If you’d asked me a decade ago if I’d be writing a post on urban gardening I might have laughed out loud, and yet here I am now. Who knew?
Growing up, my mom always had a tomato plant or a few carrots or herbs growing in some patch of soil. She had the greenest thumb and could really make just about any patch of dirt come alive with the greens of lettuce and foliage or the fruits that would later be on our plates.
I did not, however, share her love for seeds and soil until very recently, and so, when she passed, she took all of her knowledge of compost and seeds and TLC with her…which has left me to learn on my own and through lots of trial and error.
So, as I sat down to write this morning, thinking about my mom and her phenomenal tomatoes, I thought a good topic would be on the basics of starting an urban garden (because we have always lived in the city, it’s what I know and it really is magical to create your own little oasis despite the concrete and noise).
First up is Knowing Your (growing) Season
Honestly, Zones confuse me and, living in an area where there are many different zones all around me hasn’t helped.
However, knowing my frost free days and planning accordingly is easy. Dave’s Garden has an amazing tool to help you figure out how many frost free days you have on average based on your zip code. Plug it in and take note of your number. My magical number is an average of 150 days.
Next Comes Sunshine
Whether you live in a home that already has established beds, will be creating/building the beds yourself or planting in pots, it is important to keep in mind how the sun hits your property. The number of hours of direct sunlight will determine what you can actually grow.
With 6+ hours of direct sun each day, you can grow things like corn, tomatoes, beans and peas, summer and winter squash, melons, potatoes, cucumbers and a wide variety of culinary herbs
With 4 to 6 hours of direct sun each day, you can grow things like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts.
With 2 to 4 hours of direct sun each day, you can grow greens! Spinach, Swiss chard, lettuce, endive, mesclun, arugula, bok choi, mustard greens and parsley.
If you have less than two hours of direct sun per day, you’re in for a challenge, but it’s still worth a shot! Try loose leaf lettuce (not heads) or radishes.
After Sunshine Comes Soil
Edibles need good rich soil to grow in. Think about it like this, a veggie must have a nutrient dense home to grow in in order to become nutrient dense itself. Soil that is lacking nutrients has nothing to give the plant, so it won’t 😉
Again, depending on where you are planting, make sure your soil is rich. You can create your own with a compost pile later (add that to your list) or purchase some from your local nursery, but make sure it is organic and fits where you will be planting (potting soil for pots, topsoil for beds).
Next Up is Water
Think about your water sources and how you will water your growing plants. Depending on whether you have raised beds, ground level beds or are planning to plant in pots, all seeds must have water and all plants require even more. Your options might include hand watering, using a hose, drip irrigation or letting nature take care of it (if you are lucky enough for that), but it must be thought about.
After Water Comes Seeds (and an awe-inspiring awareness of the potential within every itty bitty seed!) and Starts
Once you know how much sun your plants will get, how long your growing season is and where you’ll be planting your glorious veggies, it’s time to think about purchasing some seeds or starts.
Now, I love starting my own seeds and do so every year now with the help of my trusty grow light stand. However, this has not always been the case. For the first few years, I purchased starts from the nursery, transplanted them into my beds and pots and watched them either flourish or die. The choice is yours, of course, but if you’re a super Newbie in the garden, go ahead and start with starts 🙂 Just ensure that you are purchasing organic veggies which were started from organic seed and not treated with any chemicals before they get to you. Your pollinator friends will thank you first, your body will thank you later.
A Few Words to the Wise:
- Start small and work your way up. If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to start off with 15 different varieites and have fruits and veggies growing everywhere! While this is not without it’s merits, you will do yourself a huge favor by picking just a few things to start and learn with now. Then, next year (and every year after that), you can expand.
- Try companion planting on a small scale. Planting a tomato in a big pot? Strategically place ten carrot seeds or three basil seeds around the base of the tomato and watch them grow together. Planting some cucumbers to climb up a fence? Plant some bush beans in front of them to shade their toes and add nitrogen to the soil.
- Be prepared for “failure”. Not all seeds germinate. Not all starts survive. Pests will finds your glorious plants and rip them to shreds. Hail will damage your fruits and veggies right before harvest time. It’s just part of the process. Some years are better than others, some years suck. Like life, take every lesson and heartbreak and pour the knowledge gained from them into next years plans.
- Pride yourself in the small victories. Harvesting ten carrots from a small pot for the first time can feel like winning a gold medal. Allow yourself to feel that pride and then enjoy each of those carrots like they’re the best carrots on the planet because they are and because you deserve to!
Alright, I think you are now ready to delve into the world of urban gardening! Let me know if you have any questions and please let me know if you’ve found this helpful! Now go forth, begin you own urban gardening adventure and grow your own delicious, healthy food!
These books may prove helpful as well! I recently purchased Edible Cities and was very inspired by all of the creative ideas people from all over the world have come up with to become more self sufficient, no matter the size of their plots!