There are many perks to city living, though space is seldom one of them. That said, a cramped apartment doesn't have to stand in your way of getting into home gardening. Urban gardeners cultivate a wide variety of edible plants using several different techniques. Depending on the living situation, urban dwellers can grow food both inside and out, utilizing whatever space might be available. Windowsills, balconies, roofs, stairways, side yards and empty public spaces can all make great spots for urban food cultivation. For greater detail on keeping plants indoors, check out my recent post on indoor gardening. For a deeper dig into options for urban gardening projects, read on!
Growing Food in Small Spaces
A main component of urban gardening is taking advantage of opportunities to maximize vertical space. If you have enough room for establishing a raised bed or large containers, try adding in a trellis system for plants that vine (tomatoes, melons, squash, cucumbers, beans, peas, etc.). Rather than just laying containers out horizontally, you can arrange them on shelves or attach them to a support structure. If you want to avoid using any ground space, there are plenty of options for hanging plants. The specifics for each project will differ depending on the materials you have available or are willing to purchase, as well as the plants you plan to grow. In my experience, the best way to venture into a new project is to see it laid out step-by-step. Check out these how-to videos for some ideas you might want to try:
Grow plants upside down in buckets (This video is for tomatoes but the process works well with peppers and eggplants too.)
Make cheap and easy trellises (Covers teepee trellises, string trellises and two-sided wall trellises.)
Construct an elevated raised bed planter (Recommended if there are any concerns about soil contamination.)
Try planting into burlap sacks (Planting into bags rather than containers makes for easier storage and transportation.)
Safety for You and Your Plants
With the many joys of urban gardening comes a responsibility to ensure the safety of the garden space itself - as well as for the food you grow. Soil quality is an important consideration for gardening in all areas, but the potential for soil contamination is much greater in cities. If you're just starting out with urban gardening, make sure to familiarize yourself with general best practices for soil safety. When urban gardeners think about soil contamination, the potential for toxic lead levels is usually the first concern that comes to mind. However, the Center for a Livable Future's Soil Safety Resource Guide notes that urban soils might also contain other heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium and mercury. It's also important to consider the potential for industrial chemical contaminants, such as cleaning solvents, certain pesticides, flame retardants, refrigerants and petroleum-based fuels and oils.
Administering a soil test is the first step to assessing the safety of city soils. The RUAF Foundation's guide for soil testing and urban gardens covers the basics of carrying out soil tests and provides other strategies for gauging soil safety. However, it is important to note that soil tests don't generally cover every possible contaminant. Therefore, it's critical to learn as much as you can about the history of your site. If your garden site is, or once was, within close proximity to businesses that use harmful chemicals (such as gas stations, dry cleaners or auto body shops), it's best to move forward with an outside soil source.
There are plenty of options for purchasing new, clean soil and compost online or at local hardware and garden centers. In order to maintain the safety of new growing medium, it's important to ensure that it doesn't make contact with contaminated soil. This can be achieved by installing landscape fabric over the base soil layer and adding new soil on top, building raised beds or using containers (see project ideas above!). If you're working in a contaminated area, growing plants in separate soil doesn't necessarily cover all pathways for the transfer of harmful chemicals. Apart from root-uptake, contaminated soil can reach otherwise clean crops through dust and splash back. A good strategy for protecting the spaces where edible plants are growing is covering paths and other nearby areas with mulch or ground cover vegetation.
Using recycled materials for garden containers and structures is much cheaper than purchasing new supplies. That said, it's important to consider the source and physical makeup of any object that will be in direct contact with plants and soil. Repurposed pallets are quite popular for many DIY projects, but not all pallets are the same. The safety of a pallet depends largely on the method of treatment that was used to guard against insects and fungus. The same goes for wood purchased from a hardware store. The only way to completely avoid the potential for chemical leaching is by choosing untreated materials.
If re-using plastic containers, make sure to check the recycling number (found within the triangular symbol at the bottom of the container). Never use containers with the numbers 3, 6 or 7, as they contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene and polycarbonate, respectively. In addition, it's important to properly disinfect any containers before reuse, especially if you are unsure of their origin. Soaking them with a simple solution of nine parts water and one part bleach does the trick. If you're using containers that don't already have drainage holes, make sure to drill some in before planting.
Handling pests in an environmentally and ethically sound manner is always important, but especially when you're living in highly populated areas. While city landscapes are much less likely to contain lively insect populations than areas with more greenspace, you should always stay on the lookout for bugs. Check out Urban Farm Online's Garden Pest Guide, which lists eight of the most common garden insects you might run into.
In urban areas, we're far more likely to deal with common city critters like pigeons, mice and even rats. A garden looks like prime real estate for animals seeking food, water and shelter. When establishing a new garden area, the best thing you can do is to prevent an infestation problem before it starts by keeping everything tidy. Make sure not to leave out open bags of soil, standing water or uncovered compost piles, and be sure to keep any garbage in secure (vermin-proof) containers.
Urban gardening definitely requires plenty of planning, maintenance and awareness, but it's pretty easy to get into overall - and extremely rewarding! Try out a few different projects and see what works for you. Beyond apartment gardening, there's a whole world of opportunity for engagement with urban agriculture in public spaces. Vacant lots are common throughout metropolitan areas and can serve as the perfect sites for setting up new gardening endeavors. You might also consider joining a community garden near you. For additional resources on city garden projects, check out Urban Organic Gardener. Whether working indoors, outdoors or both, you'll find that small city spaces can have a great deal to offer for growing food!
This post was originally published in March of 2016.