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Fresh Food From Small Spaces: A Beginner's Guide to Urban Farming

You don't need a red barn and rolling wheat fields. Urbanites, too, can grow their own food indoors, in cramped spaces, and without access to land! For real.

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Fourth, people do not realize that they can build a garden bed directly on top of concrete, stone, or rocky soil. Almost anything can grow well in containers, but even a patio, driveway, or walkway can be converted to a productive garden bed by building the soil up (as opposed to digging down, which you would not be able to do without a jackhammer). I built two beds on top of my patio, and today, I cannot tell the difference between what is growing on them and what is growing in my soil-based beds. Twelve inches of soil is deep enough to grow almost anything. I’ve had two kale plants that each grew nearly six feet tall on those patio beds, plus peas, chard, beets, lettuce, and a few potatoes. I believe that this really increases the available growing space in cities; so much of our good space is paved over, but it is not longer off-limits to creative gardeners!

Fifth, try to reuse your resources in the garden. I wash my produce in a bowl or basin, and then dump that water back into the garden. It conserves water and saves a small amount of good soil from going down the drain. Then compost your food scraps along with any coffee grounds, newspapers, cardboard, and old plant material. Start a compost pile or buy a tumbler, bin, or worm composter. Check and see whether your city or county provides discounts or free bins for people to compost. Each year you will need to continually add organic matter to your garden soil, and compost is a wonderful source of both organic matter and soil nutrients. For plant fertilizer, though, do not rely on your own compost: you will need to add some organic fertilizer as well, which is available from your local nursery. Most kinds have a base of manure or seed meal for nitrogen, plus natural sources of phosphorus and potassium, which are all key plant nutrients. Kelp extract makes a great supplemental source for both trace minerals and natural growth boosters.

Q.If one family could grow one type of food in their small space—in order to save money—what would be the most viable option?

Curbside corn. Curbside corn. Photo courtesy Mike23mcg via Flickr

A. I would recommend trying something that is both simple and productive. For a survivalist crop, nothing beats potatoes (and homegrown potatoes taste great!). You would need fields of grain to feed the family, but you can grow a meaningful amount of potatoes in a pretty small space. Spuds pack more calories per square foot of soil than any other crop. They can grow in most climates and in most soils (even poor soils). You can store them for months at a time. You absolutely do not need ground soil to grow potatoes, and even though I have some ground space available, I now grow all my potatoes in containers. So far, all of my container-grown spuds have been completely pest-free and disease-free, so I am able to use the smaller potatoes as seed potatoes for the next crop. Some people grow spuds in garbage cans, stacked tires, wire fencing rolls, and in other unique structures. They are quite prolific and hard to kill, so be creative. Even if you do not treat the plants well (forgetting to water or fertilize as often as you should), you are likely to harvest at least a few pounds per square foot. You can improve your harvest greatly by mixing some compost into the soil, keeping the pH pretty low (by adding a few scoops of peat or pine needles), watering regularly to keep the soil barely moist, AND fertilizing regularly with an organic fertilizer that includes healthy amounts of both phosphorus (P) and potassium/potash (K). Do not use a high nitrogen fertilizer, as this will make the plant grow too vigorously at the expense of the roots and tubers (the edible part). Look for an organic fertilizer with an “N-P-K” number where the “N” is no higher than the “P” or “K”. Most fertilizers for acid plants (azaleas, rhododendrons, etc.) and bulb fertilizers (if the nitrogen is not too high) will work very well for potatoes. Fish emulsion + kelp extract is a nice combination too.

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