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How to Start Your Urban Garden

April 11, 2012

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Listen up, healthy-cooking city dwellers – if you want to get as close as possible to your food’s source, the farmer’s market isn’t your last stop.

Even if growing your own food in a world of concrete and brick seems like a pipe dream, with a little flexibility, you too can cultivate your own garden paradise right in your own one-bedroom sixth-story home. You even have at least one crucial advantage over traditional farmers: climate control!

Planting your own vegetables can be not only economical and rewarding, but also decorative, soothing, and healthier than buying conventionally grown produce.

Here’s how you can get started:

Begin with herbs. You don’t need to be an experienced gardener to grow fresh herbs in a window box. Parsley, mint, sage, thyme, oregano, and rosemary all require minimal maintenance, can flourish year-round indoors, and are far superior in taste to their dried, store-bought counterparts.

Assess your space. If you’re limited on space, you can grow a few sprouts, like alfalfa, lentils, or garbanzo beans, which can thrive in smaller pots. Try hanging pots by the windows for stemmy vegetables like tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers – the cascading plants will double as beautiful décor!

See the light. How much sunlight do you get? If it’s not much, don’t give up! Fall and winter produce will be your best bet. Lettuce, peas, spinach, kale, carrots, and potatoes can all get by with less sun, but expect the yield to take longer.

Think outside the pot. With a little pruning, vines like peas, beans, and squashes can all be trained to climb a trellis or a pole, which can be leaned against the inside of a sunny window if you don’t have a balcony or patio.

Compost. One man’s trash is another plant’s food, so instead of tossing apple cores, eggshells, and coffee grounds in the trash, make a compost! The Part-Time Farmer suggests poking holes in a dark coffee can and keeping it in the sun to break down your organic materials faster. You might even try tossing in a few earthworms to speed up the decomposition and reduce smell! Then just mix one part compost to six parts soil for a nutrient rich planting base.

Make friends. Certain plants will grow even better if they’re potted with a companion. Tomatoes thrive with basil while eggplants and peppers love onions. Do a little research first though; some vegetables are less amicable together. Check out more companion pairs here.

Go heirloom. Heirloom plants are varieties that are no longer used in modern large-scale agriculture, but have kept their traits through open pollination or careful human cultivation. Heirloom varieties are not only more unusual (you can enjoy "Jubilee" or "Big Rainbow" tomatoes instead of plain ol’ beefstock), but they are usually more flavorful and delicious than conventional seed varieties. Heirloom seeds can be ordered online from Gurneys.com, HomeHarvestSeeds.com, or you could try the Heirloom Tomato starter kit from IntheKoop.com.

Go big. Don’t think you can grow pumpkins or butternut squash because they’ll take up too much space? All it takes is a little pruning. Give the plant a place to climb and grow as big as you’ve got room to accommodate. Then as it flowers, prune it back to only allow a few buds to bear fruit. The plant will pour its energy into those few fruits, and you’ll get a small crop of squashes. The same goes for any other fruit-bearing plant.

For more tips on how to get your own urban garden blooming, check out these resources:

  • In the Koop, founded by IIN grad Laura Baldwin, which sells garden starter kits as well as offers tips on potting and growing.
  • The Part-Time Farmer by Brenna Ginger, where you can learn how to garden indoors and out.
  • Indoor Vegetable Gardening, which also offers tips, from basic to advanced, on your urban veggie patch!

Do you have an indoor garden? What do you grow, and do you have any other tips to share?