatly expanded in the process and I’ve also had the opportunity to make some new friends in the process.
- Contact "master gardeners" in your area. These are experts in the field.
- Contact a botanic garden if one is located nearby. The Chicago Botanic Garden is an excellent resource.
Several of the ideas expressed here are borrowed from a presentation made by Christine Nye, Horticulturist at Shedd Aquarium on April 25, 2009 in her talk "Gardening in Small Urban Spaces" at the Center for Green Technology, Chicago.
For further reading:
The following three books are strongly endorsed by Uncommon Ground Restaurant’s rooftop garden manager.
- Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening
- Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long
- The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food
- How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. Recommended by Christine Dye, Horticulturist, Shedd Acquarium
- All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. Recommended by a friend who has just began using this approach to gardening.
http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu, the website for the Horticulture Department at Texas A&M University. It has a wealth of gardening information for general public. Be pleasantly overwhelmed! Heavily recommended by my master gardener contact.
http://davesgarden.com. Endorsed by another Texas master gardener.