Ancient civilizations thrived in relation to their proximity to food sources thousands of years before the global food trade our world relies on today. Eridu (present-day Tell Abu Shahrain in Iraq), founded in Mesopotamia along the Fertile Crescent’s Euphrates River around 5400 B.C., was believed by the Sumerians to be the first city in the world, and integrated urban farming into the city’s design itself. Examples throughout history show the rise of new civilizations in direct proportion to food and water sources.
As trade routes opened up around the world, farmers could specialize in raising specific foods to trade with other specialists in different regions. The Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries further bifurcated cities and food sources by automating farming processes, dramatically increasing production, and making the international transportation of fresh foods a reality.
Since then in American history, proximity to food sources has fluctuated. During World War II, private residents started Victory Gardens that by 1944 accounted for 40% of U.S. produce. The country’s community gardens—neighborhood plots where people work together to raise food—have spiked in the past decade, with a 44% jump in city garden plots between 2012 and 2018. Community gardens springing up in empty lots in cities across the country offer inspiration for fresh approaches to urban revitalization in places like Detroit, where 23,000 residents participate in urban gardens, 1,500 residents have private gardens, and 16.75% of the city’s land is considered vacant.
Urban gardens can provide nutritious resources for residents who otherwise live in food deserts (areas without convenient access to fresh, whole foods, usually because of a lack of grocery stores and farmers markets, often in impoverished parts of cities or remote locations), provide children and adults with an education in self-sufficiency, and reduce food costs for individuals and families.
For those interested in getting into urban gardening, Stacker used a variety of agriculture and gardening resources to compile a list of 25 tips to get you started—from plant selection and garden location to essential tools for the job.
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An urban garden can occupy a shared, community plot of land, a section of a yard or rooftop, or a container on a fire escape or windowsill. Most edible plants are hungry for sunlight, so look for a south-facing area for your plants.
The only major things one needs to start a garden are soil, a vessel or area to plant in, and seeds. Many gardeners further opt for terra-cotta pots, compost (more about that later), gardening gloves, a watering can, organic fertilizers, and lumber for raised beds. While there is no shortage of beautiful gardening products, it’s wise to start with a minimal investment—plants aren’t picky with appearances.
The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map breaks down growing seasons for every part of the United States (last updated 2012). Zone numbers correspond to when different plants can grow in a region, and seed packets list their zone numbers to help gardeners determine what varietals will do best in specific climates.
Once you’ve figured out your zone, it’s time to pick plants that thrive in urban landscapes. Non-edible varieties include zinnias, daylilies, and coneflowers; if you’re growing plants to eat, look for varieties that don’t need a huge amount of space (this is probably not the best time to put in a pumpkin patch). If you move a lot, don’t pick perennials that you must tend to year after year: When you sign a new lease next fall, you’ll mourn the loss of that asparagus bed.
If you will grow edible plants, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is growing food you don’t normally like to eat. There’s no reason to grow 15 summer squash plants if you can’t stand ratatouille, or cucumbers if you never eat them. Focus on foods you naturally gravitate toward and start easy. Basil is great for sunny spots and makes a delicious pesto, while garlic can grow virtually anywhere and can be replanted each year. Other easy crops for first-timers are tomatoes, onions, peas, and carrots.
Raised beds are a great, no-till approach to gardening. They also circumvent the potential for harmful toxins to leach into your plants. If you plan to install raised beds, there are a lot of prefab beds that can be purchased online or from garden stores, or you can build your own. Beds should be at least half a foot tall for plants with deep roots or for root vegetables like carrots. To fill your raised beds, lay cardboard and newspaper over the ground then pile up leaves, sticks, compost, manure, mulch, and finally a thin layer of dirt. Seeds can go right in—but for raised beds that involve lots of decomposing layers, steer clear of root vegetables in the first year until you’ve got deeper layers of dirt to work with.
Any soil you want to grow food in ought to first be tested first for pH and nutrient levels, as well as for contaminants. City dirt, in particular, is likely to have absorbed toxins that you don’t want ending up in your vegetables. Local extension offices, as well as national soil-test centers, can provide results on everything from pH and nutrient levels to potential toxins.
If soil is uncontaminated but has low or high pH or insufficient nutrients, this can be easily remedied with fertilizers, compost, and other soil amendments. If soil tests positive for toxins, there are still plenty of options for urban gardening in containers.
Making dirt is as easy as composting food scraps from your kitchen table. Other items that can be broken down include shredded paper, cardboard, and newspaper—and, depending on what household cleaners you use at home, dustpan refuse and whatever you suck up with your vacuum cleaner.
City dwellers can keep a vermicompost bin under their kitchen sinks, a tumbler in the yard, or bring scraps to a community garden in exchange for a share of fresh soil in a few months (if you’re worried about smell, keep a lidded Mason jar or freezer bag in your freezer and add to it as you go—bring full containers to community gardens).
