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Urban Gardening - Growing Organic Food in Cities

Juliana Urban City Greenhouse

Urban gardening could be one of the greatest answers to peace, prosperity, and well-being. Next to water, food is one of the most essential tangible things in life. Food fuels the ability to work, to think, to invent, to play, even to love. Without it, living creatures grow weak, become angry and combative, then lethargic and ineffectual.

This is not mere poetry. During World War II, a study in which conscientious objectors to the U.S. draft “volunteered” provided a real understanding not only of the results of starvation, but of the effects of long-term nutritional deficiencies. Yet, as grocery prices rise and we are faced with economic challenges as well as food grown with artificial fertilizers and sprayed with pesticides, as well as being shipped over long distances, obtaining food for ourselves and our families can become an extreme challenge.

Urban gardening is one possible answer to alleviating food shortages and to taking control of what we eat. Melissa K. Norris, an organic gardening blogger who lives in Washington State, USA shared with her subscribers that as businesses and schools close in response to the spread of COVID-19, she is getting her salad greens going a few weeks early. Home gardening, whether in containers or as an alternative to the ubiquitous lawn, can provide food security where it might not otherwise be available.

Food isn’t the only thing you can grow as an urban gardener. Dr. B.C. Wolverton wrote How to Grow Fresh Air. The book discusses fifty plants used in a NASA experiment designed to see how space stations might create sustainable or at least cleaner air.

Finally, there is something about growing things that is good for humans. Even growing common houseplants that have little or no practical application can help combat depression, reduce anxiety, and provide a way to control anger. For some reason, it does a better job of relieving stress than reading.

You don’t need a huge backyard or field to have your own garden. Urban garden is all about people growing plants even though they live in spaces that aren’t normally thought of as green.

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What is Urban Gardening?

Elite Small Urban lean to Greenhouse

Urban gardening is the practice of growing food and other plants inside urban or suburban environments. It can range from sprouting seeds and growing microgreens to rooftop and balcony gardens or converting vacant lots into green spaces. It can be accompanied by earthworm farming, keeping small food animals such as rabbits or pigeons, and, of course, container composting.

Techniques for urban gardening can include converting lawn space or flower beds to vegetable production, creating edible landscaping, container gardening, hydroponics, artificial lighting, and windowsill terrariums. Your location, available space, and general situation will affect what is possible for you. But even if your personal growing space is limited to one air plant, you are likely to feel better and happier thanks to your little, green buddy.

If you live in a city, town, or village and you grow plants inside a city limit, then you are an urban gardener. It is all a question of scope, resources and time, as well as your personal goals for your garden. You might be practicing for the day when you can purchase that plot of land outside the city or you could simply be managing your available resources inside the city.

How Do You Make an Urban Garden?

There is no wrong way to make an urban garden. If you have a potted begonia on your desk or windowsill, if you grow your own salad sprouts, or if you have a tray of microgreens in your kitchen, then you are a gardener. If you live in a city, town or village, then you are an urban gardener.

Read on to learn some of the ways you can garden in your urban environment.

Urban Gardening Fresh Salad Leaves
  • Sprouts

    If you’ve never gardened before, a good place to begin your urban gardening is with growing sprouts. Sprouts in the grocery store are expensive and sometimes are contaminated with various molds and so on.

    By growing your own, you can add greens to your diet in two weeks or less. Poke holes in a jar lid, place a moist paper towel in a glass jar, sprinkle radish, alfalfa or bean seeds in the jar. Gently swish some water over the seeds daily, and keep them out of the sun.

    They will soon sprout. Add to salads or place on sandwiches. Watch out for mold or slime monsters! You can get sprouting kits online, but the principles are basically the same. An easy favorite is to purchase plastic mesh lids and use your own jars.

  • Microgreens

    A step up from sprouts, microgreens is the practice of seeding green vegetable plants in a tray of potting medium and trimming off the secondary leaves. You get a little more vitamin C than you do with sprouts, and your system can be converted later to growing larger plants, if desired.

