If you live in an apartment or other area without access to outdoor living space, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the benefits of growing your own plants. Even someone who isn’t an expert gardener can easily start a container or hanging garden on their balcony. To learn how to maximize your garden area in a small space, just follow the steps in our urban gardening guide.
Organic Gardening in the City
Modern gardening trends favor people who want to have a healthier, greener lifestyle without spending a fortune. Small space gardening is an option if you don’t have access to a backyard or communal property where you live.
You can take this idea one step further and take up organic gardening in the city without using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. You can also pick up organic soil and compost from your local garden center or create your own organic soil and compost from some of your food-based leftovers, grass clippings, and other yard debris. Organic fertilizers derived from manure, seaweed, and wood ash are also beneficial to your garden.
Determining Your Planting Area
Before you take the leap into planting an urban garden, figure out how much space and lighting you have. Both space and lighting can determine what type of planting containers you need to house your specific plants. You should also figure out how much sunlight the area receives, as most vegetables need between six to eight hours of daily sunlight.
You can easily learn how to grow food in an apartment even if you don’t have access to outdoor space. In this type of living space, you might benefit the most with vertical or hanging gardens, since you may have extra ceiling height. An easy edible option is to grow a variety of salad greens from a wire cage or a used milk jug; simply snip off what you want to eat. Hang your plants from a sturdy suspension rod or a shower curtain rod to make sure your planters won’t fall.
Another option is a container garden. You can plant in decorative containers, such as wicker plant stands, or you can use jars or plastic containers to grow your plants. You might already have a variety of containers on hand, such as plastic margarine or cottage cheese bowls. Simply rinse out the plastic, then puncture small holes in the bottom for drainage. After planting, place the container garden on a windowsill or near a grow light.
Tip: Keep in mind that container planters tend to dry out quickly in hot or windy weather. You can also opt for a planter with a built-in watering device. Note that the Royal Horticulture Society says that nonporous materials, such as plastic, metal, or fiberglass, retain moisture better than terracotta planters do.
Many rooftop gardens make use of space that would otherwise go unused. Planting your garden atop the roof can also prevent water runoff and offer insulation and shade. Make sure you don’t violate any homeowner’s association regulations or local ordinances when preparing the area, however. You might also want to check with a contractor to make sure that the building is designed to withstand the extra weight of your planting.
Tip: Even if your building can handle a little extra weight, try to accumulate as little weight as possible when constructing your garden. Use lightweight potting soil instead of earth, and packing peanuts instead of rocks for drainage.
If you don’t have the space for a large garden, fiberglass or other lightweight planting containers are a viable option, since they are easy to maintain. You can bring these containers inside when the weather turns too chilly for gardening outdoors.
Create a trellis for plants to climb, making good use of vertical space. Reuse wooden pallets or pick up inexpensive ones at a garden center. Make sure to secure them well against a sturdy part of the rooftop. You can also create your own trellis from bamboo poles and zip ties or wooden stakes and twine. Climbing vegetables, such as pole beans, cucumbers, and melons, love trellises, as do vine-type flowers such as morning glories and nasturtiums.
Even if you haven’t planted a single seed in your life, don’t be apprehensive about growing plants. Check out the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map (above), which can show you which types of plants are most likely to thrive in your area.
On the back of many seed packets, you can also find hardiness zone information as well as tips on when to sow your seeds. You’ll also find information on thinning out seedlings if you’re planting a row of seeds in your rooftop garden.
One of the benefits of urban apartment gardening is that you’re not committed to a specific planting area. You can start your vegetable seeds inside and bring the seedlings out to the roof or balcony once the weather gets warmer. This process works well for tomatoes, peppers, cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflower, allowing the seedlings to become acclimated to outdoor conditions. Gardeners refer to this process as hardening.
According to the National Gardening Association, reduce the amount of water you give your plants a few days before you start taking them outside. Approximately 10 days before you plan to keep them outside permanently, put the seedlings outside in an area protected from wind and direct sunlight. Leave them outside for a few hours and bring them back in. Repeat this process each day, gradually increasing the amount of time you leave them outside. After about a week, leave the plants overnight unless frost threatens.
Typical rooftop gardens require hydration, so check to make sure your garden has ample access to water. Because watering cans can get heavy, consider installing a rain barrel or drip irrigation system. Home improvement stores offer inexpensive irrigation kits; for a few dollars more, you can attach an automatic timer.
Tip: Water plants in the morning, since that time of day is cooler and you reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation. Watering at night tends to leave the plants damp overnight, increasing the risk of bacterial or fungal disease.
Dealing with Plant Pests
Certain plants attract specific pests, but several environmentally friendly products are available to help you deal with these unwelcome guests. You can also encourage “helper” insects to combat the pests that plague your plants. Planting marigolds and sunflowers attracts ladybugs, which eat aphids that could feast on your vegetables.
In addition to animals, you may have to deal with the nemesis of any gardener: weeds. Unfortunately, you might never find a way to keep weeds from invading your plants’ living environment, especially if you have a rooftop garden. Birds and breezes can disperse seeds anywhere, so your best course of action is to eliminate weeds as soon as possible after they take root. If you garden over a large area, use a hoe or hand trowel to dig out the invasive plant. The best time to combat weeds is after a rain, when the soil is easier to manipulate. Once you’re done weeding, add mulch to the plants to prevent more weeds from joining your garden.
How to Create an Urban Garden: The Bottom Line
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), about 15 percent of the world’s food is grown in urban areas. Indeed, there’s something rewarding about harvesting your own food. Not only do you save money by growing your vegetables, but you can know exactly what went into bringing your produce from the outdoors to your table. Once you learn how to create an urban garden, you can live out the old adage: It’s not about the size; it’s what you do with it. Even though you live in a smaller dwelling in an urban area, that doesn’t mean you can’t reap the benefits of growing your own plants and vegetables. Happy gardening!
Got any urban gardening tips or tricks? Share them in the comments section below.