2012 was a banner year for my mother’s tomato crop. So successful was her entire garden in fact, that three years later cans and jars still line the shelves of the kitchen in my childhood home, awaiting their eventual opening. A master at canning, she still boasts of these spoils frequently — of the delicious salsas and sauces and spreads put up all those years ago — usually when I mention what I’m having for dinner. My mother’s self-sufficiency is something I’ve long been envious of, especially now that I live in a place where a backyard garden isn’t exactly feasible. I grew up being sent to the garden to pick vegetables for dinner, foraging blueberries in our fields for dessert, battling thorns and brush and swarms of Maine mosquitos for the season’s freshest blackberries, and plucking eggs from beneath the warm bellies of hens. This upbringing certainly made an impression on me — bending and molding me into the person I’ve become — but it wasn’t until much more recently that the experience of living this way came full circle. Lately, I can’t get the idea of acres of land, a sprawling garden, and a flock of fat chickens out of my brain.
Living in the city certainly complicates this. In fact, I’d day it’s pretty much a pipe dream at his point in my life, but rather than continuing to daydream about this fantasy life of self-sufficiency, #FPEarthMonth inspired me to take the steps I could towards living in a more sustainable and connected way. I may live in a small apartment with zero outdoor space — save for a stoop and a ledge outside my bedroom window — but I decided I’d figure it out. While the chickens and bees and land will have to wait, the garden I could do, at least on a (very) small scale. I’m lucky to live on a street with neighbors who also have small container gardens that seem to be respected by neighborhood passerby, they go unnoticed and seemingly undisturbed, which gave me the confidence that I too could grow things in pots, so I headed over to Greensgrow here in Philadelphia on a sunny Saturday to pick up a few plants, pots, and soil. If you’ve been feeling the pull of the land where there is none, read on for a few tips and tricks for utilizing what you’ve got and taking the steps towards a more connected way of living – all within city limits:
Start small: In my head, I have a gorgeous, verdant outdoor space lit by twinkle lights and shaded from the prying eyes of the second floor next door by twirling and twining snap pea vines. In reality I have a few terra cotta pots germinating on the windowsill. While I hope to eventually get to that place, I know it’s smart to start small and resist biting off more than I can chew. Not only does this keep things manageable in your first year of container gardening, but it’s an economical choice as well. You will inevitably learn a great deal in your first year of growing and caring for finicky, edible plants, and some of those learnings will be difficult truths, start small, and plan for a larger project next year.
Keeping in mind that the only things I’d grown recently were some herbs and a few well-groomed jade plants, I chose to keep things simple for myself with lavender, sage, mint, and rosemary, and picked up a hearty tomato plant, kale, and broccoli — all plants that I had previous experience with. Since I had some left over potting soil and a few packets of seeds, I also started some sunflower seedlings, with fingers crossed that something grows. My hope is that next year I can start my entire garden from seeds, rather than relying on pre-started plants.
Consider your space: A front stoop should be treated differently than a fire escape. Each space is different from the next, with different amounts of daylight, temperatures, and footage. It’s especially important to observe and note how much sunlight your prospective “garden” gets each day, as this will effect the plants you’re able to grow. Once you’ve landed on a space, speak to someone knowledgeable about which plants might work best and in what kind of containers.
Knowing that space would be at a premium on my front stoop, I chose to utilize clay pots for individual planting. I can move them around as needed, and easily take them indoors should the temperature plummet in these early spring nights.
Ask questions: My neighbors have been tending to a raised bed garden for the past few seasons. It sits undisturbed next to their front steps and contributed to my desire to try my hand at small-scale gardening. If you have neighbors and friends who are more seasoned than you, don’t be intimidate – use them as a resource! Ask questions, lots of them. Utilize the experts at the urban farm down the road, the neighbor next door, or your green-thumb relatives. Chances are they’ll be happy to share their knowledge.
As I mixed perlite with potting soil and gently pried plant from pot, I couldn’t get the phrase ‘Grow Where You’re Planted’ out of my head. So many of us have similar dreams of connecting more closely with earth and community, and the grass has a tendency to always look greener. Rather than waiting for the stars to align, if we take the steps we can right now to grow and cultivate and connect with the earth around us, not only are we working towards our own goals, but we’re making the earth and our communities healthier in the process.
+ What are your tips for gardening in the city? Please share in the comments!
Check out more #FPEarthMonth posts for inspiration and ideas to create a healthier planet