How to Garden in an Urban Setting

Anyone with a patch of sunshine and a pot can enjoy urban gardening. Here's how to get started.

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Even if you live in a teeny-tiny apartment in NYC, don't despair—you can still garden. All it takes is a little creativity! Here's how to dress up windowsills, rooftops, balconies, and community gardens to grow your own lush vegetables, flowers, and herbs.

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Containers

Watering

Containers with drainage holes and six hours of sunlight per day are essential partners in urban gardening. Monitor soil moisture with all containers; too much or too little water can cause problems. Allow the top 1-2 inches of soil to dry out before watering. Keep in mind that while drought stresses plants, overwatering can kill them. Self-watering containers are a good choice for rooftop gardens where the sun can create baking-hot conditions.

Container Options

To grow vegetables on a rooftop or balcony, choose a container 14-18 inches deep. If you are growing vegetables with deep roots, such as potatoes and tomatoes, choose a container at least 18 inches deep. Small trees can be grown in very large containers (at least 10-15 gallons), including types bred to stay short and columnar. If you choose to grow a columnar apple tree, check to see whether it will self-pollinate. Many apple trees need at least one other apple tree for fertilization.

Dark-colored pots absorb more heat than light-colored ones, and may get so hot that root systems are injured. Succulents and natives of hot, dry areas do best in these conditions. Try one of these tricks to alleviate the problem: Move dark pots to areas that receive shade during the hottest parts of the day, add trailing plants to shade the pot, or devise screening.

Even if your budget doesn't allow for the purchase of new containers, you can use any number of easily acquired items, such as plastic buckets, children's wading pools, crates, whiskey barrels, and bricks or concrete blocks stacked in a container shape. Just be sure that your container has multiple holes to allow water to drain from the bottom. Avoid using chemically treated wood, which may have toxins that can kill plants.

If your containers are housed in a windy area, such as a balcony, choose a container with straight sides for stability. Any pot with a base that's smaller than the top opening is more likely to be blown over in a stiff wind, especially small pots with less weight.

Window Boxes

A window box with access for planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting can be an effective form of urban gardening. Because a window box usually isn't deep enough to support the root systems of many vegetable plants, choose smaller plants such as parsley, basil, and other herbs.

Microgreens, spinach, lettuces, and other vegetables meant to be harvested as miniatures also make good window box options. Try combining herbs with flowering annuals for a beautiful display, choosing some that will trail over the edge of the window box. Most plants will do best if the window box receives at least 4-6 hours of sunlight per day.

Create a sunny window box garden.

Go Vertical

Urban gardens may not have acres of ground for planting but they can always grow up! Walls, trellises, and hanging baskets extend the growing area vertically. Use posts or walls with brackets to support hanging baskets of herbs or flowers.

Top a large container with a trellis, obelisk, or tomato cage for extra growing space. Pole beans are a great option for vertical gardening because they continue producing beans throughout the growing season instead of a single flush. Tomato plants, with their long limbs and heavy fruits, benefit from the extra support of a cage. You can grow melons on a balcony, too—add slings or other supports for these and other heavy fruits. More vining crops to grow on trellises include climbing peas, cucumbers, pumpkins (but not the giant kind!), and squash.

Community Gardens

As growing your own food and flowers becomes ever more popular, many people carve out community garden spaces in unused lots, school yards, and other public properties. Search for community garden space near you by contacting the American Community Garden Association (communitygarden.org) or your local cooperative extension service.

To start your own community garden, collaborate with like-minded people on a plan for how plots will be planted, tended, and harvested, and about rules like whether the garden will be organic or allow chemicals. Choose a site that receives at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day, and get the soil tested before starting to be sure that it will support gardens.

Succession Planting

To get the most vegetables out of a small plot or large containers, try succession planting (planting vegetables that ripen in sequence), choosing varieties with short maturation times, and staggering the planting times.

Because most vegetables have a short harvest window (indeterminate tomatoes and pole beans are exceptions), sow a new round of seeds or plants every two weeks to continually harvest your favorites.

Divide your growing area into three sections or use three containers, planting in one of them every two weeks.

You can also share some spaces. For example, begin the season by planting vegetables that thrive in cooler weather, such as lettuce, radishes, kale, beets, collards, peas, and spinach. As each cool crop ends, plant warm-season vegetables in its place, such as beans, eggplant, peppers, squash, tomatoes, and others, continuing successive plantings with the change of seasons.

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