    To grow microgreens, you need a tray for the potting medium, fertilizer, seeds such as broccoli, kale, lettuce, etc, a water source and a grow light. Put the potting medium in the tray, moisten lightly, added a thin sprinkle of seeds all over, add a sprinkle of potting medium, and spritz with a plain water sprayer. Place the tray under the grow light.

    As the plants grow, you might want the means of raising the light a little higher – but not too high, or your greens will get “leggy.” When the secondary leaves appear, harvest by using kitchen shears to clip off the tops as you want them for salads.

  • Container Gardening

    This can include microgreens, windowsill gardens, balcony gardens or rooftop gardening. Or it can even include containers placed on a patio, concrete slab or driveway. You can grow some pretty amazing things in a pot, including dwarf fruit and nut trees. Nor should we overlook the wonders of bonsai, the methods of creating beautiful miniature trees that live in shallow pots.

    Containers for your garden can range from repurposed grocery store containers to designer pots, but the goal is to grow beautiful plants. Research your plants before starting so that you know what sort of container is best for your urban garden.

  • Greenhouse Gardening

    Urban greenhouses can range from a set of shelves tucked away under a plastic frame to a frame building covered with glass or some other transparent or translucent material. They can be placed on patios, on the outside of windows, or on rooftops. Technically speaking, even a soda bottle terrarium is a mini-greenhouse. Greenhouses enclose the plants, allowing you, the gardener, to create a controlled environment. Home atmospheres can sometimes be too dry or too moist for certain plants. Outdoor temperatures might be wrong for others. Gardening enclosures, ranging from terrariums to full-scale buildings are excellent for creating a controlled environment for plants that are picky about their atmosphere.

  • Rooftop Gardens

    If you have access to a flat roof or even a gently sloped roof, it might be possible to do some rooftop gardening. It is a wonderful way to add city greenspace and to utilize an area that would otherwise become just another place to heat up in the summer sun.

    With that said, unless your building was constructed with rooftop gardening in mind, approach with caution. Gardening adds the weight of both soil and water to the top of your structure. Walking around on some types of roofs can cause them to leak. Nobody wants a roof to cave in or roof tiles to begin to rot thanks to an injudicious gardening project!

    On the other hand, if you are building a new house, planning in a green roof can save you hundreds of dollars by creating added insulation. Earth bermed homes are ideal for this type of gardening, and just incidentally, they are more likely to survive both tornadoes and forest fires than a conventional frame building. Just keep in mind, “more likely” doesn’t mean completely disaster-proof.

Impact of Urban Gardening

Positive Aspects

Rooftop Community City Garden

Urban gardening can reach far beyond microgreens and windowsill terrariums. One of the newest ideas in architecture is to develop a living wall on one side of a building. The result is cascades of beautiful green plants where once might have been the reflective glare of metal and glass.

There have been some concerns about the type of plants grown on these behemoths, including thoughts about plants that are invasive once they are loose in the general ecology of an area. The cure, of course, is to grow plants that occur naturally in the selected area and that are in keeping with the local environment.

Invasion by non-native plants aside, thoughts about the impact of urban gardening is beautifully explained in an infographic from Biomed Central. Urban gardening can increase the amount of food generally available. Since it is grown locally, it travels fewer green miles to arrive at the market or table. There is an increased calorie intake by people in urban areas where food is locally grown, and a proportionally decreased amount of hunger. Local availability means an increase of micronutrients in the diet, providing a healthier diet.

In many ways, urban gardening is an economic win/win. It means increased household income for semi-commercial farmers, and a reduction in the amount of cash spent on food even for those who grow only for themselves or their family. A decrease in the amount of money spent on food, means more money that can be saved or spent on other necessities. With more food available and more money to spend on food that cannot be locally grown or on other things, urban gardening can be a reviving force for communities.

