Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Urban Vegetable Gardening - Grow Your Own

What do you need to grow your own vegetables - space, soil, water, light. Sometimes that can be a challenge in the middle of a city. A few solutions are container gardening (see prior posts and links here) as then there are raised beds. If you have any trepidation about what may be in your soil or the composition of your soil - there are steps you can take to get in the right direction. These include "lasagna gardening", "raised bed gardening", and "vertical gardening."

Let's explore these last options - and I'll use photos taken June 2014 at the Garfield Park Conservatory and prior blogs to illustrate.  The outdoor Urban Demonstration Garden at the conservatory is a purposeful example of an Urban Vegetable Garden.
Panorama of Chicago's Garfield Park Conservatory, Urban Demonstration Garden June 2014
Raised Beds: There are many reasons to consider a raised bed and some downsides to consider as well. I'm a big fan of the  pro-con matrix. 
Pros and Cons to Raised Bed Gardening
Another con I just thought of - if you want to rototill - that is really hard to do in a small raised bed.   So when do the pros make it a must do? Most likely if you have really bad soil - a raised bed can mean 6-8 inches of dirt and compost of your choice. Just perfect for your plants. If cost is a concern, try looking for pallets and recycling the wood. It should get you through 2-3 summers.  I put in a raised bed for my vegetable garden a decade or so ago. I used pavers around the edge. Well those pavers are now flush with the top of the ground - and the soil inside is so rich it's amazing.   
Urban Vegetable Garden - Garfield Park Conservatory Chicago

Shade garden - once mobile home storage
Potatoes in straw @ Conservatory
Lasagna Gardening:  This has nothing to do with pasta or Italy. Years ago there was a section of my yard the prior owner used for bike/motor home storage. It was mostly gravel and not very good dirt. Plus I imagine lots of oils and mechanical fluids there. It was so hard we couldn't even think of tilling or turning over the soil for a garden. Nor did I really want to at this point. For nearly a decade we piled all the grass clippings, leaves, and compost-able material into this spot.  Little did I know that I was creating a "Lasagna garden" by layering organic materials like hay, coffee grinds, food scraps right on top of the ground. Over time there was an alternating between green layers (veggie scraps, grass clippings, garden trimmings) and brown layers (hay, coffee grinds, fall leaves, ripped-up newspaper, peat, dried pine needles) according to the seasons. I even loaded truckloads of wood chips on this spot.  An archaeological dig on this site might prove interesting :)  Amazingly, a 5-foot-tall stack of leaves and grass will compost down to inches. I did it over years, because I wasn't ready yet to take on another project - but it goes very fast.  I never did plant vegetables here - but that was because it was too shady. In this shade garden photo, the beds and the yard all the way down to the trees was once the gravel storage bed. Change happens!  with a lasagna garden technique, you could start with a big pile of greens/browns a few feet tall and have it ready for planting in weeks.  

In fact - you an even grow some crops in a pile of straw. In the photo above are potatoes that are growing in a combination raised bed and lasagna garden.  There is a large pile of straw and mulch.  The potatoes grow in this mixture and not in the soil. The benefits are rounder potatoes, easier weeding, and easier harvesting (Just pull up the straw - no digging)

Vertical Herb Gardening
Swiss shard and vertical garden space :)
Garfield Park conservatory

Vertical Gardening: When you lack the space for vegetable plants to spread out horizontally, grow them vertically. Hanging baskets and some planters are designed to fit over windowsills or existing balcony or deck railings are a good option. Topsy Turvy hanging planters are also perfect for growing tomatoes, peppers, and herbs upside down and out of the reach of hungry critters.  The photo on the right above is from one of my prior blogs where the gardener used a fence between houses to grow herbs and small vegetables. There are many vegetables that you can vine vertically - like beans. 

In the shot on the  left above - beans or grapes would be a good addition to the lattice work in the Urban Demonstration garden.

Don't forget space for composting
Garfield Park Conservatory, 2014
Rain barrels to help with watering :)
Garfield Park Conservatory, 2014
Parting thoughts - if you have space... a composting system is always helpful. Even if it's just a pile in the corner or a bucket.  You need a water source - and if you can leverage rainwater in your urban garden it's fun and economical.  Here's the rain barrel with a fancy hat to ease collection. 

Happy Gardening!

Teresa Marie

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