Growing Vegetables in a City Apartment
Urban Gardening Tips
If you live in an urban environment but crave fresh, organic vegetables or the beauty of colorful flowers, these urban gardening tips can help you grow great plants in pots, containers and other small spaces. Just because you live in a city or in an apartment doesn't mean your green thumb has to go to waste. Urban gardeners have discovered the fun of windowsill gardening, balcony or patio gardens, roof top gardens and reclaimed spaces in the neighborhood. Container gardening is the secret.
You can grow a wide variety of vegetables and even some small fruits, such as strawberries, in an urban garden. And while massive plantings of crops such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and corn are probably impossible, fresh vegetables such as lettuce, herbs, tomatoes and peppers are easy to grow in small spaces. The secret to growing great urban gardens is to work with the space, light and time you have available to grow a satisfying garden.
Gardening Basics for Urban Gardeners
Before discussing specific ideas for urban gardens, it's important to understand the basics of good gardening in general. Great gardeners don't possess any magical qualities that are special or different from you. What they've learned is to work with the environment at hand and to select plants that will thrive in that environment. Like people and animals, plants flourish when they're given what they need to survive and be happy.
What do plants need to be happy?
- Food (Light): Plants make food through a process called photosynthesis. Depending on where they evolved, each plants has its own light requirements. Light is divided into three categories by gardeners. Full sun is six or more hours of direct, bright and unfiltered light each day. Partial sun or partial shade is about three to six hours of sunlight. Shade refers to an area that receives dappled light or deep shade from another building or a big shade tree. Vegetables almost always require full sun, although a few can grow in partial sun. Flowers can thrive under any of the three conditions as long as you choose flowers suited to the light conditions that you have.
- Water: All living things need water, and plants are no exception. Some plants evolved to thrive with little water, like a cactus or a succulent. Others need abundant water to produce flowers and edible fruits. Most vegetable plants need to be watered daily in container gardens. Make sure that if you want to proceed with an urban garden you have a convenient water source nearby.
- Shelter (Habitat): Plants grow in soil, which provides both support for their roots as well as nourishment. Pots provide the place where soil is contained to grow plants. Any container will do for your urban garden, but it must have drainage holes cut into the bottom. Without drainage holes, water can collect inside the pot and actually rot or suffocate your plant.
Container Sizes for Urban Vegetable Gardens
If you want to grow vegetables for your urban garden, you'll need full sunlight on your patio, balcony or rooftop. Make sure you get permission from your building's owner or superintendent before placing containers on a rooftop. There may be zoning laws or restrictions that limit rooftop access.
Size requirements for container-grown vegetables are as follows:
- Tomatoes, eggplant, cantaloupe (midget varieties only): One gallon or larger containers. For tomatoes, a tomato cage helps support the plant.
- Peppers, carrots, lettuces, herbs: Quarter size or larger. Choose deep pots for carrots and root vegetables.
- Strawberries, herbs: These can be grown in window boxes or smaller containers. However, the smaller the container, the more frequently you'll need to water it, so take that into consideration before choosing your plants.
You can use a variety of recycled and repurposed materials for your container gardening projects. Make sure you clean each one thoroughly before using them. A solution of 10% bleach to water used to wash the container, followed by a rinse with cool water to remove the bleach, helps clean and disinfect all potential containers.
- Recycled gutters make great strawberry, lettuce and herb planters. Junkyards often have old gutters you can buy or take with permission. These can be used like window boxes or planted with strawberries, herbs and lettuce for a quick planter.
- Milk containers: Plastic gallon milk containers can be cleaned and cut in half, then planted with your favorite small vegetables.
- Old garbage cans: Cracks near the top can be cut off and the bottom of the can used to plant tomatoes, eggplant and larger vegetables.
Vegetables for Urban Gardens
Nantes "half long"
Dwarf and miniature varieties
Basil, chives, parsley, rosemary
"Minnesota Midget" cantaloupe
Cherry types; "Early Girl" large slicing
Urban Gardening Tips
- Choose large containers whenever possible.
- Make sure your containers have drainage holes.
- Make sure you have an easily accessed water source nearby.
- Look for vegetables marked "bush", "midget" or "dwarf" for containers.
- Full sun is always best for growing vegetables.
- Window sill gardens can be used to grow herbs and lettuce indoors.
- Purchase sterile, bagged, all purpose potting soil for vegetables.
- Fertilize every two weeks or according to package directions with a granular or liquid vegetable fertilizer.
Indoor Windowsill Gardens
What if you don't have a patio or balcony to grow vegetables? A sunny windowsill is a great alternative for growing a few vegetables indoors. Sure, you can't grow big stuff like tomatoes, but work with what you have at hand, and grow what you can.
- Herbs: Some herbs stay small and do well on a sunny windowsill. Try growing basil, rosemary, chives, or parsley in a windowsill garden.
- Lettuce: Small, gourmet varieties make a tasty treat. They can be grown in pots on a windowsill. Just snip off the leaves and leave the main plant to produce more leaves for your salads.
- Radishes: You can grow radishes in pots on your windowsill, too!
Urban Gardening Tips: Growing Flowers
Flowers brighten any urban environment. You can grow house plants, such as African violets or orchids, or plant containers with bright petunias, geraniums and other easy-to-grow flowers.
- Indoor gardens only: Grow flowering house plants. Orchids are surprisingly easy to grow in urban environments and also clean the indoor air. African violets offer an easy-case, colorful plant that thrives in bright, indirect light, so if you only have an Eastern or Western window, you can grow violets. Other flowering house plants to brighten your home include holiday cacti and bulbs such as amaryllis, daffodils and jonquils, which can be grown in the fall and winter, and scented plants such as freesia and jasmine.
- Outdoor patio and balcony gardens: Plant a butterfly garden in a pot with lantana and petunias. Geraniums can tolerate partial shade. Impatiens are an old standby for full shade, but they offer bright, colorful flowers outdoors until the first frost.
Community Food Gardens
Lastly, community food gardens are popping up throughout major cities such as New York City. These gardens use reclaimed space such as empty lots and alleyways to grow food for the community. People take turns planting and tending to the gardens in return for a portion of the harvest. GreenThumb is the organization in Manhattan that grants permits and offers information for those interested in starting community food gardens.
Other locations offer community garden plots in shared spaces. These may be in the quadrangle or lawn area of an apartment building, where raised beds are built and offered for a modest rental fee. If you really want to get your hands dirty gardening and enjoy urban gardening, renting a larger plot may satisfy your urge to grow wonderful fruits and vegetables.
© 2014 Jeanne Grunert