Urban Gardening for the Everyday Person

By Guest Blogger   |  11Comments|

It seems like a lifetime ago now, but last this past spring and summer were my first seasons of urban vegetable gardening. I didn’t have a huge, lush, perfectly tended garden to work with. What I did have was a fire escape—and my own determination!

See, I live in New York City. Around here, the concrete outweighs the green. I had to get creative with the limited space outdoor space in my apartment, so I decided to turn my fire escape into my own little garden.

Just Start Growing

The biggest hurdle for me—as it must be for any home gardener—was getting started. What if I fail? Do I know what I’m doing? I can’t possibly do this. Luckily, I was able to forget all that self-deprecating nonsense. What did people do hundreds of years ago? They didn’t get fancy certificates declaring that they could garden. They just got it done, and I was going to do the same.

What To Grow In

I did a bit of research on what I could grow in and built my own versions of a self-watering container. They were perfect: inexpensive to make (less than $5), and composed of recycled materials.

If these seem like too much trouble, you could make a hanging planter using recycled soda bottles. These work well for herbs and lettuces.

What Kind of Potting Soil To Use

The next task was to decide on a potting soil that I was going to use. The one thing that I knew is that I wanted to use organic methods and no chemicals and pesticides. I started to do some research as to what I should use. Some said a coconut coir based soil, and some said a peat moss based soil. I figured that I’d experiment with both to see which one works better. So I bought some coconut coir based soil from my local ecology center. I also made my own potting soil from peat moss, vermiculite, limestone and compost that I made in my kitchen.

I haven’t yet done a complete analysis, but I haven’t noticed much of a difference in how things have been growing in the different soils. So, urban gardeners, I’d suggest using whichever is easier for you. Once you decide, you’ll face the next question:

Where To Buy Your Plants

My personal preference on this is to go local. Go to your farmers market or nursery and talk to the gardeners. I bought my plants from Silver Heights Farm at the Union Square Farmers Market. I was able to build a decent relationship with the gardener. She proved to be very helpful and personable in answering any questions that I had. This included:

What Should I Grow?

This is the million dollar question. If you are growing in an urban environment, it’s likely that you don’t have much space and want to get the most out of your veggie garden. What works for one won’t necessarily work for another, but I do have some personal veggie anecdotes to share.

· The vegetable that I had the most success with were lettuces and greens. I was able to harvest my lettuce and create my first salad about a mere month after planting them! It’s strange to say, but the feeling of being able to trace my food from fire escape to plate was overwhelming—in a very wonderful way—at first.

· Personal opinion? I’d stay away from red peppers. Nothing against them, but for me they don’t have a high enough yield. I’ve been able to harvest some, but the space could be better utilized. If you have a lot of space, then plant peppers like crazy.

· Cauliflower is another plant that I didn’t have much success with. I have thoughts on why it didn’t grow, but the fact that it didn’t turned me off. I’d rather stick with plants that are going to yield a high crop.

· Another lesson that I learned is that “cherry tomato” means a small tomatoes: not a small plant! When I started off, I bought a cherry tomato plant and thought it would work nicely on my fire escape. Now, a few months later, the plant is taller than me!

Maintaining Your Gardens

One of the virtues of self watering containers is that they are easy to maintain. I didn’t have to water them on a daily basis, and it’s easy to tell when they are filled. There’s also no need to pull weeds; compared to traditional gardening, the maintenance is much simpler.

Now that December, and soon winter, is upon us, the fire escape garden needs a bit more attention. There are definitely some plants and herbs that won’t make it through the cold season (such as basil, which died once the first sign of cold weather came). A heartier plant like kale is thriving in the cold weather so far.

Since I am working on a fire escape, I obviously can’t have a full blown greenhouse. I had to build mini greenhouses for the hanging soda bottle planters and small plastic greenhouses for the containers. They require a bit more attention, but help to prolong the life of the plants.

Those of us who live in urban landscapes tend to assume that gardening is a luxury for people outside of the city, or for friends with fancy country homes. But I hope that this post proves to you that this isn’t so. I’m doing all of my vegetable harvesting on my tiny fire escape in Manhattan, and with no prior experience. It’s been both fun and terribly rewarding.

So now it’s time for you to stop reading, and start growing! I wish you luck.

Mike Lieberman resides in NYC. He provides simple solutions for living in a complex world. He shows others how they can do the same on his own blogs and writes for others around the web. You can find them at CanarsieBK.com.

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11 responses to Urban Gardening for the Everyday Person
  1. Amazing article, Mike! I’ve never been proactive about gardening, thinking that living in an urban setting precludes my capacity to plant anything. Thanks for proving me wrong — I hope I can use your blog as inspiration from now on!

  2. This article is freaking awesome—so informative & creative. I’m inspired to get going on some gardening of my own…

  3. I love the idea of gardening on a smaller scale. I tried turning my backyard into a veggie garden and it was over whelming! A garden on my back porch and in my kitchen seems much more possible. Can’t wait to get started! Thanks, Mike:)

  4. Fantastic, you could write a book on this subject, I think it could become a huge success amongst people who live in the city :-) Anyway I’m inspired, thanks to you!

  5. I tried growing some red chile peppers indoors in my apartment, (no balcony) but as they grew they got little white bugs on them. Did you have to use some form of pest control for your plants? Do you recommend any??

  6. Thank everyone for the comments.

    @Gena Thanks. If you need help getting set up in the spring, lemme know.

    @Nora The biggest hurdle was starting. Getting over the fact that I wasn’t a “gardener”. Def get yours started and lemme know how it goes.

    @Corinne Yes it’s much easier on a small scale, but I crammed a little of a lot into my small space. Should’ve crammed a lot of a little. All a learning experience. Keep in touch on how your garden goes.

    @Kristina I like the book idea. Will definitely keep that in mind. Glad I could inspire.

    @Michelle Luckily I didn’t have many pest problems. It sounds like you had aphids though. A common natural repellent that I’ve heard to combat them is to chop garlic, cayenne pepper and water in a spray bottle, let sit for an hour then spray the plant.

  7. An Inspiration! Thanks for the post!

  8. Your readers with late season herb and vegetable gardens may well find that they will grow more than they can use, preserve or give to friends.

    They may want to visit http://www.AmpleHarvest.org – a site that helps diminish hunger by enabling backyard gardeners to share their crops with neighborhood food pantries.

    The site is free both for the food pantries and the gardeners using it.

    More than 1,200 food pantries nationwide are already on it and more are signing up daily.

    It includes preferred delivery times, driving instructions to the pantry as well as (in many cases) information about store bought items also needed by the pantry (for after the growing season).

    AmpleHarvest.org enables people to help their community by reaching into their back yard instead of their back pocket.

    Lastly, if your reader’s community has a food pantry, they should make sure the pantry registers on http://www.AmpleHarvest.org. Its free.

  9. Hi, I think your website is interesting very colorful. Good job! I feel helping job seekers finding their ream home jobs are a fulfilling quest. Good luck in your quest too.


  10. Your post has inspired me to try a balcony garden….however I was informed that it isn’t “allowed” at our condominium. Plants are okay, so now I have the added challenge of making my veggies look like boring plants!

  11. Great ideas on cheap containers! Thanks!