Small spaces don’t have to mean limited garden space. Vertical gardening offers flexibility for growing plants along the interior or outside walls, or up arbors in the yard or on rooftops. Tire towers for potatoes, felt wall hangings for herbs or loose leaf greens, and trellises for peas, beans, and squash can all offer big yields in tiny spaces.
Shelves can be another great option for plants, allowing you to stack them along an outside garage or home wall, or up a wooden fence in your yard.
Four-season city dwellers can enjoy the respite of winter and scale back the foods being grown, or use colder seasons to grow herbs indoors on kitchen counters. In places like California, urban gardeners can study when to plant crops like artichokes and garlic for year-round plants.
Late summer in most places is a perfect time to re-plant salad greens, carrots, and zucchini; while December is the best month to plant garlic sets for the following spring.
Aquaponics is a method of gardening in which fish provide the nitrogen plants need so you can grow things indoors without a lick of soil or fertilizer. All it takes is a fish tank of any size, a tiny pond pump to pull water out of it, and a grow bed with pea gravel and seeds (as well as an indoor grow light to keep on between eight and 12 hours a day).
One thing most urban homes lack is privacy. Plants can make great screens that can block a railing, enclose a small yard, or occupy a window space.
It’s true that most plants love sunlight. But plenty of plants do just fine in shady areas, from ferns to pothos. These plants can do wonders to enhance the air quality in your home and beautify a space—and are perfect options for apartment dwellers with no south-facing windows or outdoor space suitable for growing.
As a general rule, it’s best to let your plants dry out completely between waterings. In some climates or at different times of the year, that might mean only watering once a week (or letting the rain naturally water plants); in other cases, it might be necessary to water plants every day or every other day. A watering schedule depends on the plant, the climate, and the time of year.
Any plant outside during the height of the summer will need to be watered regularly (less if you’re working with composted soil, more if your topsoil dries out quickly). Keep an eye out for indicators of underwatering or overwatering. You might be overwatering if there are yellowed, hanging leaves, brown leaves, visibly rotting roots, or if the soil is wet, but the plant is drooping. Signs of a plant not getting enough water include dried-out leaves or wilting plants standing in dry soil.
The best way to get a green thumb is to learn about the plants you’re trying to grow.
We all started somewhere, and that somewhere was most likely killing a houseplant or two. Don’t let some failures discourage you—there are plenty of tutorials on YouTube, books you can check out from the library, and knowledgeable neighbors willing to share their success stories with you.
Any plant containers should have drainage at the bottom (or, if not, ample ways for water to drain away from roots within a pot, with gravel, sticks, or small stones in the bottom of the container). Without appropriate drainage, roots can rot and plants get waterlogged.
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Square-foot gardening, or area planting, is a method of growing that focuses on bunches of plants rather than rows to maximize space. By planting seeds in appropriate proximity to each other without leaving gaps for long rows, more can be grown in less space than traditional herb or vegetable beds.
One of the most classic, rookie mistakes in gardening is starting out too big. A garden should complement your life, not take it over. A few containers on your fire escape, a couple of house plants, or one raised bed is plenty to start with.
It’s better to plant two tomato plants that have plenty of space than crowd a dozen together in one five-gallon pail. Plants with ample space will produce more and be healthier.
There’s a special kind of excitement that comes the first time you pull a carrot, root, or beet out of the ground—but you’ll only get that satisfaction once per plant. Kale, loose leaf lettuce, herbs, and tomatoes continue their offerings over and over again so you can return every day for more goodies.
Anyone tending an urban garden outdoors will have a reckoning with weeds. The good news is, weeds can be a great indicator of fertile soil. But they also represent the most time-consuming part of gardening. In her iconic book “How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back,” Ruth Stout advocates for mulch gardening; a method that involves covering dirt with mulch (old hay, straw, leaves, grass clippings, or even shredded paper) to create a weed barrier. Weeds have trouble poking through, allowing a gardener to focus on yields and fractionate their work output.
Do be mindful of how mulching around plants affects your watering schedule: Mulch helps to retain moisture, so watering can be done less frequently.
It’s easy to start seeds early by creating your own, DIY greenhouse—simply start seeds in a glass cabinet indoors, or cut up an old, clear shower curtain to put over containers outside in the early spring when you’re starting seeds. Old glass windows are also great to put over raised beds and can help plants survive a cold snap in early fall or give seeds a jump start at the beginning of the season.
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Urban gardeners can set themselves up for year-round, fresh foods by growing plants that lend themselves to preserving. Rosemary can be dried and used later, basil can be turned into pesto and frozen in ice trays, and tomatoes can be cooked down, bagged (or poured into Mason jars with an inch left at the top for expansion), and frozen for sauce later on.
A garden journal is a great way to track pH levels, germination and bloom dates, and troubleshooting history. Journals will also remind you how far you’ve come when you need to remember that the best gardeners learn through failures that eventually become victories.
Whether it’s because you travel a lot, work long hours, or just don’t want to make the time commitment to having your own urban garden, it’s easy to join forces with neighbors to tend a garden in your neighborhood. Community gardens are abundant in most major cities and many smaller towns.
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