Pretty much everyone can have a garden, and everyone who can, should. Gardens are great! You save money and eat better and it's a nice tactile thing to do. Also there's the startling effect when you actually grow something like a tomato for the first time: I did this? This is because of me?
But many of us live in cities, and some of us are unfortunate enough to live in ludicrous cities like New York where a yard is a luxury on par with a Batmobile in most other cities. That doesn't mean that you can't grow things, though, which is why I called Love & Carrots, an urban agriculture firm in Washington, D.C. Love & Carrots designs gardens in such disparate urban locations as a yard, on a roof, in a back alley, and on a fire escape, as well as troubleshooting existing gardens. The company's founder, Meredith Sheperd, has a background in landscaping design and environmental science, and has run organic farms before. She was nice enough to chat with me for a little while and give some advice to urban gardeners both new and experienced.
1. Don't Try To Do More Than You Can
"A lot of people are just growing the wrong things in the wrong place," says Sheperd. A large part of designing your garden involves making sure that your space matches what you pick. If you've got shade, don't try tomatoes, says Sheperd—they need full sun. If you've got limited space—basically, if you're even asking this question—don't try pumpkins or okra or corn.
2. Don't Waste What You Have
If you've got a raised bed garden—one of those sandbox-looking tiny plots of land—you're set up to grow some heavy-duty stuff, like tomatoes or summer squash. "Sometimes people have perennial herbs growing in their raised beds, and that's not really necessary," Sheperd says. Many herbs, like basil, thyme, and dill, grow very well in pots, which can be placed anywhere.
3. Don't Be Too Cute
Gardens can be an aesthetic as well as a functional pleasure, but what's best for the plants should always come first. "I see a lot of people who put strawberries in little pots, and it's cute, it looks nice, but it doesn't really produce much."
4. Build Vertically
Small gardens aren't different from small apartments in a lot of ways. If you have limited square footage, go three-dimensional and build upward. "Sometimes if people are interested in, like, summer squash, I'll encourage them to grow a vining type so they can grow it up a wall. There are a lot of interesting squash varieties that climb. Cucumbers climb. I love climbers," Sheperd says. She also recommends Malabar spinach (which is not actually spinach at all), one of the rare greens that thrives during the heat of the summer and also climbs.
5. Think About Your Harvest
Urban gardeners don't have the luxury of growing low-yield plants; every single plant grown has to give bang for your buck. "I know my company is called Love & Carrots, but I don't actually encourage people to grow carrots unless they have a huge garden," says Sheperd. "One seed equals one carrot, and it takes three months to mature, so I don't really like people to grow carrots." Instead she recommends plants like tomatoes and herbs, which offer continual yields throughout the summer.
6. Not All Varieties Are The Same
Throughout our conversation Sheperd mentioned a whole boatload of plant varietals, most of which I'd never heard of. Not all tomatoes or all summer squash or all peppers are the same; some do better with more sun, some with more shade, some with more space, some with less. Even in part shade, where tomatoes are typically hard to grow, there might be hope in an unusual variety: "I stick to cherry tomatoes," she says. "There's this one variety called Matt's wild cherry that I found works really well and I don't think it needs the same amount of energy that say a beefsteak tomato does." She also recommends Asian cucumbers, which tend to be smaller and thinner (and also, arguably, tastier) than the giant English type.
7. Be Careful About Roofs
The roof of your apartment building may seem like a perfect place for a garden. Unlimited sun! But an improperly designed garden on the roof could lead to disaster—like, say, the roof collapsing under the weight of water-soaked sod. Sheperd has done rooftop gardens before, and finds that with older buildings, they're often built sturdily enough to handle a garden (though in at least one project she's relied on architectural plans to inform which part of the roof is sturdy enough to build on). "I think if you're doing a potted garden, I wouldn't worry about it, if your roof is sturdy enough for you to stand on," she says. "But if you're doing large troughs then I would definitely [get it checked out]. Better safe than sorry."
8. Pots Are Not The Same As Beds
Potted plants can grow very healthily, so don't worry if your space won't allow for a big bed of sod. But they aren't quite like beds, either, and you should plan accordingly. You need much more space than you think, especially for any kind of fruit (like a tomato)—get just about the biggest pot you can find. And then some stuff just isn't possible. "No carrots. No beets. No root crops," Sheperd says. "Problems with efficiency and space apply tenfold with potted plants." Sheperd recommends only the highest-yield plants for pots: herbs, tomatoes, peppers, maybe a high-yield leafy green like chard. She also recommends sweet potatoes, since the entire plant is edible: not just the potato, but the leaves and shoots, too (the sweet potato is not closely related to the potato. Potato leaves are toxic, so don't eat those).
9. Irrigation Is Worth It
"If you can get a DIY kit and set up an irrigation system, you can go away for a week in the summer [without worrying]." Having a plant is like having a pet; pretty much all of these plants will die quicker than you'd ever imagine without regular watering. And you shouldn't have to panic over a long-weekend beach trip about whether your three-month-old tomatoes will be shriveled after a mere two days away.
10. Start Earlier Than You Think And End Later Than You Think
"There are plants that survive the winter, even in Vermont," says Sheperd. "We start seeding in our greenhouse in January, but as soon as the ground isn't completely frozen, in late February or March, you can start seeding and transplanting things. Certain crops even taste better if they've gone through a freeze."
11. Seeds Aren't Always Better
It can be a cool project to start growing a plant from seed (and of course it's very cheap). But, Sheperd says, "I think starting from seed just isn't worth the time or effort in a lot of cases." She says tomatoes, peppers, and many herbs should start with a seedling, "but there are some things you should never start from a seedling, like squash or cilantro. They just don't transplant well, they get stressed out and might bolt, or start flowering too early." (Bolting means that the plant, freaked out and concerned it won't survive the year, devotes all its energy to producing seeds. It typically becomes inedible at that point.) If you do want to try from seed, she recommends lettuce, beans, peas, and Swiss chard, all of which she says has a high success rate.
We realize it's maybe a little too late this year to start a new garden with these helpful hints—but they might help steer you back on track if something isn't working out. Or you could just read this again come early 2015.