Urban Gardening for the Everyday Person
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.
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.