Urban Gardening 101: Everything You Need to Know
Quick Key Facts
- Property values around community gardens can increase by as much as 9.4 percent.
- Community gardens can reduce household concerns over food security by as much as 90 percent.
- Those who grow food in community gardens eat 37.5 percent more fruits and vegetables than those who don’t.
- About $6 of produce comes from each dollar invested in a community garden.
- The 100 biggest cities in the U.S. contain more than 29,000 community gardens.
- Most produce from an urban farm will travel less than one percent of the more than 1,500 miles that the average item of produce that is conventionally grown travels from farm to table, and to transport the conventionally-grown produce can result in 1,700 percent more carbon dioxide emissions.
- According to green roof studies, about 10.76 square feet of an urban rooftop farm can offset the yearly carbon emissions of one car.
- Urban farming has been found to increase owner occupancy and socioeconomic diversity within a third-of-a-mile radius.
What is ‘Urban Gardening’?
Urban gardening refers to growing food in a heavily populated place like a town or a city. It doesn’t require a huge amount of land or space, just some determination and creativity. Urban gardens come in all shapes and sizes — from vertical green walls to gardens cultivated exclusively in pots. There are backyard gardens and gardens grown in shipping containers. You can do it on your own, or partner with friends and neighbors to start a community garden.
Why is Urban Gardening Important?
Urban gardening allows people to enjoy the many benefits a garden has to offer while living in the city. It allows them to pursue their love of gardening even if they can’t afford to own a piece of land or move to a rural area because of work, finances or family. In an urban garden, people can grow organic, sustainable produce that couldn’t get more local than their own backyard or community garden space. These are all things that are important for people’s well-being, as well as the health of the community and the planet, since gardening offers emotional, social and environmental rewards, from stress reduction to improving social connections and lowering carbon emissions.
Since urban gardens come in so many forms for all sizes and types of spaces, you can turn practically any urban setting into a garden oasis. Your urban garden can offer benefits for your health and grocery bill while improving soil and water quality. It can have a positive impact on the climate by helping to draw down and store carbon while providing habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. It can improve local biodiversity and help you connect with neighbors and the wider community. After all, what better gift is there than a ripe, juicy strawberry or a fresh, hand-picked salad?
Types of Urban Gardens
While space on the ground — whether it be green or concrete-covered — may be limited in the city, there is often an untapped expanse far above the noise and clutter, just beneath the clouds. A sturdy rooftop can be the perfect place to create your own secret garden. You can plant using raised beds, build a greenhouse or even raise chickens, as long as the building owner and local laws approve.
There are three Ws to consider after you have permission to use the rooftop where you live to create your own garden space: weight, wind and water.
Weight: Is there enough support for all the materials, equipment and dirt you’ll be using to create your rooftop oasis?
Wind: Your rooftop garden will be windier than one planted at ground level, so it will be important to include windbreaks like lattice fencing or a trellis to disrupt — but not completely stop — windflow. Walls won’t be as effective because they are more likely to be blown over.
Water: Consider how you will transport water to your garden. Your plants will be exposed to the elements and will need to be watered often, especially when it’s hot. Water collection and storage is one option. Cisterns or other types of water storage systems can be used to collect rainwater. Self-watering gardens are also a possibility and operate using a reservoir underneath the soil that you fill periodically and that wicks up when a plant needs water.
With some planning and ingenuity, you’ll soon be watching plants poke through the soil in your hidden sanctuary under the stars!
Vertical gardens are made up of layers of plants stacked on shelves or pallets that have been modified and set against walls or fences and they can vastly increase the amount of space available for growing food.
Vertical gardens can be hydrated the traditional way, by watering the soil of plants growing in pots or planters, or by using hydroponics — a method of growing plants using a water-based solution fortified with nutrients instead of soil. Organic matter like manure can be used as fertilizer in hydroponic systems. You can either immerse the plants in the nutrient-rich solution or wash it over the roots. To provide more support for your plants in the absence of soil, perlite — a form of obsidian — pea gravel, sawdust, peat moss, sand, coconut fiber, vermiculite or other materials may be used.
Hydroponic systems save water by reusing it. While traditional gardens use about 106 gallons of water to grow 2.2 pounds of tomatoes, hydroponic gardens can get by with about 18.5 gallons to grow the same amount. Hydroponics can be useful for growing plants in harsh conditions or for people who don’t have access to outdoor spaces and prefer not to garden with soil indoors.
