If you don’t have a yard large enough to contain a garden (or any yard at all), you may think that your local supermarket and farmer’s market are your only sources for fresh produce. But don’t load up the grocery cart with fruit, veggies, and herbs just yet. If you have a small townhouse yard, a fire escape, a south-facing window, or even a basement apartment (yes, really!), you can grow enough food to save a considerable amount of money and enjoy fresh, healthy produce.
A new book from the popular For Dummies® series will give you all of the information you need to start growing in your small space, ranging from different types of urban gardens to tips about pest management, irrigation, composting, and much more.
“It’s true—with the right knowledge, you can create a garden essentially anywhere,” promises Charlie Nardozzi, coauthor along with Paul Simon and the National Gardening Association of the new book Urban Gardening For Dummies® (Wiley, January 2013, ISBN: 978-1-1183-4035-6, $19.99). “It’s all about using proven small-space techniques that allow you to maximize yield.”
Specifically, Nardozzi says, the name of the small-space game is sustainability. If you want your garden to last through the years and stay in harmony with nature, you’ll need to ask yourself questions like, Am I being environmentally responsible? Is what I want to do economically feasible? Is there a way I can involve my community?
Here, Nardozzi shares ten tips that will help urbanites everywhere to create and maintain sustainable small-space gardens:
Understand sustainability. In order to create a sustainable urban garden, you must first know what sustainable agriculture means. In essence, it means putting as much back into the land as you take away, so that the land can continue producing indefinitely. It also means minimizing the use of nonrenewable resources, because by definition these resources are finite and their use cannot be sustained indefinitely.
“Advocates of sustainable farming—and sustainable living in general—feel that our mainstream consumer culture is living on borrowed time, until the day that the earth’s resources can no longer support us,” Nardozzi comments. “Only by adopting more sustainable lifestyles can we conserve these nonrenewable resources. Urban gardeners can employ sustainable management practices to help gather community support and preserve remaining open lands available in our cities for continued agricultural and urban farming uses for the next generation.”
Know your soil conditions. Many urban gardeners are correct in thinking they have poor soil—it’s likely to be compacted and poor in structure and quality. Once you have selected a garden area, test the soil to determine the soil type, pH, organic matter content, and available phosphate and potash. Don’t let all of that jargon scare you; you can buy soil-testing kits at garden centers or send a soil sample to a soil-testing laboratory.
“The key to improving the soil is to do it before you begin any planting,” Nardozzi explains. “If you incorporate the proper amounts of organic matter and soil amendments, your soil will provide nutrients and make air and water more available to plants.”
Compost is key. Aside from the conservation aspect of reducing our waste, compost improves soil structure, promotes plant growth, and helps soil store nutrients to keep them available for plants. Research shows that plants mulched with compost are more disease-resistant and sturdier than plants grown without it.
“Compost improves all aspects and types of soil,” Nardozzi shares. “What organic matter you use depends on local availability and personal preference. If you have enough homemade compost, use that. Otherwise, check garden centers or the Yellow Pages for companies that produce compost in bulk. Visually check the compost for weeds, insects, and foreign material.”
Conserve water and harvest your rain. Clean water is a very precious commodity—especially in our urban communities. That’s why, according to Nardozzi, a sustainable urban gardener needs to employ numerous methods and strategies to conserve water.
“From installing rain barrels and rain gardens to simply adjusting your mowing height, there are several easy steps to reduce your water use at home and employ sustainable conservation strategies,” he says.
Use organic fertilizers. While plants respond rapidly to chemical fertilizers, they are carried into the soil via salts—and this part of their chemistry threatens the living creatures that work every day to build your soil. (Specifically, they dehydrate essential bacteria and fungi in the soil.) Plus, the impact of chemical fertilizers is short-lived and must be repeated often to get the same effect.
“Being a sustainable urban gardener requires you to be environmentally responsible, and that means using organic fertilizers,” Nardozzi points out. “Organic fertilizers add to the ecology in the soil because they are not carried by salts and have both short- and long-term impacts.”
Know your microclimate conditions. The urban climate is influenced by a variety of factors including solar radiation, surrounding air temperatures, air movement, sun orientation, humidity, topographical location, proximity to lakes or waterfront exposure, paved surfaces such as roads and parking lots, buildings, and existing rooftop conditions.
“Understanding how to appropriately develop your landscape to mitigate the impacts of light and wind can help you create a microclimate that is beneficial to the urban environment and your wallet,” Nardozzi says. “For instance, depending on where your garden is located and how you design it, it might help to reduce summer cooling costs and lower your winter heating bills.”
Select “the right” plants for your area. “The right” plants are well adapted to your urban environment and require little to no maintenance whatsoever. Native plants are good candidates since they have evolved and adapted to local conditions. They also tend to be vigorous and hardy and able to withstand local weather patterns including winter’s cold and summer’s heat.
“Once established, native plantings require no irrigation or fertilization,” Nardozzi comments. “They’re resistant to most pests and diseases, making them ideal for the sustainable gardener.”
Consider hydroponic and aquaponic gardening. In its simplest form, hydroponics is growing plants by supplying all necessary nutrients in the plants’ water supply rather than through the soil. This method helps gardeners grow more food more rapidly in smaller areas (greenhouses, living rooms, classrooms, and rooftops, for instance) and to produce food in places where space, good soil, and/or water are limited.
“In aquaponics, the nutrient solution is water containing fish excrement,” Nardozzi explains. “Basically, it’s the integration of hydroponics and aquaculture. Live fish are raised in a traditional fish tank. They excrete their waste into the surrounding water, which is used to supply nutrients to the growing plants positioned above the tank. Because hydroponic and aquaponic gardening can be done in small spaces, they are great options for urban gardeners.”
Minimize the costs. In order to be sustainable, you need to keep your costs low while using as many eco-friendly products as your budget allows (for example, energy efficient light bulbs, which have become increasingly affordable in recent years).
“Of course, saving energy helps you save money on utility bills and helps protect the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the continued fight against climate change,” says Nardozzi. “Just make sure your project is economically feasible from the outset!”
Involve your community. Whether up on the rooftop or between buildings in a vacant lot, opportunities abound in your city to grow together with your community. Community gardens provide a place to meet new friends and to share gardening experiences.
“In fact, many community gardens offer workshops to help gardeners learn about seeds, crop rotation, companion planting, and organic pest control solutions to help keep soil and plants healthy,” Nardozzi says. “Everybody benefits!”
“Sustainability is not an outcome; it’s a process of responsible maintenance,” Nardozzi concludes. “In order to manage your urban gardening practices well, you must pay careful attention to environmental and economic factors and involve the community. A collaborative effort and responsible management of the city landscape will grant you a successful and beautiful urban garden now and into the next generation!”
About the Authors:
The National Gardening Association is the leading garden-based educational nonprofit in the USA. Visit www.garden.org.
Charlie Nardozzi is the coauthor of Urban Gardening For Dummies® and a nationally recognized garden writer, speaker, and radio and television personality.
Paul Simon is the coauthor of Urban Gardening For Dummies® as well as a nationally recognized landscape architect, public artist, horticulturist, master gardener, and urban designer.
About the Book:
Urban Gardening For Dummies® (Wiley, January 2013, ISBN: 978-1-1183-4035-6, $19.99) is available at bookstores nationwide, major online booksellers, or directly from the publisher by calling (877) 762-2974. For more information, please visit the book’s page at www.wiley.com.