GARDENING

City life doesn't preclude growing green things


Urban gardens are all about using small and unexpected spaces efficiently and creatively. (Courtesy of Scripps Howard News Service)

Published: Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 30, 2011 at 6:10 p.m.

When you hear the word "urban," you hardly expect it to be paired with "garden." Urban landscapes typically invoke images of cold, barren wastelands of glass and steel, and vacant lots filled with trash and weeds, right?

Not necessarily.

For the resourceful gardener, even the mean streets of the naked city hold the potential for growing an oasis of green. Whether you're trying to gain more control over the quality of your food, create a quiet, private haven in the concrete jungle or just have something alive around you, urban gardens are all about using small and unexpected spaces efficiently and creatively.

Here are some options:

Indoor gardening. You might not be able to raise a crop of zucchini, watermelons or corn, but any bright, unobstructed window that gets six to eight hours of sunlight a day can support leaf crops like lettuce, or arugula, and herbs like chives, basil, mints and rosemary. Just remember that every aspect of the indoor environment is artificial and controlled, so things like pollination, air circulation, ambient temperature and pest control must be controlled, too, by you.

Indoor plants also may need supplemental lighting. Cheap fluorescent shop lights work just as well as the expensive grow lights.

Container gardening. If you've got a bit of room outside, say a balcony, patio or small yard, most any container that will hold soil — wine barrels, leaky watering cans, buckets or even old shoes — can grow lots of different ornamentals and many edibles. Generally, carrots, radishes, lettuce and specially bred varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers and other small-space plants that mature and bear fruit early lend themselves to containers.

The amount of sunlight available determines what crops can be grown. Root and leaf crops can tolerate some shade, but fruiting plants need at five to six hours of full sun and do better with eight to 10 hours. Containers for edibles must be large enough to support the mature plant, hold sufficient soil and moisture to sustain it, and never have been used for products that would be toxic to humans.

Raised beds. These are more permanent than containers, but if you have the space they let you grow a lot more. They can be made from nontoxic wood like redwood or cedar, preserved wood treated with water-based compounds like alkaline copper quat (ACQ) or copper azole (CBA), or even pieces of broken concrete or cinder blocks lined with heavy plastic drop cloth or sheeting. Raised beds can even be placed on hard surfaces like rooftops and parking lots or on top of poor-quality soil.

Don't use regular garden soil in containers. You need a lightweight, soil-less potting mixture that's high in organic matter to hold moisture but porous enough to drain well. Commercial potting mixes work well but can be expensive. If you're going to be filling a lot of containers or making raised beds, consider mixing up your own soil mix from one part peat moss, one part garden loam, or well-composted organic matter, and one part vermiculite. Lime might be needed to bring the soil pH to around 6.5. A simple soil test kit will tell you what's needed.

Container and raised-bed gardens can dry out quickly, so pay close attention to watering. For gardens on an open, exposed area like a rooftop or patio, you may need to water several times a day, especially when direct-sown seeds are starting to germinate. Apply water until it runs out the drain holes, but be sure you've made provisions to guide the drainage water away to where it won't make a dangerous puddle or, worse, leak into a building. In a crowded or hard-to-reach area, a drip-irrigation system on an automatic timer will make it easier to keep your garden irrigated.

If you've used a commercial potting mix with fertilizer already added, your plants should have enough food for eight to 10 weeks of growth. After that, add a water-soluble fertilizer at the recommended rate once a week when you water. Measure carefully and don't use too much — container plants don't have the large amounts of soil around them to protect them from over fertilizing.

Joe Lamp'l, host of "GardenSMART" on PBS, is a Master Gardener and author. For more information, visit www.joegardener.com.

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