I must admit I find this contemporary obsession with sourcing food organically and locally somewhat hilarious. See, I’m smug like that. Growing up on a hobby farm in rural northwestern Wisconsin, this is just what we did. Dad hunted and fished (as did we kids) because we couldn’t afford to eat meat year-round if we didn’t. We ate beef from friends’ cows, venison from deer that grew up on our back 40 and remarked on the chickens we ate for dinner by name. (My favorite chicken, Brownie, was a delicious bird.) Our vegetable garden was organic because that’s just what you do; why would you use artificial fertilizers when the neighbors can just come over with a trailer full of manure for you to put around the roots and have poop fights with your brothers? What is novel and urban-chic is just the way things were done “back in my day” ““ the “˜80s and “˜90s. In other words, I win.
But in all seriousness, I’m happy we’re all thinking about these things. Food matters. How we grow it, transport it, prepare it and consume it. And since I, too, have been a city-dweller for 15 years, anything I can do to honor the traditions of my childhood, preserve biodiversity and maintain self-sufficiency is a superfantastic thing. So here’s how you get started growing your own in the city.
If you have the means (and the waitlist isn’t too long), you can rent a spot in a community garden. But you don’t need to. All you need is a little bit of space outdoors. A balcony. A stoop. A rooftop. A window box. Even a parking lot (though you don’t want exhaust aiming at your plants). Get a few buckets, some high quality potting soil and go to town.
Start with veggies you know do well in your region. How do you know what does well where you live? Ask around. Consult an almanac. Google. Use the USDA Hardiness Zone Finder to compare seed packets to the zone where you live. If that’s still too hard, these three plants are pretty difficult to screw up, provided they have water and sunlight (and not too much or too little of either).
1) Lettuce. Pretty much all lettuces are super easy to grow from seed in a pot. Start with a packet of mesclun mix. Just follow the instructions on the seed packet and get “˜em going ““ depending on your hardiness zone, you may be able to start them as early as February. A gallon ice-cream bucket works great to grow your own baby lettuce; be sure to add drainage holes. They’ll start peeping through the soil after a week or two, depending on warmth and type of lettuce in the mix. Once the plants are a few leaves big, just cut and eat what you want as you want it. No need to pull up the whole plant. If it gets hot and they bolt (go to seed), start another batch. I’m in western Washington and sometimes I can get four crops of lettuce a year.
2) Potatoes. There’s a reason poor folks throughout the world rely on this staple crop ““ they’re easy to grow and hard to kill (as long as they don’t get blight). Plant them in early spring (a couple weeks before the last frost). To do so, take a potato in your cupboard that’s starting to sprout. Russets are hardy, so try one of those if you have it. Cut it so an eye (those brown knot-like dots on the skin) is preserved in each cut piece. Plant each eye chunk in a few inches of soil in the bottom of a five-gallon bucket with drainage holes drilled into the bottom. Water regularly, but don’t drown “˜em. You can even force the taproot to grow deep and create more potatoes by burying the plant as it emerges from the soil. Little yellow flowers will bloom in late summer and then the plant will wilt, brown and die. This is when you dig up your taters.
3) Tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes, especially, are incredibly productive, forgiving to grow and tasty. If you have a bumper crop, you can cook them down into sauces and freeze it. To grow, get seedlings in late spring. You can grow them from seed if you live somewhere with a long growing season, but it’s nice to get a jumpstart so you maximize production. Plant in a five-gallon bucket mostly filled with soil. Make sure you drill drainage holes. Put in a sunny spot and water a ton whenever the soil gets dry; tomatoes in containers dry out really easily, and you need a big, healthy plant to encourage a bunch of fruit. They’ll flower, and from these flowers come tiny termaters that will ripen in mid-summer.
Urban gardening isn’t always pretty, but it doesn’t have to be. The prettiest part is the big plate of homegrown goodies greeting you throughout the season. Don’t be afraid to fail. The worst thing that happens is the plant dies because the conditions just ain’t right. You can always try again. And once you get good at it, veggies are a wonderful bartering tool. I’ve had neighbors mow my lawn in exchange for a few tomatoes. Plus, you’ll be ready to hole up during the zombie apocalypse. So there’s that.