No land? No problem. You can garden. Here’s how.
Small-scale (we’re talking very small scale: like a kitchen countertop) urban gardener R. J. Ruppenthal talked to Chelsea Green’s own Makenna Goodman—farmer, writer, and blogger extraordinaire—one-on-one about gardening in small spaces. Turns out you can grow or raise a significant portion of your family’s food yourself—without breaking the bank…or your back
Fresh, delicious, home-grown, organic produce? Nom nom indeed.
Q. Without the luxury of land or space, is it really possible for someone to grow and produce their own food?
A. You do not need much space to grow some of your own food. If you live in an apartment, condo, or townhouse, you might not think that you have enough space to grow anything, but my goal is to change your mind on that. You can grow nutritious sprouts on a counter top, salad greens on a windowsill, dwarf fruit trees on a patio, tomatoes on a balcony, and much more. Most vegetables, and even fruit trees and berry bushes, can thrive when grown in containers. Indoors, try mushrooms, sprouts, and fermented cultures such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
Q. What are the top five things a city resident needs to know about urban gardening?
A. First, you need to know that you CAN grow a lot of different food crops in limited spaces, even in apartments, condos, townhouses, and other small homes. I described some of the possibilities above, and there are more in my book. Hopefully, you will try some of these and also come up with new ideas on your own, as many of my readers have done. Second, start with something that is relatively trouble-free (such as salad greens, peas, or even tomatoes) and work up from there. You will learn a lot from your successes and your failures. If you try some simple crops and do everything you can (such as provide good soil and water) to ensure their success, then you WILL experience some success. Third, do not be afraid to fail. All of us have our hits and misses. Sometimes you forget to water or you planted the wrong variety for your climate, or for whatever reason, a particular plant simply was not happy. A lot of people would quit after an initial failure, but I hope you will stick with it. The only difference between a “black thumb” gardener and a “green thumb” gardener is that green thumbs learn from their mistakes, try again, and keep trying until they get it right. Then they replicate, and build upon, their successes. A black thumb gardener would quit after the first failure or two, not understanding that there is a learning curve associated with gardening, just as there is with anything else. Stick with it and you will succeed.
Fourth, people do not realize that they can build a garden bed directly on top of concrete, stone, or rocky soil. Almost anything can grow well in containers, but even a patio, driveway, or walkway can be converted to a productive garden bed by building the soil up (as opposed to digging down, which you would not be able to do without a jackhammer). I built two beds on top of my patio, and today, I cannot tell the difference between what is growing on them and what is growing in my soil-based beds. Twelve inches of soil is deep enough to grow almost anything. I’ve had two kale plants that each grew nearly six feet tall on those patio beds, plus peas, chard, beets, lettuce, and a few potatoes. I believe that this really increases the available growing space in cities; so much of our good space is paved over, but it is not longer off-limits to creative gardeners!
Fifth, try to reuse your resources in the garden. I wash my produce in a bowl or basin, and then dump that water back into the garden. It conserves water and saves a small amount of good soil from going down the drain. Then compost your food scraps along with any coffee grounds, newspapers, cardboard, and old plant material. Start a compost pile or buy a tumbler, bin, or worm composter. Check and see whether your city or county provides discounts or free bins for people to compost. Each year you will need to continually add organic matter to your garden soil, and compost is a wonderful source of both organic matter and soil nutrients. For plant fertilizer, though, do not rely on your own compost: you will need to add some organic fertilizer as well, which is available from your local nursery. Most kinds have a base of manure or seed meal for nitrogen, plus natural sources of phosphorus and potassium, which are all key plant nutrients. Kelp extract makes a great supplemental source for both trace minerals and natural growth boosters.