Urban gardening and even fully-fledged urban farming is becoming increasingly popular in major cities and the suburbs as more and more people realize that growing your own food is totally doable even in a small space. DIY urban gardening is very accessible and really doesn’t require a major investment, but it can be daunting as a beginning gardener. We’ve put together some useful gardening tips so that you’re ready to tackle that first foray into a gardening project. Whether you want to grow simple plants, herbs, veggies, tomato plants, or delicious leafy greens for a fresh salad, this guide will get you moving.
What Is Urban Gardening?
Urban gardening is growing plants in a small space without necessarily having a dedicated garden as your growing area. It’s possible to grow everything from flowers to food without having a garden or big field. Although the term is most closely associated with growing efforts in cities and suburbs, anyone looking to grow plants in and around the house can benefit from several of the techniques employed by the so-called “urban gardener.”
Be Efficient With Your Small Spaces
The key to urban garden success is maximizing the use of the limited space you’re working with. Some solutions include window boxes, hanging baskets, raised beds, small hydroponics systems, and vertical gardening. All of these items let you grow in non-traditional, adaptive ways to fit your lifestyle.
The single most important thing you can do is plan as much as possible in advance. Having a plan of action will better your chances of being successful at an earlier juncture. That’s not to say you won’t make mistakes or find unique ways to adapt to your personal gardening area along the way – that’s all part of the process – but feeling like you’re following a method will give you a purpose that will keep you going even if you don’t happen to see results right away.
What follows are our top tips for maximizing the effectiveness of your gardening even in a small space.
Consider The Space
When you get started with urban gardening, you’re not doing so because you have wide-open spaces for planting. You’ll have to figure out how big your growing space is and what the environment is. While being indoors may not offer as much natural sunlight, one advantage is that you can control the environment. On the other hand, a rooftop garden might allow you to get more natural sun while exposing your plants to the elements.
Growing in this type of space might seem limiting, but you can actually grow a variety of things, including flowers and your own food. Under the right conditions, you can even grow watermelon with a trellis and a 5-gallon bucket.
You’ll also have unique limitations to confront, whether you’re trying to fit the garden around your living space or sharing a space with many other people in community gardens, these limitations will inform any potential solutions you come up with.
Know What You Want To Plant
Although space is important, knowing what you want to plant should be a major concern. After all, it’s why you’re doing this. You can plant most things in a small space with the right amount of creativity and the right containers, but knowing what you want to plant in advance will give you a leg up on figuring out what you need and a plan for how to go about it.
One of the first things you’ll want to consider is what kind of containers you’ll need. If you’re starting with a plant you bought from a retailer, the container it comes in will likely work for a while, but you may need to transplant as it gets bigger. Terra-cotta can work well as can a variety of other containers. The real key is to make sure you have a hole in the pot for drainage. This helps guard against overwatering. Your water has a place to escape.
If you’re starting from seeds, you can start them in a variety of materials from trays to plastic bags to peat pots and egg cartons.
Soil Isn’t Always Best
The biggest thing you should know is that with plants, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The soil (or soil mix) can be very important and plants have unique requirements for the types of mix that works best. Furthermore, if you’re doing your gardening indoors, soil has drawbacks because you may not want fungi and bacteria in your house. Sometimes general-purpose potting soil and mixes specially formulated for cacti and other succulents are better at drainage, which can be particularly helpful if you have a tendency to overwater.
Cacti in particular will prefer a potting mix that contains things like pumice and perlite to regulate moisture.
Pay Attention To Timing
If you plan on keeping your plants indoors after growing them from seeds, it doesn’t really matter when you plant them because you’ll be able to control the environment in terms of temperature and light. On the other hand, if you plan on moving them outside, you should generally start your seeds up to six weeks before the move outside. With that said, every plant is going to germinate differently, so follow the directions that came with the seed packet. They should also tell you at what depth to plant your seeds.
Starting From Scraps
If you’re not into starting from seeds, not to worry. There’s no need to start from the ground up, even with fruits and vegetables. You can grow from scraps of food you already have. Don’t throw out those leftovers just yet.
Sometimes this is about removing the pit and at other times, it involves making just the right cut. Check out our article on growing from scraps for more.
Let There Be Light
All plants need light in order to grow, but much like everything we’ve mentioned so far in this article, every species has its own Goldilocks zone. You’ll need to tailor lighting to the plants. If you’re doing this indoors, it can be easier because you can really control how much light the plant gets with grow lights. LEDs are considered the gold standard for their energy efficiency as well as brightness and power.
When you look at grow lights, many are adjustable specifically between the blue and red spectrum. Blue light is about vegetation growth and greenery. On the other hand, red light is what tends to activate flowering and fruiting in plants. A mix of the two is best.
If you’re doing rooftop gardening, you’ll want to make sure that you get plants that are well adapted to your local climate so that you can make sure they are getting the appropriate amount of sunlight for the time of year.
If you’re going to put plants in the windowsill, remember that the most direct sunlight will come from a South or Westward-facing window. After all, the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. You just have to be sure not to give too much sun to a plant that prefers indirect light. You can scorch the leaves.
As with light, plants can’t survive without water, but some plants prefer more water than others. If you’re unsure how much to water your plant, a good rule of thumb among green thumbs is to stick your thumb in the soil. If your thumb is dry, you’ve got the thumbs-up to water, particularly during the growing season. (Okay, I’m done thumbing my way through this paragraph.)
During the winter when plants aren’t actively in the growing season, they’ll need less water, but follow the guidelines associated with your species. Succulents are among a class of plants that are hard to kill, but one way to sign a death sentence for any plant is to overwater. It can cause root rot, which may be fatal. This is why having a well-drained soil mix can be key.
Plant Food For Thought
You don’t have to feed all plants, but it’s the type of thing that can give growth a real boost. Like water, light and soil, the right food and when to feed it depends on the plant. Succulents have their own food as do more tropical plants. Plants can be as unique as snowflakes, however. For instance, holiday cacti like more magnesium. Therefore, you would give these an alternating regimen of fertilizer and Epsom salts during the growing season. Be sure to do your research.
It’s important to determine what your goals are with your plants. The reasoning for this is that depending on what you want to accomplish, temperature is incredibly important. Not only do plants tend to thrive in certain temperature zones, but slight variations in temperature can make a big difference. They may germinate at one temperature, have the best growth at another and flower or bear fruit at a third temperature. Indoors, you may be able to regulate this to create ideal conditions, provided you can bear whatever temperature the plant prefers. With outdoor growing, you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature, but you can give yourself the best chance to accomplish your desired results by picking plants that are suited for your climate zone.
Hydroponic Systems Can Make Things Easier
Hydroponic systems are great because all you need is a water source and some light. The light is often included, so it’s typically an all-in-one unit. The real advantage of these is they don’t use soil, and you can use things like clay pebbles or pallets, Rockwool, vermiculite, perlite or peat moss. These are self-contained, with the net serving as a pot so that the roots can extend through whatever medium you’re using for growth and reach the water.
Depending on the system you’re looking at, these can be pricey, so make sure to judge for yourself based on your plans and level of commitment.
Are you an urban gardening enthusiast with tips to share with our readers? Put them in the comments below!