By Tricycle Gardens Farm Manager, Soizic Ziegler
There are so many reasons to grow one’s own food: taste, freshness, cost, curiosity, connection to nature and life cycles, availability of ingredients- the list goes on. However, the image of the rolling farm or sprawling garden often keeps urban would- be gardeners from getting started.
Joyfully, there are many ways to grow your own food in limited space- even if you don’t have one square foot of soil to plant in.
The key to gardening in a tight space is to reassess the shape of it- vertically! Many plants can be trellised or pruned to grow upwards out of containers, including tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, beans, butternut squash and some varieties of summer squash such as tromboncino, and some alternative greens such as malabar spinach. A place where you can run a trellis is useful- either along a wall, or by hanging hooks from a ceiling or arbor. Some of these plants can be draped down from a balcony as well, and window boxes can easily be hung from many places.
When gardening vertically, the plants may not have as much root space. For this reason it is very important to make sure that the soil or other medium that they are growing in is as healthy and nutrient rich as possible. Vermicompost, compost tea, fish emulsion and other organic nutrients work well with both in soil and soil-less gardening.
At Tricycle Gardens, our favorite tool for small space growing is the Sub-Irrigated Planter- or SIP. These are planters that hold a reservoir of water in the bottom, which wicks through a soil-less mix to be available to the plants. Since the water is in the bottom, this encourages the plant to grow a deeper root system, reaching more nutrients and using water more effectively. A standard 2 x 1.5 ft SIP can easily grow a couple of tomato plants, peppers, and eggplant. You can buy a pre-made SIP online, or build your own out of a standard 18 gallon plastic storage bin.
Sunlight is the other consideration that can be tricky in a small urban space with many buildings, fences, and other shade- giving structures. A south facing window or balcony is ideal, or any other space that gets at least 8 hours a day of direct sun. But, even if that is not available, 6 hours a day of sunlight will be enough to grow herbs, lettuces, turnips, kale, and other leafy vegetables.
Finally, urban gardening brings in a different resource that may not be as available in a more stereotypical rural garden setting- proximity of community. You are likely to have a neighbor with an unused backyard or parking strip, and a few neighbors who would be interested in collaborating to build a community garden in some form on a nearby space. If this is the route you find yourself moving towards, the City of Richmond Department of Parks and Recreation has information about starting a community garden on city land- more information can be found here.
With some creativity and a fresh perspective on how space can be used, urban gardening can be just as rewarding and fruitful as a plot in the country- and you may make some new friends out of it as well, which will be important when you suddenly end up with too many tomatoes.