City living isn’t conducive to a vegetable garden edged in rows of corn and sprawling squash, but it’s more hospitable than you might think. I’ve planted gardens on the edge of rooftops and seen thriving plots in row house backyards no bigger than 4x4 feet. Even the smallest window box can grow a summer’s supply of mint.
My foray into gardening began as a child, when I was small enough to try and eat the pea seeds my father handed me as we moved down the rows. We grew everything: raspberries, zucchini, sunflowers. Fast forward to my twenties, and I’ve moved out of the suburbs and into the city. I’ve come to understand my father’s vendetta against squirrels, but instead of groundhogs and deer I grapple with a lack of space.
Gardening really comes down to two things. Know your plants, and know where they’ll grow. Whether you’re just getting started or have been gardening for years, you can never go wrong by asking these questions: What does my space offer, and what does my plant need?
Over time, I’ve learned that each spot is a microclimate. A front yard and backyard will have different amounts of sun. A third floor balcony that faces south will get different light than a seventh floor apartment facing northeast. A twelve story high roof will get a lot of wind. On the ground floor? You’ll likely deal with squirrels.
I’m lucky enough to have front, side, and back yards -- all on a slope, which means rainwater flows to the bottom. This year, I spent most of February and March installing 4x4 raised beds to counteract the runoff and fielding questions from curious neighbors.
Indoors, I only have one window that really gets enough sunlight for starting vegetable seedlings. In late winter and early spring, I cram a card table into my bedroom and cover it in seed trays. By May, I’ve become an expert at navigating the space, and in cleaning up all the plants knocked over by my rambunctious kitten.
A word of warning -– cats love dirt. I lost more seedlings to kitten antics than lack of light or water, and on multiple occasions found trails dirty paw prints across my bed.
Kittens aside, plants aren’t likely to be bothered by pests indoors. You’ll also have less bugs and diseases on a balcony. In fact, if you’re growing up high, your plants don’t need much besides soil, water, sun, and nutrients – and room, which is the biggest challenge.
Seed packets never have all of the right information for small space growing, but they’re a good place to start. Most brands will list general horticultural notes, like when to plant, how deep to sow the seeds, and how far apart each plant should grow. Even if you’re just planning to transplant small plants from a nursery, make sure to do a little research about the variety. Find out whether it likes sun or shade, what its root system is like, and whether or not it needs to be trellised (supported) while growing. You’ll be able to make the most of your space and avoid a lot of the mistakes first-time growers run into.
Beans, for example, come in bush and pole varieties. Bush beans support themselves, growing to a height of about one foot. Pole beans send out runners and will twine around anything they can grasp. Some pole beans are edible and ornamental, like the Scarlet Runner, which has showy red blooms. Bush beans need about seven inches of soil, which means they’ll grow well in medium sized containers. Pole beans need nine. And there are beans to eat fresh – like Kentucky Blue Lake – and beans meant to dry.
I don’t worry about keeping everything in my head. With the Internet at my fingertips, I pick out plant varieties that sound fun and then Google away until I know whether my space can support them. Even then, I vary my approach from year to year.
When I first started out, I tried to plant watermelons in mid-July. By the time the first frosts hit, the harvest was only golf-ball sized and all rind. Last year, I planted mizuna by accident and found my new favorite salad green.
This spring, I transplanted mint into pots in a shady corner, and they’re thriving and spreading. In one of my 4x4 beds, I’ve tried succession planting – starting new crops under the old. I planted peas, carrots, and radishes in March, and transplanted broccoli and seeded chard in April. In June, when the soil warmed and the broccoli was ready for harvest, I pulled up the remaining carrots and started watermelons. Now, the peas are dying back, the radishes are gone, the chard is ready for harvest, and I’m watching a watermelon vine work its way around the broccoli and towards the trellis that once supported peas.
Once the gardening bug bites, it bites hard. Getting started might sound overwhelming, but the truth is no gardener ever has a perfect year. I have yet to grow a healthy blueberry, and this year leaf miners destroyed my spinach.
To start, buy a bag of potting soil and a bag of compost, a packet of bean seeds, and a gallon-size pot with a drainage hole at the bottom. Mix together half compost and half soil, pour it into the pot, water lightly, toss in the seeds, and see what happens. Chances are, you’ll have a handful of fresh, hyper local food a few weeks down the road.