For thousands of years, mankind has worked the soil of this world to produce food. It’s the beautifully-designed cycle of decay to produce new life in which organic matter is broken down to release nutrients for sprouting vegetation. With the prevalent concrete jungle lifestyle in cities, it’s unfortunate that many people don’t experience the reality of our food’s origins first-hand. Urban gardens can help to change that by connecting people with the soil and the process of gardening.
What value do urban gardens provide? There are many metaphorical lessons we can learn, and even teach our children, by bringing gardens into urban environments.
- Teaching the virtues of patience and persistence.
- Providing an area to slow down, recharging, and relax from a busy lifestyle.
- Reminding us that some harvests fail, while others flourish.
- Recognizing the value and importance of soil (not dirt!)
- Connecting to and working the soil. It’s where we originated, and where our bodies will return.
- Enjoying the vegetation, shade, fruits, and beauty of natural life.
- Building confidence and reward through hard work.
- Establishing a connected community of volunteers and a shared space for everyone to enjoy.
Options for Gardening
Urban gardening doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking. It can range from an individual project on a small patio to a well-planned coordination of multiple members of the community working together. Here are a few varieties of urban gardening:
- Container gardening on a small patio or balcony.
- An indoor hydroponics or aquaponics garden.
- Turning your front lawn or backyard into a garden.
- Carpeting a city building rooftop with a lush green roof garden.
- Transforming an empty lot or donated space into a community garden.
- Creating an educational garden space at a school or learning facility.
- Adding value to a rehabilitation or homeless center through an urban garden.
- Changing sections of traditional city landscape into a wild escape through re-design.
Evaluating What Works for You
The most important part of starting an urban garden is careful planning.
What are your resources? Which type of garden and plant species is adequate for the space you’ll be using? Where will you get your water, soil, nutrients, sunlight, labor, etc? What’s the goal of your urban garden space?
Do you want to cultivate the soil long-term, or continuously supplement the nutrients throughout the season?
Is this going to be a shared community garden that will be divided up for several gardeners?
Community gardens can be more of a responsibility than first expected. It requires the commitment of all members to contribute from early-season preparation, frequent watering and upkeep, and cultivation.
If you’re reluctant to take on a community-based project or don’t have the resources, you may consider sprucing up your own residence with a small garden. You can enjoy the produce of your own personal garden, and might even inspire your neighbors to start their own. And if you’re producing fruits and vegetables, it’s a great opportunity to be neighborly and share your harvest with others.
You-Pick and Farms Open to the Public
Some farms are open to the public and offer a “You-Pick.” People can pay to go out into the field and pick their own selection of the produce. This is a popular option for public farms that offer a place for family activities and enjoying the experience of visiting a farm. Some cities have these types of farms on the outskirts or the urban areas for city visitors to make a day-trip out of it.
(Pictured Left) Raspberries have to be picked one-at-a-time and can be a time consuming process for farmers. Offering a You-Pick at a raspberry farm allows city folk to get the same experience of harvesting on a farm while picking out the most-ripe raspberries right off the bush.
Many farms that are open to the public will have Halloween attractions such as a “haunted corn maze,” or haunted hay-bail rides. Pumpkins and other fall-harvest produce can be purchased.
These types of public farms are a great resource for people who otherwise don’t have access to gardening. They’re great places to visit and enjoy the day with family and friends.
Apartment Life Gardening
If you live in an apartment or urban setting, you may be thinking that you have to give up any gardening dreams. However, there are still options for gardening:
- Container Gardening on a patio or balcony.
- Windowsill Herb gardening
- Indoor grow-light gardening.
Container gardening is ideal for a balcony or patio. You’d be amazed at what you can grow in containers! The basics are the same as soil growing. However, there are a few differences to keep in mind.
- Container gardening requires much more frequent watering, as the soil can dry out quickly. Mulching with newspaper can help retain moisture longer.
- You may need to supply continuous nutrients to the soil instead of cultivating an organic soil.
- The size of your container will determine which types of plants you can grow, as well as how large they will grow. For example, you’ll need a 3-gallon or larger container for tomatoes, but you can use a small container for basic kitchen herbs.
Indoor gardening is a great alternative for someone that has absolutely no growing space outdoors, or weather conditions that make gardening impossible.
You can grow in containers with soil, or use other growing mediums such as a hydroponic method in which no soil is used, and the nutrients are supplied through a water-nutrient solution.
Hydroponic solutions offer a way to grow your own vegetables during winter months indoors! (pictured left) Tomatoes are a great indoor garden choice.
Keep in mind that indoor gardening will present new challenges – climate control, heat and electricity usage, initial setup costs, and trial-and-error.
High Food Production, Low Budget: The Mittleider System
If you’re looking to grow a lot of dense food in a small area such as a small suburban backyard, I recommend using garden boxes combined with the Mittleider System. The Mittleider System was created by Dr. Jacob Mittleider, and its aim is to produce excellent results for vertical growing and a high yield of vegetables in a small area. It’s also a great system to try if you don’t have the best soil, or the time to build an organically-rich soil but still want to grow your own food. It doesn’t matter what soil you have because you create your own growing mixture and continuously feed the nutrients each week.
The Mittleider System works great in raised container beds. The beds are first mixed with a combination of a pre-plant fertilizer and a growing medium. The plants are fed weekly to keep the fertilizer and micronutrients readily available to them.
This system is revered as the best way for people to grow their own food on an economic budget, even if they don’t have ideal soil.
The Basic Needs of Plants
It’s important to understand the basic needs of plants before starting a gardening project. Plants need the following: Air, Water, Nutrients, and Sunlight.
Air: Plants need Carbon Dioxide to grow on the surface. It’s also important for the roots to be oxygenated in the soil. A soil that is too compact doesn’t allow enough pockets of air for the roots.
Nutrients: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium are the main nutrients, and different plants will use a different ratio of each. Plants may also use more nitrogen or more potassium at different stages of their growth, such as early growing vs. flowering and producing fruit.
Sunlight: Plants require natural sunlight, or artificial lights that can provide the same natural spectrum for growth.
Growing your own food provides many benefits. You have immediate access to fresh, flavorful, and fully-ripened foods. You save yourself trips to the grocery store. You have the variety and options of vegetables that you can’t find in stores. Plants produce great natural gifts to give to friends and neighbors, bartering produce, or just food for your home.
I encourage you to check out the resources below for helpful tips for starting your own gardening.
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