Quite beyond nutrition and economics, being near living, growing things gives a lift of spirit to many people. Green plants help absorb toxins in the air, and give off oxygen that has been cleaned up by being processed naturally by growing things. Bees, butterflies, and birds love the plants and bring what might have been a lifeless or even derelict urban area back to life.

Community gardens that were once ugly vacant lots or abandoned buildings can create a sense of, well, community. Families and friends who get together to plant, weed and harvest might make an occasion of their labor. What might otherwise be an arduous chore can be turned into a celebration that involves music, food sharing, and meeting people as well as cultivating landscapes that contribute both food and fresh air.

Downsides of Urban Gardening

Sadly, nothing is so good that it doesn’t have some downsides. Urban gardening is no exception. Or to put it another way, there is “good” urban gardening and “bad” urban gardening. Furthermore, there is a fine, thin line between the two.

Who can blame an apartment dweller for wanting to have something fresh to eat in midwinter or a few beautiful blooms on a windowsill? What could possibly be wrong with developing a community garden in a vacant lot that would otherwise be an eyesore? But no matter how good an idea might be, there are always some things that can go wrong.

Here are the big kickers in the urban gardening scene:

  • Water: Unless you live where you can develop a catchment system or recycling system that can be used to water your plants, even a small garden will increase your water usage. If you are paying for metered water, especially in areas where water is extremely precious, you are going to quickly notice an increase in that bill. When the urban garden is the size of a high-rise apartment building, the whole city might begin to notice what it takes to keep those plants green.
  • Fertilizer: Yep, it’s a thing. Compost, worm bins, artificial fertilizer, run-off…all the problems that agricultural communities know way too much about now become concerns at the urban level. That is not to say that these things cannot be managed. They can. But it does mean that the serious urban farmer needs to think about them carefully. Because everyone lives downstream from someone, and no one wants your farming effluent in their drinking water.
  • Pesticides: It would be lovely to think that all urban farmers would stick to organic methods of pest control, but realistically, that isn’t going to happen. While one of the ideas behind growing your own is to get away from chemically treated foods, when the buggies come to eat your kale, are you going to handpick the little dickens or spray them? Time-challenged urbanites are going to spray.
  • Bees, Wasps, and Allergic Reactions: Some people are just not ready to move into an all-natural environment. Pollen makes them sneeze, a bee sting can send them to the hospital. While it might seem difficult for those of us devoted to the out-of-doors and natural surroundings, some people not only like a quiet, protected artificial environment, they might even need it.
  • Walls of Greenery Might Not Be Sustainable: As agribusiness is to rural farming, so is the apartment or office building with greenery spilling down several floors of architecture. Since few of these buildings currently exist outside of an architect’s planning, their impact is still to be determined. What will it take to maintain those beautiful green walls? Who is going to repair the structures, weed and generally tend those plants? Many of those kinds of questions are yet to be answered.
  • Greenhouse Buildings Can Require Extra Heating and Extra Lighting: Although there have been some excellent experiments in zero consumption greenhouse operations that involved using heat from composting and recycling water to keep them going, many of these plans are still in the experimental or breadboard stage. That doesn’t mean that it is impossible; it just means urban gardeners truly must work smarter.

Despite Downsides, Urban Gardening Can Make a Huge Positive Difference

Although plants and the people who grow them have not changed appreciably over the last several centuries, technology could make the difference. Effective urban gardening could put an end to fruits and vegetables that are picked green and then shipped hundreds or even thousands of miles.

Urban gardeners just need to be a little smarter and work a little harder than their country counterparts to keep their contributions to the local food system positive, conservative and energy-efficient.

Urban Vegetable Growing

Urban vegetable growing can happen in a variety of ways. One of the most popular is the urban community garden, but individual gardens are certainly a part of it.

Good Foundations

Gardening begins with good dirt, and that usually means composting. Earthworms can munch down organic waste and poop it out, creating lovely black dirt that is perfect for growing things. Or you can simply create a bin or container where plant waste can be left to rot and turn into humus. But as a city gardener, you could have some challenges.