Vertical gardens can be great for apartments or small garden spaces or to maximize the amount of growing space in any area.
Microgreens are mini vegetable sprouts that only take up a fraction of the space of traditional plants. Harvested after only about seven to 14 days, they can be a nice option for an apartment or other smaller living area. Just think, you can have your entire microgreen garden on a windowsill.
Most vegetables can be grown as microgreens, and they often have a more potent flavor than the adult plant. Some of the best choices are radish, arugula, watercress, cabbage, pea shoots, sunflower, onion, broccoli and salad microgreens. A carrot microgreen tastes like a carrot, while a beet microgreen tastes more earthy than its larger version.
These delicate yet flavorful little plants pack a punch when it comes to vitamins. Research suggests that they can contain as much as 40 percent more bioactive nutrients, called phytochemicals, than their full-size counterparts. This is because the nutrients are concentrated into a smaller vessel.
Microgreens can make a nice addition to smoothies or salads and can enhance the aesthetic, not to mention the nutritiousness, of any dish.
Growing Plants in Pots
Growing vegetables, herbs and other food in pots can be good for a small space, as plant pots are not only compact but can be moved into areas of sunlight or rain. They can also be brought inside to avoid the cold or animals who might like to sample your fresh produce. Pots can be placed on your patio, balcony, deck or in a window box.
When choosing the size of a pot, it is best to go with as large a size as your space will accommodate. This is because the smaller the pot, the faster it will dry out and require watering.
Of course, if you’re going to be moving the plant, you’ll also want to consider its weight after planting and watering when selecting the pot’s size.
When considering the depth of the pot, keep in mind the root systems of particular plants; some root systems are deeper than others and need more space.
For placement of your plant pots, sunlight is an important consideration, as most vegetables need a minimum of six hours of sunlight per day. Herbs and salad greens don’t need quite as much, while beans, tomatoes and peppers are some of the vegetables that will soak up as much sun as they can get. Consider placing your pots on a planter caddy so they can be moved as the sun’s angle changes with the time of year.
Placing plants near each other raises the humidity level, which increases plants’ productivity.
When choosing potting mix or soil for your plants, stick with a “soilless” variety that keeps in moisture and remains loose. It is important to add organic fertilizer, and you may also want to add some compost. Fertilizer is especially important for pots or planters that house multiple plants, all of which need regular nutrients to produce hearty and healthy fruit.
Seaweed makes a great natural fertilizer for your garden — whether your plants are grown in pots, other types of containers or outdoors — that you can harvest from the beach yourself, rinse and dry in the sun. After it’s dried, mix the seaweed with other organic material like leaves and vegetable scraps in the compost bin and apply it to your garden. Seaweed fertilizers can also be purchased in liquid or powder form.
Watering vegetables regularly is important but it also washes away some of the soil’s nutrients each time, which is one of the reasons why fertilizer is so important for potted vegetables. You may want to consider using a self-watering planter that only requires that you keep the reservoir full so that the plant can absorb the moisture it needs and supplement with weekly dashes of water-soluble fertilizer.
Shipping Container Gardens
A type of garden space that has grown in popularity, shipping containers can work well if you live in a harsh climate or one with lots of garden-eating species and want to create a stable environment for your plants.
Shipping container gardens can be placed in any unused area and fitted with everything from a climate control system to shelves and lighting to create a specialized microenvironment for your plants that can be quite bountiful.
Plants that are frequently grown in shipping container gardens include microgreens, leafy greens and mushrooms.
The most important consideration for starting a backyard garden is location. You will want to plant in an area that gets a minimum of six hours of sunlight per day and that is moist and gets adequate drainage. If the soil in your backyard doesn’t drain well or is too rocky, you might want to consider using a raised garden bed. You’ll want to make sure your soil is nutrient-dense by mixing in high-quality organic matter to feed your plants.
If you’ve never had a backyard garden before, you might want to start small. That way, you can make sure all your plants get all the space, water and weeding they need. Once your garden begins to flourish, you can add a larger volume or variety of plants.
It’s best to plant your veggies and herbs close to where you’ll be tending them, so that you can access them easily. Make sure to build in paths between your rows. A garden with about a dozen rows that are ten feet in length is a good size, but you can plant less rows or make them shorter, depending on available space. In order to get optimum sunlight, plant your rows running from north to south.
