Room to grow: With a little planning, even the smallest of spaces can hold a veggie or herb garden.
City living has its ecobenefits: easy travel by foot and public transit, smaller homes that use less energy, and less living space in which to accumulate needless junk. But growing your own vegetables in an urban environment can be tricky when you don’t have a backyard. "Small-space gardening isn't simple," says Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturist for the National Gardening Association, "but it's not as difficult as some people might think." Nardozzi says that the introduction of miniature and dwarf vegetable varieties (you can find plants in most gardening-supply stores or order seeds from reputable companies) to your urban gardening program allows even the beginning gardener to grow tasty crops without the need for tons of space and soil.
Ready to start a plot of your own? Whether you’re an urban gardener with little or no outdoor space, or simply coping with limited lot size, read up on the following six small-space gardening methods to find the one that best suits you.
Thanks to the wide variety of containers now available, you can grow fruits, vegetables, and herbs with relative ease in very little space (and without the extra work of planting in straight rows or weeding big beds!). Just choose clay, plastic, or terra-cotta containers of an appropriate size to hold your plants and their root systems, add dirt and compost, and get growing. Because most vegetables need plenty of sunshine and water, one major advantage of containers is that you can manage your plants’ environment by simply moving them into and out of the sun, and by bringing them indoors during periods of extremely hot or cold temperatures. And because containers come in a variety of sizes, you can keep them just about anywhere—on balconies, window ledges, rooftops, or decks. Be sure you check the weight restrictions for balconies or rooftop spaces, though, as an abundance of containers filled with wet soil and large vegetables can be surprisingly heavy.
Think that small patch of poor soil on the side of your house isn’t fit for growing weeds, let alone a vegetable garden? A raised bed might be your savior. With raised beds, you start your garden above the level of the ground, on top of poor soil or even cement. By adding your own medium in which to grow your plants (you’ll need six to eight inches of dirt and compost if growing on top of poor soil, more when starting a garden atop concrete), you control the soil quality and conditions as well as improve drainage and compaction. Raised beds can be contained on all sides by wood or stones; you can save money by using scrap and found materials, or buy a kit at a gardening store. You may even be able to get away with just piling the soil into a mound and not worrying about containing it.
It’s tough to till and turn over soil in small gardening spaces. Instead of trying, you may want to test out this organic gardening method. Lasagna gardens are built by layering organic materials like hay, coffee grinds, food scraps—basically anything you’d add to a compost pile—right on top of sod, and allowing those layers to turn into workable, healthy soil in which to plant your vegetables. Alternate between green layers (veggie scraps, grass clippings, garden trimmings) and brown layers (hay, coffee grinds, fall leaves, ripped-up newspaper, peat, dried pine needles). Amazingly, a two-foot-tall stack of layers will compost down to rich, ready-for-planting soil in just a few weeks—enough time for you to plant some mid- and late-summer crops.
If you lack the space to spread out plants horizontally, try stacking them vertically. Hanging baskets can hold plenty of growing produce, and some planters are designed to fit over windowsills or existing balcony or deck railings. Topsy Turvy hanging planters are also perfect for growing tomatoes, peppers, and herbs upside down and out of the reach of hungry critters.
Tending a garden that’s shared by a group of your neighbors is a rewarding way to bring in a bounty of vegetables, as community gardens do much more than simply provide you with needed space. They also foster a sense of friendship among neighbors, and help area residents take pride in their community. As you walk around your neighborhood, keep an eye out for a shared plot, or call your local parks and recreation department for information on where community gardens have already been established. The American Community Gardening Association can help you find a garden in your area—or advise you on how to start one.
Growing vegetables indoors is a challenging undertaking, but if you’re willing to invest, the AeroGarden system makes it much easier. These somewhat pricey (they range in price from around $150 to $300) "growing pods" grow plants without the use of dirt or sunlight, and instead use a method called hydroponics, in which the seeds are suspended in a mix of water, nutrients, and oxygen. Full-spectrum fluorescent lightbulbs provide warmth and light for herbs, tomatoes, peppers, salad greens, and more, and most of the kits take up less room on your kitchen counter than a toaster. You can also use the system to give seedlings a head start before you plant them in a container or garden bed.
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