Urban Gardening for Beginners

Being self-sufficient and learning all the time is a really important to me.  Not only do I like to sew things, but in recent years, I’ve gotten pretty into gardening, too. I noticed that a lot of other sewists garden, and I love reading those posts! However, I live in a rented city apartment and always have– not always the easiest setup for gardening! I thought maybe I would talk a little about the various urban gardening setups I’ve had before, how they worked and what I’ve learned!

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YEAR ONE: Shared space container gardening

When Sean and I lived in Buffalo and I first became interested in gardening, we lived in a first-floor unit with a small porch and a shared yard with some other units. I got a lot of books out of the library on container gardening– there was no way any landlord would ever be open to us digging into the ground to plant (nor would the soil have been suitable! New York soil is rocky AF), and building a raised bed is a big commitment for  place that you’re renting.

I don’t have any photos from this time (all these photos are from my garden this year), but I had six tomatoes that I started from seed set up in pots in the sunny part of the yard, and some kale and lettuce in pots off the porch which was shadier.

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I started all my seeds (which I purchased from Baker Creek) indoors and babied the hell out of them, so my seedlings were really healthy and strong– I had to give a ton of tomato seedlings away! They did okay once I transplanted them to pots, but not amazing. The kale barely did anything– I think I got a leaf or two off of it. In retrospect, I kept it too shaded. The did alright but got kind of buggy and grossed me out.

Then, in the end of August, we moved to Buffalo and ended up having to big up and throw away all the plants before we even got a single tomato off of them. Poor planning! It broke my heart and I vowed to never pour so much energy into tomatoes again.

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YEAR TWO: Shared space rooftop gardening

Our new apartment in Chicago had a huge roof deck with a ton of direct light. I had all the pots and some fertilizer left over from the year before, which made the initial financial investment from the year before sting a little less (big pots at $5 each add up!). I tried to start my seeds in the window, but I had no luck.  I ended up just direct sowing chard, kale, and lettuce. Sean went out and bought seedlings of tomatoes, peppers and squash. After my fiasco the year before, I basically snorted and said “good luck.”

The verdict? My leafy greens did amazingly well and finally being able to harvest from all my labors was amazing. The tomatoes and peppers did okay, much to my chagrin. The squash did badly, which I had expected. Squash needs room to spread out!

The downside? All that direct light and heat might have been appealing to the plants (plus the roof top meant no rats or squirrels), but also made it appealing to the other people who lived in the building. Many times we would go upstairs to water and find the plants knocked over in the aftermath of a party. Also, carrying pitchers of water up and down the stairs to the roof was a headache.

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YEAR THREE: Shared space rooftop gardening

Much the same as Year Two, except that we once again moved in the end of August and ended up scrapping some plants before they hit their growing season. We ate plenty of greens, but everything else suffered.

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YEAR FOUR: Community garden plot

This year! This year so far has been a game changer for us.

Our new apartment has no roof deck, no porch, no lawn, no outdoor space at all. I had resigned myself to not having a garden this year at all, until Sean found the Peterson Garden Project, which organizes “pop up victory gardens” on vacant lots in Chicago. For less than $75 a season, you can rent a 4×8′ raised bed, which in my opinion is more than plenty for your average hobby gardener.

So far, I am loving the community garden best of all the gardening options we have tried. Firstly, we have way more space. It is just convenient to have everything planted in one spot, rather than scattered in a million pots. Also, a raised bed enables you to build a trellis and other cool things which expand your planting options (this year s the first that I’ve been able to have pole beans, for example). Additionally, a community garden is jut that– a community! Our garden has tons of people with different skill levels, ages, and backgrounds, but they are all very friendly and love to swap tips and chat! People share tools, seedlings, fertilizer, and offer to water for each other if someone is going out of town.

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So, TL;DR- here are my tips!

  • Do your research! Go to the library and the internet– look up what grows well in your area, how long your growing period lasts for, when your frost dates are. Also look up gardening basics– any library will have a large gardening section. I didn’t know a thing when I first started. I just took out books and took lots of notes.
  • Also research nurseries and seed companies– I prefer organic and heirloom, but no matter what you pick, you’re going to want a vendor with a solid reputation and a knowledgeable staff. Nothing worse than wasting money on seedlings with blight.
  • Some people say start small, but I’m not into that. If you hate lettuce, you’re not going to be thrilled to eat it, no matter how fast and easy it is to grow (this is me to a tee). Grow what you want to eat!
  • I would highly, highly recommend finding a community garden in your city! Sean found ours just by googling “community garden Chicago.” You never know what you’ll find! Our garden is a pretty established and organized non-profit, but a friend of ours found out that a church in his neighborhood had a more informal set up that he was welcome to join in with. Just ask!
  • Moving soon? Take this into consideration if you’re going to be planting some roots (yuk yuk). Don’t be like me, pulling up healthy tomato plants before they have a chance to fruit TWICE IN TWO YEARS.
  • Connect with other gardeners! Your mom, your grandma, your neighbor, your friends, a forum… half the fun of gardening is talking smack and trading tips with other gardeners! I swear, half the conversations I have with my dad these days are about my watermelon vines.
  • Eat what you grow! It makes everything so worthwhile and will remind you why you cared about this to begin with!
  • Allow yourself to feel smug! Gardening is good for the planet, greens up your space, connects you to the earth (look up forest bathing, the healing power of nature is a real thing), and gives you cheap access to plentiful organic foods!

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