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Photo: lasard

A nice patio container garden can really take the cold edge off living in an often-impersonal concrete jungle.

While convenient, urban living is getting more expensive, and, as food prices around the world escalate, it’s easy to cut back on groceries to keep a budget reined in, but there’s a tasty compromise a lot of city-dwellers don’t consider: an urban garden, or kitchen garden.

With my itty-bitty 30-square-foot balcony and a writer’s budget, it’s in summertime that I embrace gourmet and healthy cooking by growing fresh herbs I find pricey to buy over the winter, but are cheap and easy to grow.

At a good gardening center, one can score 10 to 15 established herbs for $25. Throw in some soil and some recycled pots and containers, and a budget garden with lots of pickings can cost as little as $50.

A kitchen garden is a dollar-wise tasty past-time that delivers flavorful rewards for months. We’ll talk about the herbs themselves next time, but there’s plenty talk about today. Here are things to keep in mind as you start yours.

A nurturing environment of like-minded friends

There’s no sense planting a garden if you don’t have a plan for watering them. Apartments make this trickier. Most apartment-dwellers have to lug giant buckets of water from the bathtub. Been there — lift with the legs. Once you’ve got this figured out, you can get to the nitty-gritty.

When it comes to watering and light, think of your plants like they’re people. Not everyone eats or drinks the same amount. You’ll need more than one container so you can group plants according to their feeding and light needs. Most plants will be sold with a label telling you what your specific variety needs.

Some growers organize plant groupings methodically, claiming certain plants grow better together, but that’s for a more savvy gardener than either you or I need to be. Success can be had without complicating it.

Getting dirty: soil, and your urban garden

There are soil-less methods of growing, but that’s a different topic altogether. Here, we’re talkin’ soil.

Container gardening is different than planting in regular earth, and fertilizing as you container-plant is often a big no-no. Most potting soils come enriched, so that job’s been done for you.

Simply put, too much is too much. When over-fertilized, plants can die. I’ve mistakenly put fertilizer pellets into potting soil and found it stunted growth. I’ve never done it since. Instead, let the herbs establish and use a liquid plant food in your water once in a while.

Quality soil is a great investment worth making, and using “container” or “potting” soil might ensure a great harvest.

Sow your urban garden seeds, or adopt?

You could try to start herbs from seeds, but that’s considerably trickier, and it’s unnecessary for busy folk who simply want the experience of having a garden. Buying established plants costs more, but is way easier, and increases the chance of success. An afternoon of planting, and within a couple weeks you’ll be eating your own herbs.

Incoming! it’s not IF you get bugs, it’s WHEN

Just because you’re planting an urban garden on a 17th-floor balcony in a high-density downtown neighborhood doesn’t mean the bugs won’t find ya. They’ll be there in no time, friend. Keep an eye out for aphids and others pesky vistors. Always having an organic pesticide handy, or a classic soapy-water spraybottle, will help fend off invaders in a timely manner. As Harry Potter’s “Dark Arts” professor cautions: “Constant vigilance!” After all, having a day or two to get established is a lifetime in the bug kingdom.

Taking root: choosing containers

Photo: Susan Reimer

There are lots of options for where to plant, from planter boxes to hanging baskets. If you’re on a budget, thrift stores often carry containers of all kinds. Think outside the box! Pun intended.

If you’re quirky and creative, a “container” for gardening has no boundaries other than it needs to hold soil and have more than four inches for roots to grow. Want to plant some parsley in old workboots? Sure! An old watering tin? Sure! A cracked-enamel old Dutch oven for a mixed bed of herbs? Why the heck not?

I personally like the long planter boxes that have easy attaching devices, since I can’t build onto my deck, and have re-used these for 10+ years, so the initial investment has long since been worth it.

Low-maintenance and fancy: modern urban gardening solutions

There are some pretty fancy new planter systems on the market — built-in drainage, self-watering mechanisms, whatever. It means a lot of choice for a well-monied consumer. Are these fancier systems worth it? Maybe. Are they needed? Nah.

Nature does just fine with some soil, rocks, and water. Man comes along with fancy planters and convoluted systems, and we like to think we do it better than nature. But keeping it simple works. If you can afford fancy systems that may give you an edge, why not? If you can’t, don’t sweat it, because plants do thrive in an old boot or broken ceramic pot.

To be a successful patio gardener, it’s simple: check on your little army of plants every couple days, water according to your climate’s requirements (for me: once a week in spring, daily in August), make sure there’s daylight, pay attention to detail (ie: look for bugs), and have some patience.

That’s it.

Next time, I’ll take a look at great herbs to plant, and how to use them.

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Steffani Cameron

Steffani Cameron is a Victoria BC-based writer on a variety of topics. Here on the BuildDirect blog, she specializes in writing about smaller, urban spaces. How do you make the most of your smaller space? How do you decorate it to suit you? And how do you wage the war against clutter and win? This is Steff’s specialty.