Urban Gardening: Your City Garden
If you live in the country or a suburb, urban gardening may sound like an oxymoron. However, if you live in the City finding a place to garden is a serious issue. It’s simple; in town land for city gardening is a scarce commodity. Every parcel open space is valued at a premium, and the competition for its use is fierce. Sometimes its highest and best use is a building that provides much needed housing. And sometimes it is best used as a green space for urban gardening. Heaven forbid it ends up as a parking lot, or worse, lies vacant and unused.
Regardless of location, the desire to take control of your own wellbeing, to find a way to grow or purchase healthy food, to connect with nature, and to make the world a better, greener place is universal. In the city where natural spaces are few, parks and places for urban gardening are never taken for granted. They are a jewel for the community.
Access to gardening space
Finding access to the land can be a daunting proposition for urban gardening. In most places, ownership of the land is controlled by individuals, businesses, or public agencies who have little interest in city gardening. Those who desire to grow their own vegetable, herbs, and flowers the options are limited to three courses of action: joining a community garden program (if one exists in your area), finding ways to garden where you can (such as window box, balcony, or rooftop gardens), or by procuring land by action (such as direct-lease or guerilla gardening).
Community garden programs
There are thousands of community gardening plots in hundreds of cities, towns, and rural areas throughout the country. If you desire a place to garden and are lucky enough to have a community garden program in your town, this is the best choice for you. For a nominal fee, you will be given a place to grow your own vegetables, you’ll have an opportunity to meet like-minded neighbors, and you will be making your community a safer, greener, more vibrant place.
Community gardens encourage an urban community’s food security, allowing citizens to grow their own food or for others to donate what they have grown. They bring urban gardeners closer in touch with the source of their food, and break down social isolation by encouraging community interaction.
A city’s community gardens are as diverse as its communities of gardeners. The community gardening movement in North American prides itself on being inclusive, diverse, democratic, and supportive of community involvement. Urban gardeners include many ethnic and cultural backgrounds, the young and old, new and seasoned growers, the rich and the poor.
One reality of urban gardening is that garden plot sizes are small. In general, they range from 25 square feet (5 feet by 5 feet) to 200 square feet (10 feet by 20 feet). With this type of constraint the city gardener will need to make some hard choices as to what they will grow and how much they will grow.
Sprawling plants like pumpkins will consume the whole garden unless they are grown on trellises. Even then, a short-vined variety is a good choice to keep the plant in bounds. Relatively inexpensive-to-buy vegetables such as potatoes may not be worth the garden area they require. A single zucchini plant could be all that you need.
In tiny city gardens, you will want to squeeze the most from you plot. Your best option is to work your soil for tilth and amend it to support an intensive planting scheme. Intensive planting uses every square inch of the garden; seedlings are spaced so in their maturity they will just touch the leaves of their neighbors. Using this scheme, a 100 square foot plot in a Seattle P-Patch has produced as much as 300 pounds of produce over the long growing season.
Sometimes the only place for urban gardening is to plant entirely in containers. This could be a simple as pots of herbs on the windowsill, or as elaborate as planters on a rooftop terrace. In all cases, the plants are grown in restricted conditions where roots are confined in a growing media and regular attention must be given to watering and fertilizing. Container gardening is indeed a unique type of urban gardening, with a set of rules for success very different from planting in the ground.
The types of vegetables and herbs that can be grown in containers are broad, but also far more limited than what can be grown in the garden bed. Care must be taken in choosing appropriate varieties of vegetables, in correctly sizing the pot, in selecting the right growing media for your plant, in finding the right fertilizer, and in properly scheduling watering and fertilizing. Due to the constraints of container gardening, yields will lower than in the garden bed, but in urban gardening every tomato is a gem, every fresh vegetable a bonus.
Challenges for city gardeners
For all of its benefits, urban gardening presents a few challenges that rural and suburban simply do not face. First, the soil in city gardens has often been compromised by human history. It is amazing what you find when you begin to dig the soil in your garden plot. The detritus of past occupancy will reveal itself, with thing like nails, broken glass, plastic toys, tile, and metal fragments. On occasion, you might find historical and native artifacts. It’s almost like an archeological dig!
An inevitable aspect of urban gardening is exposure to all the sides of human nature, good and bad. Because the ratio of people to green space in the City is large, city gardens will have many visitors and well-intended ‘helpers’. In community gardens, the emphasis is on community. The city gardening community can be a rich, rewarding, and inspiring entity. However, in any group there will be those who will not follow rules, distain the rights and feelings of others, or are uniquely self-centered. That is part of human nature, and it is present in almost all city gardens.
The biggest problem in city gardening is food theft. Some folks have no sense of boundaries, a mistaken idea of community, impulse control problems, or are simply hungry. Easy-to- spot and easy-to-pick vegetables like tomatoes and squash are the main targets. It’s a conundrum for community gardens. Having more people visiting your gardens simultaneously decreases the incidence of food theft AND increases the possibility of thieves scoping-out their next meal.
Homelessness and drug abuse are societal issues that present a special problem for urban gardening. Since city gardens are attractive place to be, they draw all sorts of people as visitors, and occasionally as campers. Given a choice between an alleyway and a garden, who wouldn’t want to sleep in the garden? There are nice soft beds to lie in. If you’re lucky you might even have breakfast at hand. It’s easy to find a large plant to use as a toilet. And there are lots of places to hide your discarded trash.
Your metropolitan food-web organic gardening
The American food distribution network is uneven. In many metropolitan areas suburban and high-income urban areas have supermarkets and specialty stores that provide abundant access to healthful fruits and vegetables. By contrast, many inner-city and low-income neighborhoods have no grocery stores at all. The only available source of food is high-priced ‘convenience’ stores, which offer little in the way of fresh high-quality produce. Community gardens and other urban gardening programs can go a long way to alleviate this situation, but food security is still an issue in these communities.
On a larger scale, every metropolitan area is surrounded by agricultural land that provides food for the City. In addition, food is shipped in from other areas of the country and from out of the country. Taken all together and you have your Metropolitan Food-Web. This is similar to a watershed, the total geographical area that drains into a particular river or lake, except that we are considering food instead of water.
Local food production
From a sustainable, green perspective it is in the interest of both the City dwellers and the surrounding farmers to strengthen your City’s Food-Web.
This is why urban gardening and rural farming intersect. The movement to encourage local food production, local farmers markets and community supported agriculture farms (CSA’s) is largely supported and enhanced by city gardening.
Community gardeners are often prohibited from selling their produce commercially, although their gardens may donate fresh fruits and vegetables to local food pantries, cooperatives, and homeless members of their community.
However, community gardens offer ideal sites for local farmers markets, and gardeners often seek farmers to provide space-intensive crops such as corn or potatoes.
They also can hire farmers to provide services such as plowing and providing mulch and manure. In turn, small farmers can reach a wider audience and consumer base by drawing on community gardeners and their contacts. Although the two approaches are distinct, both can be effective ways to produce local food in urban areas, safeguard green space, and contribute to food security.