Most apartments and similar locations have regulations about waste disposal and maintenance of your location. Fortunately, there are appliances that can help you with this. Worm bins, bucket composters, and similar items can turn your old lettuce leaves and plant trimmings into good dirt for your container garden.

Dirt Isn’t the Only Way to Grow It

Urban Hydroponics Vertical Growing

If you’ve ever sprouted a plant in a glass of water, then you have grown something using hydroponics. The word comes from two Greek roots: hydro, meaning water and poneir, meaning to labor or toil. So hydroponic means water that works.

Growing something hydroponically can range from floating a few plants in the top of a fish tank to creating a nifty rack of PVC tubes with cut-outs for growing plants. The latter can be used to create hydroponic systems that make it easy to circulate the water, keeping it from becoming stale. But don’t underestimate that fish tank, where fish and plants can complement each other.

You Don’t Always Have to Go it Alone

There are gardening clubs and gardening organizations that are devoted to helping gardeners at all levels of income and expertise maintain and grow their urban gardens. For example, in Midwestern USA, Kansas City is a sprawling metropolis. Not so large and New York, nor as challenged for a growing season as Chicago, but still a busy city in which you might not expect to find a lot of gardening going on.

The Kansas City Community Gardens, KCCG, is an organization that is devoted to helping gardeners all across their city. They have a range of memberships, from one offered for $2.00 to people who are economically challenged to a supporting membership of $25.00 a year. They offer a range of services to urban gardeners.

Where to Start

Your local public library might be a good place to begin your gardening journey. Not only do they have books that you can borrow, libraries are often community meeting places for local organizations, including garden clubs. Don’t be put off by club titles such as “Master Gardeners.”

While there are always gardening snobs, just as there are with any endeavor, most gardeners are more than happy to welcome another grower into the fold.

Planning and Scale

urban balcolny garden

It doesn’t take a lot to start your first container garden. In fact, it can begin with vegetable trimmings in your own kitchen. Plants need water and sunlight to thrive, so look around your home or apartment for a sunny window. Place some jar rings under a piece of screen in a wide, shallow dish. Add water so that it covers the rings and the screen.

Make vegetable soup. Place the cut tops of the carrot with the cut side down on the screen and the tops pointing up. When you cut the celery, trim about 2 inches off the bottom of the celery stalk, and place the base with the root side down and the cut side up in that same dish.

In just a few days, you will have green tops sprouting out of both the carrots and the celery. Green onions can also have their tops chopped off, and a second rounds of oniony greens grown from the resultant bulb.

On the other end of things, if you want to expand your idea to a garden club or a community garden, you might need to start with talking to friends, visiting your local library to see what organizations are already available and perhaps even go so far as to speak with your local city hall. You’ll need to learn about available resources, permits, and a whole lot more to manage growing vegetables in an urban setting on an organizational level.

Sprouts, Microgreens and Windowsill Gardens

As previously mentioned, these are all good ways to add a little fresh food to your diet, even if you live in an apartment and have very little access to any situation that allows open-air gardening.

These methods also have the advantage of having a low impact on the environment. You are already heating or cooling your living space.

Urban Greenhouse Gardening

Fresh Tomatoes Urban Farm

Whether you are creating a terrarium in a used soda bottle or setting up one of those nifty little storage building garden houses, a greenhouse is a great way to control your plants’ environment. Inside a terrarium or greenhouse, you can control the heat, amount of sunlight, and moisture in the air.

In between your easy terrarium and full-scale greenhouse, there are window greenhouses, narrow greenhouses that can fit against a wall, temporary greenhouses that can be set up on a patio or driveway for a season and sunrooms.

Full-scale greenhouses can be located in the backyard or they can be placed on a sturdy rooftop. Just remember: anything you put on top of your house or apartment building adds to the weight that must be held up by your roof or load-bearing walls. Structural strength is a consideration.