A 10-by-10-foot garden is a good size to start with. For this size garden, choose three to five different types of vegetables, with three to five plants of each variety.
For a raised bed, four-by-four feet or four-by-eight feet is a good size for a beginner.
What to plant is the fun and exciting part. First and foremost, you’ll want to choose vegetables that you and those in your household love and find yourselves eating time and time again. In addition to your tastes, you’ll want to consider the climate where you live. Vegetables like beans, peppers and sweet potatoes grow better in hot climates, while beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, onions and carrots grow well in cooler climes. It is also important to buy high-quality seeds.
Since large plants with bigger leaves can block sunlight from getting to smaller plants, plant tall plants on the garden’s north side. Place smaller vegetables and those that grow better in cooler weather in shadier areas. It’s also a good idea to note which of your garden plants are perennials — those that live more than two years, regrowing in the spring — and those which are annuals and complete their life cycle in one growing season.
Another way to transform unused space in your urban environment into a bountiful garden is by starting or joining a community garden. These shared garden spaces can be a healthy and environmentally friendly way to connect with others in your community who share your passion for fresh, healthy food.
Community gardens are founded by groups of people with the desire to create a productive garden space where the maintenance and bounty are shared. They can be started by those affiliated with certain clubs, religious organizations or businesses; apartments; senior groups; or can just be the coming together of hearts and minds around the shared purpose of growing nutritious food and helping to improve the environment.
Community gardens can be divided into plots for individuals or families. Consider adding rows, garden beds or planting boxes specifically reserved for growing food for local food pantries or soup kitchens.
You can also designate beds for specific dishes, like salads or pizzas — then, when the ingredients are ripe, host a community potluck featuring dishes made from the produce.
Community gardens can be placed on private or public land, but public spaces near where the gardeners live can be the best choice in terms of long-term security. It’s a good idea to get permission to use the land for a minimum of five years initially. Good options can include utility easements on land that is part of a park, school or church.
To manage the garden, it’s a good idea to form a board, and a site coordinator can be appointed for larger plots.
Costs can be kept down if you’re creative. Fundraising for tools, seeds, fertilizer and other necessities can be fun. Soil building with compost and building your own plant beds can save money, as can donations of materials.
Once you have everything ready to go, it should take about six hours to plant your garden. Planting can occur multiple times a year with season-appropriate crops.
After your seeds are planted and the plants start to poke through the soil, the garden beds will require about an hour of weekly maintenance. At harvest time, another hour a week will need to be spent gathering your garden-fresh food to share with friends and neighbors.
Adding extra details to your community garden, like a birdbath, benches and even picnic tables, can turn it into a focal point for the community. Solar-powered water fountains are an aesthetically pleasing option, with the added benefit of the relaxing sound of flowing water.
Community fruit trees are a nice way to share the bounty and encourage others to visit your garden. Many fruit trees produce too much for one household to consume in a season, so sharing not only builds community, but reduces waste.
Types of Plants That Work Best in an Urban Garden
Many types of vegetables can thrive in an urban garden, but some that grow best in containers include lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, summer squash, chard, eggplant, peppers, pole beans, Asian greens and herbs.
To grow healthy plants, make sure your pots or planters can accommodate these minimum soil depths:
- For lettuce, chives, basil, radishes, other salad greens and cilantro: four to five inches.
- For garlic, onions, bush beans, Asian greens, peas, kohlrabi, thyme and mint: six to seven inches.
- For carrots, pole beans, cucumber, chard, leeks, eggplant, fennel, spinach, peppers, rosemary and parsley: eight to nine inches.
- For broccoli, potatoes, okra, beets, summer squash, sweet corn, lemongrass and dill: 10 to 12 inches.
If you’re using a self-watering planter, less depth will be needed.
When multiple plants share one pot or planter, some are more compatible than others. It’s important that the vegetable and herb companions have comparable fertilizer and water requirements. In addition to pairing plants based on their water and fertilizer needs, the most can be made of smaller spaces by putting plants that grow upright with those that trail.
Certain plants don’t grow well with others, for instance when they require the same nutrients. Examples include dill, carrots and fennel, which are in the same family.
