By Emma Wartzman. Photos by: Emma Wartzman and courtesy of City Growers.
This story is part of our Guide to Modern Homesteading. Read the other stories in the series here.
The first time I had my own garden, it wasn’t really my own.
I was in college in Southern California, and my friend and I tended to a small plot on a communal farm as part of our environmental studies class. The sun was always shining, teachers were nearby to answer all our questions, and the soil was so fertile that it made even a novice like me look good: It’s no surprise that I fell in love with growing my own food.
Two years later, I moved to Brooklyn. Here, the sun didn’t shine quite so much. The soil wasn’t quite as rich. And there were no experts around to hold my hand.
Still, in an effort to bring a little bit of nature to the city, I decided to build a garden.
That first summer, my apartment-mates and I constructed an 8-by-4-foot raised bed to put on the one patch of soil in the front of our home. We then spent the next five months planting, watering, clipping, harvesting and otherwise managing our abundance of vegetables and herbs—kale, chard, green onions, green beans, cucumbers, parsley, tomatoes, and more.
It was a lot of work, but it didn’t feel like work. It was not uncommon to find me outside on a weeknight at 8 p.m., the sky still light, glass of wine in one hand, hose in the other. I’d do more intense maintenance on the weekends—trimming the tops of leeks, pulling weeds, building a trellis so that the cucumber vines, with a mind of their own, could wrap their tendrils around something other than the nearby eggplant. Somehow, when I was gardening, the traffic on my street and the heat reflecting off of the concrete were muted by the green. The scent of basil, it turns out, is more powerful than car fumes.
That summer and the next, my garden was the base of all my meals, supplemented with staples like eggs, bread, meat, and fish. After I picked whatever was ripe, I went to my kitchen and took it from there.
Especially in cities, not everyone has the space to build a bed or the time to cultivate what’s in it. But there are other ways to grow your own food in an urban area. Though we’d never tell you to put pots on your fire escape (those are for firemen, you know), you can certainly use a balcony, patio, or communal roof. Or if you have no outdoor space at all, inside is a completely viable option if you choose the right plants.
I asked two urban gardening professionals, Mallory Sustick from City Growers and Annie Novak from Eagle Street Farm, for tips on growing your own food no matter the size of your space and the green-ness of your thumb.
Think beyond tomatoes
“Do you want to eat something that saves you money? Do you want something you only have access to if you grow it yourself? A lot of people go straight for tomatoes,” says Novak, “but truth is they’re difficult and you can buy them anyway. What about more obscure herbs, like shiso, anise, papalo, and fresh coriander seeds?”
There's no shame in a start
There are certainly more seed varieties to choose from (have you ever looked at an online seed catalog?), but the ones you can’t sow directly into the ground (like carrots, or beets, or radishes) almost always require a grow light, plus a fairly involved process called “hardening off” in order to make the transition to the harsher elements of the great outdoors. There’s no shame in buying plants that have already been started on their way.
Microgreens are mighty
Not only do you have to figure out how much room you have to grow things, but also how much sun your garden gets. Certain plants require a lot of light, like tomatoes, pepper, and squash (basically most fruit-bearing plants). But you can still get something edible in partial shade. In that case you want to think about the leafy stuff, like lettuce, herbs, beets, radishes, and nasturtium. If you want to grow broccoli or kale but can’t manage, try baby broccoli or baby kale. “For indoors, microgreens are especially great,” says Susick. “You’re only growing the very beginning of a plant, so there’s a smaller window of time in which you can mess it up. They don’t take up a ton of space but produce high yields. They’re the easiest to sustain and so rewarding.”
Get the dirt
If you lay a strong foundation, your plants are much more likely to flourish. Novak says peat moss and compost mixed in will bring a wide variety of nutrients. If you’re planting in a closed container, no matter the size, you want potting soil mixed with those things, too. (McEnroe and Farfard are solid brands to look out for.) And skip the non-organic brands. “They’re not as healthy for the plants, or for you,” says Novak. Putting mulch on top is helpful, as well, because it retains moisture (read: less watering) and keeps weeds at bay. When in doubt, go to your local nursery (they’re everywhere) and talk to the people who work there. They’re super knowledgeable and eager to give advice for your particular situation.
Follow the pros
For the crowd-sourced stuff, we love Urban Gardeners Republic. For the crazy varieties, we look to Blue Hill farmer Jason Grauer. For staged photos of a dude with plants that are really nice-looking, but also good advice and discussion, try Kyle Hagerty aka @urbanfarmstead. And for inspiration to cook with what you grow, Andrea Bemis is our absolute favorite.
Above all, remember that gardening is seasonal. “There is this forgiveness built into the agricultural cycle,” Novak says. “If you mess up one year, you get to start again the next year.”
This story originally appeared on Bon Appetit.
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