You can grow just about anything in a greenhouse because you are in control of the environment. Favorites include tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, dwarf citrus trees, lettuces and greens of all sorts, and even potatoes or other root crops. If a plant can be grown in a container, it can certainly be grown in a greenhouse.

Balcony Gardening

There is scarcely anything that will brighten your day and lighten your heart when you live in an apartment complex than walking around the area and seeing all the beautiful plants that are growing on porches and balconies.

For example, one memorable container garden included and magnificent squash plant with brilliant pumpkin yellow flowers, a tangle of bean vines sprawling over the railing, and hanging baskets that alternated ferns and sweet peas.

Some things to keep in mind with balcony gardening is the direction your balcony faces, which will influence the amount of available sunlight, the amount of weight you are adding (that load-bearing thing again) and keeping water from your plants from dripping down on the people below. A polite gardener is a well-liked gardener. No one loves a shower while watching the sunrise while sipping their morning tea.

Balcony Greenhouses

Balcony Garden Ideas UK

Wall and window greenhouses are perfect additions to your balcony garden. If you have limited space, the greenhouse shelving units that are accessed by zipping and unzipping a clear plastic tent are absolutely perfect. As the season warms, you can simply remove the cover and have the shelves still available to hold your beautiful plants.

Small plants are probably best for balcony greenhouses since a full-size greenhouse is unlikely to fit on most apartment balconies. Lettuces, brassicas, even carefully trained vines can help extend your growing season and enhance your enjoyment of your balcony.

If your balcony simply isn’t going to hold up more than one or two heavy pots, you can at least add some green to your life by growing “air plants” which are often highly attractive bromeliads that require little more than air and a little sun.

Urban Garden Ideas

Urban gardens come in all sizes, shapes and purposes. To keep things simple, let’s suppose that you want to add variety and nutrition to your daily diet.

Here’s a list of ideas for ways that you can do that.

Urban City Rooftop Garden
  • Sprouts. You can sprout nearly any kind of seed, but some things work better than others. Alfalfa, mung beans, radishes, broccoli, or curly cress are favorites. If you can put the mature plant in a salad, then it is usually a good candidate for sprouting. But you can also sprout wheat, and you can even use your sprouted wheat in bread. Sprouts can be grown nearly anywhere. All they need is a dark cabinet and a container.
  • Microgreens. Convert a shelf in your kitchen to an area for growing microgreens by attaching a grow lamp to the underside of the shelf above it, and installing a tray containing fertile earth. Microgreens can be grown using a lot of the same kinds of seeds used for sprouting. Kale or broccoli are almost ideal. The method is to sew the seeds so that the little sprouts will come up as a thick mat. When the secondary leaves appear, use a pair of scissors or kitchen shears to cut off the yummy greens.
  • Windowsill Gardens. Herbs make great windowsill gardens. Many, such as thyme, oregano, rosemary or mint, can be grown in small to medium-sized plastic pots. The exact type of herb that you can grow will depend on the orientation of your window and whether you wish to use a grow light for part of the plant’s sunlight requirements. Since fresh herbs tend to be expensive, this is a cost-effective way to add variety to your diet without using a lot of space, soil, or water to do it.
  • Backyard Gardens. Whole books have been written about backyard gardening. Some favorite, low-till, easy methods include square foot gardening, lasagna gardening, raised beds, and even growing on hay bales. Each has its advantages and drawbacks.
  • Renting Garden Beds. Some communities offer the opportunity to rent a garden plot. Some of these rental plots even include staff who can keep your crops watered and weeded if your other life gets hectic. Others are simply a patch of ground, and upkeep is all on you.
  • Community Gardens. These could be part of a park, a converted vacant lot, or even a building that has been turned into a growing center. Availability will vary from community to community.

Urban gardening can be fun, productive and highly satisfying. Something to keep in mind is that like learning to play a musical instrument or raising pets, it requires time, effort, and a willingness to learn and try new things.

Not every crop will be a winner; some will fail. But in the long run, you fellow urban gardener, will not. Happy growing!

Greenhouses Growing Urban

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