Examples of plants that make good pot mates include:
- Onions, basil and tomatoes
- Carrots, beans and squash
- Chard, spinach and onions
- Herbs and lettuce
- Beans and eggplant
Examples of plants that don’t work as well together include:
- Onions, peas and beans
- Dill, carrots and fennel
- Onions, garlic and beans
- Potatoes, squash and tomatoes
Challenges of Urban Gardening
Urban gardening can present some challenges, but they can be mitigated or eliminated with a bit of imagination and resourcefulness, and the benefits of having your own oasis in the city far outweigh the difficulties.
One of the most common challenges of urban gardening can be the insects, birds, rodents and other wildlife who would like to share the delicious fruits of your garden.
To keep insects away naturally, a handcrafted garlic spray applied to plants can do the trick. To make the spray, purée two whole garlic bulbs with a dash of water and leave it overnight. In a quart jar, strain the garlic mixture and add a teaspoonful of gentle liquid soap, then fill up the rest of the jar with water. When you’re ready to use the spray, mix one cup of the insect repellent with another quart of water in a spray bottle and apply it to plants as needed.
Another option is chili pepper spray, which can also be used to repel an array of different insects. The recipe for this natural insecticide is to mix one tablespoon of chili powder or a half cup of blended fresh chili peppers with several drops of mild soap in a quart of water. If you’re using fresh peppers, boil them with a quart of water, cool and strain before adding the soap. Apply the mixture to the leaves of plants as needed.
Certain plants growing around your garden can also help keep away insects, and even rodents. Not only is lavender one of the most lovely smelling and visually appealing flowering plants, this perennial is also known to repel most rodents and insects. Lavender doesn’t need to be watered often, so watch out for yellowing leaves, as they are a sign of overwatering. This Mediterranean native can also be dried and made into sachets or hung around your living space. As a bonus, lavender oil is known to be calming.
Other plants that are known to repel insects are marigolds, lemongrass, Chrysanthemums and citronella grass.
For deer, Rutgers University has compiled a surprisingly long list of plants that even these graceful gourmands of the forest aren’t fond of, including American holly, cacti, lemon balm, mint, rosemary and yucca.
Contaminated Soil and Soil Erosion
Other difficulties that can come up when creating and maintaining an urban garden include contaminated soils and soil erosion.
Lead is the most common contaminant in urban soil. While most vegetable plants have low lead uptake, ingestion of garden soil is a bigger risk to humans. If it’s possible the soil in the area where you’d like to plant might be contaminated with lead — which a good deal of urban soil is — your best bet is to use raised beds or containers for planting. Soils used to grow edible plants need to be tested for lead and all garden vegetables washed thoroughly before eating.
The best type of wood to use for raised beds is cedar or redwood, as they are naturally resistant to rot and pests, so they will last longer. Make sure to avoid reclaimed wood like old railroad ties, shipping pallets or pressure-treated wood because they may contain harmful chemicals that can leach into the soil and, hence, your food.
Choosing a wood that has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council ensures that the forestry practices where the wood was sourced adhere to stringent socio-economic and environmental standards.
The best way to prevent soil erosion is to keep plants in the soil, as their roots will anchor them in place. Bare soil is susceptible to erosion by rain and wind. Placing mulch around the base of your plants will help control erosion, slow runoff, maintain soil moisture and temperature and protect the soil from too much rain. It’s not a good idea to mix the mulch with the soil, as it will disturb the natural balance of nutrients. Leaves, tree bark, moss, wood chips, pine straw, compost, manure, grass clippings and newspaper are all materials that can be used as mulch. Mulch can also be useful to place between garden rows to prevent weeds.
In areas where vegetation is harder to maintain — such as footpaths — stones, wood chips or other materials can be used to prevent erosion.
While uninvited harvesting of the vegetables, herbs, fruits and berries you’ve worked so hard to grow can sometimes be an issue with community gardens, there are ways to help minimize it.
One of the most effective ways to deter people from helping themselves to your personal or community garden is to put up signs letting them know who the garden is being tended by and for whom the produce is intended. In a community garden, signs can also let neighbors know when the garden is open to the public and how to get involved.
Another strategy for protecting your garden from uninvited picking is to create designated plant beds near the entrance for the community to help themselves. Posting clear signs indicating that anyone is welcome to share the food from this area may take away the temptation to harvest from other parts of the garden. You may also consider planting edibles that are easy to pick and eat, like smaller tomato varieties, herbs and lettuce.
