Take a moment and step outside that place you call home. What do you see? An apartment balcony? A sliver of grass on a small parcel of land in the middle of town? Or is it simply a shaded outdoor patio or terrace that enjoys a shaft of sunlight a couple of hours each day? Now, I want to ask you, “Have you ever thought about starting a garden out there?” Have you ever imagined you could?
If you answered ‘yes’ to either of those questions then here’s some advice for doing just that. If you answered ‘no’ but you’re wondering how you could even get started then read on. Whichever way you answered gardening in small spaces will take a fair bit of imagination and some practical strategizing but eventually you will produce enough to supplement your fresh produce needs.
Soil and Containers
Two important points to begin with are mixing (or buying) quality soil and having appropriate containers for what you plan on growing.
We all know what soil is, right? It’s not just dirt, now is it? No, soil is a blend of components that provide a rich bed for your plants to grow to their full potential through a balance of nutrients and water retention. Now, there are plenty of choices when it comes to ready mixed soil for various planting situations. Potting mix is the type needed for container gardening. There are national brands to choose from or local nurseries will have locally or regionally produced organic mixes.
However, if you want to do it from scratch, Mel Bartholomew (founder of “Square Foot Gardening”) recommends 3 ingredients; peat moss, vermiculite and compost. Or you can substitute peat moss with coconut coir, a somewhat more sustainable option. Coconut coir (or fiber) also has a more amenable pH range (5.2 to 6.8) and faster water absorption rate than peat while peat moss has a higher water holding capacity.
Compost is essentially decayed organic material used to fertilize plants. This is another component you can buy ready made but home composting is a growing trend and once you’ve bought or built your own bin, compost is virtually free. Using your kitchen’s organic waste you can produce enough compost for next season’s gardening needs. There are 4 interwoven components of composting;
Green or organic material are sources of nitrogen. Everything from kitchen vegetable and fruit scraps to egg shells, coffee grounds and tea bags to grass clippings make for excellent additives to your compost pile or bin. Chicken and other manure from fowl are also good nitrogen sources and great if you’re venturing into raising chickens. But stop before you think about adding poo from the family dog as there is a risk of introducing pathogens to the mix.
Carbon is introduced by way of dry or brown yard waste, newspaper, twigs, chips of untreated wood and sawdust. These should be shredded or chopped into pieces of about 12 inches in length or shorter. Thick branches and the like should be chipped. Maintaining a roughly, equal balance of both carbon and nitrogen materials is recommended
The fungus and bacteria munching away on the pile of organic material need air to live, reproduce and do their work. Excess moisture or a densely pack pile will rob them of vital oxygen so regularly churning or turning of the pile will allow air to permeate throughout.
A moisture content somewhere between 40% and 60% is a beneficial range. This does not have to be exact and can be gauged by squeezing a handful of compost. Picture a wrung out sponge. The material should not be soaking wet as this will also rob the working organisms of oxygen. Add water when the pile becomes dry. The easiest way is to wet the material as you do your regular churnings.
There are a wide range of choices for your compost pile or bin. Backyard compost piles are common for those who have the space. The market for specialized bins has grown significantly from large barrels set up on metal frames equipped with hand cranks for easy churning to small, apartment specific models. Do it yourself versions are another way to go using cheaper Rubbermaid type bins and other plastic containers.
Anyone who’s tried container gardening knows the plethora of options out there, from plastic, terracotta and ceramic pots in virtually any size desired to the variety of planter boxes limited only to the designer’s imagination. For gardening in the small spaces of urban dwellers raised planter boxes offer a effective platform to grow a range of vegetables including below ground varieties like potatoes, carrots and onions.
Anyone who’s researched gardening tips know there is no shortage of advice and with the ever expanding internet, bytes of wisdom from across the globe are available with a couple keywords and a mouse click or app tap. Let’s add a few more grains to the gathering mountain of knowledge, shall we?
Make every square foot count. Leaning once more on Bartholomew we’ll talk planting density. Higher plant densities does seem to run counter to conventional wisdom but by allowing plants with differing heights, root depths and rates of growth to intermingle you can grow more in a smaller space than you’d think. Combining this strategy with quick replanting after individual harvests, you will maintain a continuity of ongoing growth.
The strategy of square foot gardening is derided by some but has proven as a successful and efficient method for many urban gardeners. Refocusing again on those raised planter boxes (at least 6 inches deep), set out a grid of 1’x1′ squares across the box’s surface area. In each square plant either one larger plant, like broccoli or multiple smaller ones like green onions. That is about all there is besides tending to the general needs of growing plants, of course.
The inventive urban gardener can also go vertical. Apartment terrace walls, property fences and exterior walls of a house can be utilized to increase your garden’s surface area by attaching planter boxes three to four to more high, depending on the size. This strategy works for growing herbs or leafy vegetables like lettuce and spinach but will work for any variety as long as the boxes are secured well to the wall or fence. These structures are also great for climbing plants like string beans and some squash by way of an attached lattice or other support.
Feeling particularly ambitious? Consider combining the vertical with the traditional raised planter box. Anchor a vertical element (lattice or framework to attach other planters) to one end of your planter box. This will increase the growing area available and keep you out of hot water with the apartment manager or landlord for drilling holes into their walls. Then supplement the main planter boxes with potted plants.
What to Plant
Tomatoes, peppers, carrots and lettuce are the easiest vegetables to start with and all well suited to container or planter box gardening. Others to try are potatoes (in their own container), cucumbers, zucchini and other varieties of squash. While the image of squash plants is one of a large, sprawling plant, they are trainable to grow vertically up a well-supported framework.
As I mentioned to before, there is a vast sea of gardening advice available across the internet. Take what makes sense to your living situation and the region you call home. Experiment to see what actually works best for your garden. Then share what you learned leave a personal kernel of knowledge for the next person.