By Alison Ashton
These days, home is a second-story condo with no yard. Instead, we have a sunny, south-facing balcony and a sizable deck, which means our urban farming must be done in containers. Which is all right by me. Even when I lived in houses with yards, I was still more inclined to garden in containers because I’m horticulturally challenged and lazy. Overseeing a few containers just seemed…easier. And it is; even I’ve managed to cultivate pots of vigorous herbs and sweet cherry tomatoes.
You can grow anything, from herbs to apple trees, in containers, says C. Darren Butler, a Los Angeles-based University of California Master Gardener, arborist, and landscape designer who teaches small-space gardening workshops and other horticultural classes. “The only thing I’d caution people that they shouldn’t try in a container is corn,” he says.
Here’s all you need to get started:
Location. “You need sun–five to six hours a day,” says Butler. “That’s the number one thing.” But that sun can be on a patio, balcony, deck, or stairway. If horizontal space is limited, a sun-drenched wall is ripe for vertical gardening.
Choose a container. “I don’t think there’s any one perfect container,” says Butler. Size and water retention are the main considerations. He recommends sustainably harvested wood, UV-treated recycled plastic, or simply reusing 5-gallon plastic nursery buckets. Glazed clay pots retain water well, Butler notes, but they can be expensive and breakable. Avoid terra cotta, he cautions, which tends to wick moisture away from plants.
Evangeline Heath Rubin, who documents her horticultural adventures in the blog Farm Apartment, got her apartment garden started with a self-watering EarthBox ($59.95), in which she grows a variety of salad greens. EarthBox kits come with a container, watering system, potting mix, and casters.
The depth of the container depends on the plant’s root system. Most plants need at least 8 to 12 inches, though baby lettuces, radishes and arugula can thrive in as little as 4 to 6 inches. Tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant and the like need a bit more depth–14 to 20 inches. You can even grow a lemon tree in a 5-gallon pot; you’ll just need to prune the roots every few years when the plant is dormant.
Soil. Butler recommends a mix of one-third coarse builder’s sand or washed plaster sand, one-third organic matter (compost or organic potting soil for vegetables), and one-third native soil (ask a neighbor to lend you some).
You’ll want to feed container plants to replenish nutrients that are washed away every time you water, says Heath Rubin. Compost or worm castings are ideal. Her solution for small-space composting has been vermiculture–using worms to compost kitchen scraps–in a compact Wriggly Ranch worm bin. “I give them the gourmet treatment,” boasts Heath Rubin, who purees vegetable scraps for her colony of red wigglers. “I think of them as my pets.”
Plants. “Don’t be afraid to start from seed,” says Heath Rubin. Butler recommends compact container varieties, which are available for just about any kind of fruit or vegetable. Organizations like Seed Savers Exchange and companies like Seeds of Change sell seeds for everything from bush cucumbers to cherry tomatoes to baby eggplant.
Hmm, with sun, decent soil, a hospitable container, and seeds even I can turn my concrete jungle into a verdant urban farm.
A longtime editor, writer, and recipe developer, Alison Ashton is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and the Editorial Director for Nourish Network. She has worked as a features editor for a national wire service and as senior food editor for a top food magazine. Her work has appeared in Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times, and Natural Health as well as on her blog, Eat Cheap, Eat Well, Eat Up.