Greenhouse Canada

How to get urban gardeners planting in small spaces

October 28, 2008  By By Dean Fosdick The Associated Press

Oct. 28, 2008 – Urban dwellers short of garden space have options when trying to stretch the family food dollar by growing their own produce. And it's not such a bad thing that they must think small.

Urban dwellers short of garden
space have options when trying to stretch the family food dollar by
growing their own produce. And it's not such a bad thing that they must
think small.

Large yields can be had from tight areas. It just takes some planning.


The darkest closet, for instance, can serve as an indoor mushroom patch. Kitchen countertops can be used for growing culinary herbs. Strawberries thrive when planted in multitiered pots near south-facing windows.

Leafy salad greens will mature quickly and repeatedly despite subdued indoor lighting. And family-size orchards can produce fruit for a month or more on patios or rooftops with dwarf trees bred to tolerate containers.

"I know of people who have bought starter kits for growing mushrooms in their bathtubs,'' said R.J. Ruppenthal, author of "Fresh Food from Small Spaces: The Square-Inch Gardener's Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting and Sprouting'' (Chelsea Green Publishing, November). "No space is too small or too dark to
produce food."

Ruppenthal, a lawyer and college instructor from San Bruno, Calif., said he has gardened productively despite living in apartments or condominiums most of his adult life.

"We have managed to raise a sizable chunk of our own fresh food from balcony and windowsill vegetable gardens, a kitchen-based sprouting operation, yogurt and kefir (cultured milk drink) fermentation, and a worm composter in the garage, which provides a rich source of fertilizer to feed our plants," Ruppenthal said.

Sprouts are a great source of fresh food, especially for people lacking in garden space, he said.

"Nutritionally, they're power packed. And when you grow other small things like salad greens, you can get a lot more production per space than you can if you're growing tomatoes."

Check before planting, however, to make sure you're not breaking any laws or any provisions of your apartment lease. Plants placed on fire escapes may be a safety hazard, and gardens on balconies could exceed load limits.

Here's how to get more production from small spaces:

-Succession planting is important if you hope to enjoy a continuous harvest. "Always be thinking about the next crop and get it started someplace else," Ruppenthal said. "Cycle those things into the growing garden."

-Take advantage of reflected or artificial light. "That doesn't mean putting up aluminum foil as much as it does taking advantage of the sunlight that reflects off windows and south facing walls," he said. "Also, when there's been a porch light or patio light left on at night, I'm always amazed at how much that contributed to plant growth at places where I've lived."

-Include some companion plants, which can be as attractive as they are edible. "If you add flowers, that might attract bees to help with vegetable pollination. The right varieties might also repel some of the bad insects."

-Consider growing berries or small fruits that can cope with cramped spaces and low light. "People might not normally think of growing a raspberry plant or lemon tree in their apartments, but it's amazing how much one small bush or tree can produce over time," Ruppenthal said. "You're talking about a month's worth of fresh fruit for an entire family."

-Self-watering boxes are great for urban gardeners. "Tomatoes and carrots just go wild in those things, which keep plants warmer and wetter than when they're grown in the ground," Ruppenthal said.

-Direct some plants straight up or down. "Thinking vertical is a must if you're hoping for some cucumbers or pumpkins or squash," said Greg Stack, a University of Illinois extension horticulturist who works with gardeners in the Chicago area. "You also can grow beans and peas, grapes and berries on trellises, balcony rails, hanging baskets, on supports or along fences. Plant them in pots, and then train them to climb."

-Inter-planting. Plant two crops in the same row at the same time. One will mature before the other and, when harvested, leaves room for the second crop to develop. "An example would be to plant both radish and carrot seed," Stack said. "The radish will germinate and be harvested in about 20 to 25 days, leaving room behind for the later-maturing carrots."

-Start small, especially if you don't have a lot of time for planting and maintenance. "A small garden is often a friendlier and less intimidating place for the new gardener," Stack said. "It also will allow you to become more comfortable with your gardening skills."

-Above all, be practical. You're doing this primarily to keep food costs down and quality up. Grow only foods that your family likes, that are priced high in grocery stores, that don't take all summer to ripen, and that don't require a lot of room and direct sunlight.

It also might help if you converted a few neighbours into gardeners, Ruppenthal said. "Encourage them to use their own spaces productively, and you can trade or barter for the things you don't have and want yourself."

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