Holding an open time for neighbors to come enjoy the garden together, hosting a community gathering where everyone brings dishes made with ingredients from the garden or scheduling group workdays will create an environment of inclusion that can help people feel welcome and encourage them to join in and be responsible for the shared space.
Keeping your garden neat and clean can help deter uninvited harvesting as well. A well-kept garden shows the community and passers-by that someone cares, which makes it less likely they will help themselves to your crops without permission.
Benefits of Urban Gardening
It is incredible just how many rewards come from planting tiny seeds or sprouts in the soil.
Fresh, Organic Food
The biggest benefit to urban gardening is the fresh food it provides. Growing your own food ensures that the fruits and vegetables you and your friends, neighbors and family share aren’t covered in synthetic pesticides that pollute the air, soil and water, as well as harm non-targeted plants and wildlife.
Creation of Habitat
Gardens aren’t only places where food grows, they’re habitats for many species — from insects and birds to essential pollinators — who need every square foot of greenspace they can get. Gardens provide a haven for humans and animals in a world of concrete, glass and steel.
Welcoming certain insects and arachnids to share your garden — like ladybugs, praying mantids and spiders — can actually be beneficial to nurturing the overall balance of your garden habitat.
Mental Health Benefits
A greener neighborhood is a healthier neighborhood, and the greenery created by urban gardens provides solace to city-dwellers. When we see plants growing in the otherwise unnatural urban setting of lampposts, cars and structures, it reminds us that all living creatures need growing things to provide food, habitat and the air we breathe.
Studies have shown that exposure to green spaces can promote feelings of wellbeing that can reduce anxiety and depression. Focusing on the small details of gardening and being outside connecting with plants and nature can make us feel more content and at peace. A bacteria found in soil has also been shown to stimulate certain areas of the brain and increase the production of serotonin.
Promotion of Regenerative Practices
Regenerative gardening is a way to manage your garden that nourishes the soil rather than adding synthetic fertilizers that can disrupt its natural balance. Plants and soil have a symbiotic relationship — soil provides stability and nutrients for the plant, and, when the plant dies, its roots, stems and leaves become natural fertilizer for other plants. You can help promote regenerative practices by sharing the methods you’re using with friends and neighbors.
Reduction of Your Carbon Footprint
Growing your own vegetables, fruits, berries and anything else you’d like to plant not only reduces the cost of your own transportation to and from the store, but the cost and additional greenhouse gas emissions of transporting produce from a farm.
What Can We Do to Support Urban Gardening?
As a Society?
Tax incentives are a way society can show its support for community gardening. In some areas, owners of vacant property can receive a tax deduction when they use their land to grow food in an urban farm or community garden. In order to receive the tax break, the owner can either grow their own food or lease the land to others in the community.
Checking to see if your community offers these tax incentives — and, if not, lobbying for them — is a way to help make the creation of nourishing green spaces more accessible.
In order to connect more urban gardeners with possible locations and funding opportunities for community gardens, it can help to know what the overall metropolitan agricultural landscape looks like. Creating a database for agricultural activities in your urban area can help with this.
In Our Own Lives?
Taking the time and care to plant your own garden can encourage your neighbors and others in your community to follow suit. The more plants and flowers growing in your urban area, the more attractive it will be to birds and pollinators, increasing the connection between the metropolitan and rural landscapes.
A great way for individuals to provide support for urban gardening is through helping with educational opportunities at their neighborhood community garden. Community gardens are an optimal place to set up raised beds specifically to teach others about planting, fertilizers, soil, insects and other aspects of urban gardening.
The more the community cares about gardening, the more urban gardens will become the norm. Make sure to reach out to elders in the community, as they may be looking for chances to become more involved.
For nature lovers, living in an urban setting may feel like living apart from the natural world, which is why weaving natural oases — like parks, natural bridges, wildlife corridors and urban gardens — into the urban landscape is essential.
As the climate crisis continues to bring more heat waves and drought, threatening the amount of arable land on the planet, urban agriculture, including gardening and farming, will become increasingly important. Urban gardens not only provide food free of pesticides and genetic modification, they decrease our carbon footprints while increasing wildlife and pollinator habitat, community, food security and overall well-being.
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