Urban Gardening: Growing Food in Unlikely Places

I have a theory: If people would scrap the “manicured lawn” idea and insert a giant garden and potentially a chicken coop, they could grow enough food for their family.  People have land but culture has decided it should be full of grass and fertilizers rather than grazing animals and vegetables.

We have been growing our garden since 2011.  Each year we learn from the previous and this year we even expanded our growing area to hopefully provide a greater yield.  The first year we started seeds inside and transplanted, but over our mid-August honeymoon we failed to make watering arrangements and were greeted home by dry and brittle plants 🙁  That same year we also purchased 2 organic Blueberry Bushes (which take 3 years before they really produce any fruit). 

2014 update: This is our best year yet!  We have tons of seedlings and have replenished the nutrients in our soil so everything is growing like wildfire.  We have been composting all our organic matter and mixed it into the beds for added nutrients.  There are tons of seeds that were in our compost so in addition to the seeds we planted, our beds are a bit of a surprise garden, which is kind of exciting!

In 2012 Andy built what we refer to as “The Structure” and it sits in our backyard.  We also extended and raised the bed on the side of our house where we direct-sowed our seeds.  However, we were slightly over-zealous with planting; in order to maximize our yield we WAY over-planted and ended up with a lot of large leaves and not a lot of vegetables.  My tomatoes were finally about to vine ripen when the fall frost killed them…ya, that’s how long it took.

Here’s what we did:

We took 1 sheet of plywood and cut it to make the boxes into 8′ x 1’x high. We then bought 3 stair-step molds for each side and one in the middle for the boxes to sit on. For the bottom of the boxes we used a little thicker wood, either a 2 x 6 x 12″ or 2 x 8 x 12″. We then put an inch of gravel in the bottom for drainage and drilled holes in the bottom of each box every foot. The legs were nailed to the top of the stair step, 2 x 6″ (3 total, one at each stair step, long enough to reach the ground). Then just fill each box with dirt and compost and you’re good to go!

“The Structure” 2013
Row 1: Arugula and Romaine Lettuce
Row 2: Green Beans
Row 3: Basil
Row 4 (Top): Colored Peppers

Libby dog likes to photo bomb all of my pictures

“The Structure” 2014
Phase 1 (Cool Weather Crops):
Row 1: Bib and Romaine Lettuce
Row 2: Spinach and Arugula
Row 3: Romaine Lettuce
Row 4: Radishes
Phase 2 (Summer Crops):
Row 1: Green Beans
Row 2: Bell Peppers
Row 3: Basil
Row 4: Herbs

What we’ve learned:

  1. Starting plants inside is effective, but don’t start them too early, and make sure they get plenty of light.  The light should be right up close to the seedlings so they are not reaching and becoming spindly.  If they are spindly you can plant some of the stem underground when transplanting and the stem will grow as roots underground.  Some seeds are best directly sowed into the ground, but tomatoes and peppers we like to start inside.
  2. Less is more, and more means less. We so badly wanted a huge yield that we ignored the spacing suggestions and crammed as many plants in as possible. You can’t have 8 zucchini plants in a 6×2 foot area and wonder why they all the fruits shrivel up and die before maturity. I didn’t have the heart to throw away (a.k.a. “thin”) the baby plants, I wanted them all to live. It’s like in the Bible when God says he “prunes” the vines so they may grow more…be like the Master Gardener.
  3. Plan to grow what you will eat, but also what you can freeze or can. Last year I inherited boxes of fresh tomatoes (since my garden was slow to give) and canned pasta sauce that has lasted all winter. It saddens me when people are trying to give away their fresh produce because they can’t eat it fast enough. I applaud your generosity but that’s the point! Stock up for the months when you are unable to grow fresh foods.

Our Little Seedlings

This year, we’re doing things differently.  Andy has really taken the lead on planning and planting all the seeds inside.  We ordered all heirloom organic seeds from The Sustainable Seed Company, including Swiss chard, green beans, 2 tomato varieties, kale, zucchini and summer squash, turnips, blood beets, romaine lettuce, basil, cilantro, arugula, colored peppers, and cucumbers…and I bought a Bok Choy plant just for fun!

We used a shop light tied to a storage shelf to grow the seedlings, and it worked out really well!  Credit to Old World Garden Farm for the growing tips!

Andy extended the raised bed to include the entire side of our house…Annnnd we’ve done something crazy yet surprisingly sensible…we turned our front bed into a vegetable garden! 
The idea came to me as we were walking around our neighborhood and talking about the “Grow Food Not Lawns” movement.  We’re typically too cheap to spend a lot on a ton of flowers so our beds look clean and average in my opinion.  But seeds, those are cheap AND practical.  Really though what is the purpose of having only flowers?  I love flowers as much as the next girl and still plan to plant some, but I believe a lot of our hunger issues could be addressed if people could learn to utilize the land they have around their house to grow some food instead of eye candy!  We hope to save a lot of money and prepare for the winter months.

Plus we’ve planned it so it will be aesthetically pleasing.  Triangles of Bulls Blood Beets, Rainbow Chard, and Turnips are the main section with Kale Plants in between our newly planted boxwood’s, and some peppers on the side and Marigolds throughout.  It was quite the process to dig out all the crappy builder clay and replace it with better soil.  Andy and I had a marathon of manually loading and unloading a rented U-Haul pick-up with dirt but we made it through with only a dented tailpipe (long story!).  Not sure if our condo association will care but I enjoy going against the grain, and I’ll enjoy my vegetables even more!

Over the weekend we transplanted the plants into our front and side gardens and planted our beet and turnip seeds!  To top it off, my blueberry bushes have several little bell buds on it…it’s going to be a great year!

If your yard is as small as ours you may think it impossible to grow your own food.  However, if you are resourceful you can provide fresh truly organic produce for you and your family.  Maybe you’re not a huge fan of vegetables because you’ve only ever eaten the bland, unripe varieties available at the grocery store.  There is nothing like fresh produce right from your garden, picked at the peak of ripeness when the nutritional content is highest.  Give it a try!  It’s a fun learning experience and easy to involve the whole family…a much better use of time than the boob-tube.

Our Front Yard “Garden” and side raised bed.  You can see the little kale, cabbage, chard, and squash plants poke through!

Happy Gardening!

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7 comments on “Urban Gardening: Growing Food in Unlikely Places

  1. Our front beds have been the majority of my herb garden since we moved to this house 5 years ago. Initially it was to David's chagrin, but as it has filled in and morphed and matured, he really enjoys the way it makes our house stand out from the others in the neighborhood. Pluss all of the pollinators hang out here, which thrills me to no end!

  2. Good work guys. At 61 years old and still very active, we wanted to get back to gardening but we are going with a vertical deck design. Starting from seed we will see how it goes and hope we have the same enthusiasm and commitment as you. Keep it up!

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