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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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Most first-time gardeners want to grow tomatoes. This is another good choice for a first-time crop. Like their spud relatives, tomatoes are amazingly productive in the home garden and they taste far better than anything you can buy in the store. If you are buying store-bought tomatoes, you can save a lot of money by growing them at home instead. With just 2-3 plants, you may well have enough tomatoes for the whole family and even some left over for drying, canning, giving away, or selling. Tomatoes will grow well in certain containers, provided that these are large enough to accommodate their root system (at least 12-15 gallons of soil capacity). Where light is limited or in cool summer areas, try the smaller-fruited tomatoes such as cherry, plum, and even Roma tomatoes. You are much more likely to ripen a crop with these than with the giant-fruited varieties. If diseases are a problem, choose disease-resistant varieties, and do not feel bad if this includes hybrid varieties rather than heirlooms. Growing hybrids is not a crime against nature; it just means that you cannot save your own seeds for the next generation. Seed catalogs and nurseries feature hundreds of varieties from which to choose.

Q.What are some of the urban gardening techniques you’ve found most effective?

A. Urban gardeners can face some key limitations. The most obvious one is lack of space, but another limitation is lack of light. The only available space for your garden may be shaded by a building next door or a tree overhead. So you may not get the 6-8 hours of full-blast direct sunlight that most gardening books recommend. But the good news is that those other gardening books are wrong here; they were written by people who garden on acres rather than feet or inches. Small-space urban gardeners know that many food plants can grow well in partial sunlight, dappled sunlight, reflected sunlight, or with just a few hours per day of direct sunlight. Leafy greens, legumes, and most root crops can handle limited light and will produce just fine even if the harvest is a little smaller than in full sunlight.

Vertical gardening can help you address both space and light limitations. Even if you do not have much horizontal space, you may have vertical air space or wall space available to grow some crops. Tall plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, beans, and some squash can be trained upwards or even downwards, growing large and productive even if they have a small horizontal footprint. In some urban spaces, there may well be more light higher up (or lower down) that vertical plants can grow into. If your light comes in at an angle, you can grow shorter plants in front of these taller ones. Dwarf fruit trees and some berry plants can be espaliered against walls or fences, growing from a small patch of soil next to a walkway or wall. The branches are trained two-dimensionally so that they spread in height and width against the wall, but do not spread outwards. Pears, apples, stone fruit, persimmons, and hardy kiwis or grapes (with wire or trellis support), and are all candidates for espalier or 2-D training.

Q.I’m planning on starting some seeds indoors this weekend. What type of planter would you suggest, and can I build it myself?

Toilet gardens. Plant’er here.

A. You can start seeds in any small container that has adequate root space and drainage. 2-4 inch peat/coir/cow pots, reused plastic pots from the nursery, egg cartons, and the bottoms of milk cartons all make suitable planters for seed starting. A sunny window makes a good spot or else you can use some indoor light to get the little plants going. Fluorescent or Compact Fluorescent light bulbs work well, but you will need to keep the plant seedlings within a foot or two of the bulbs to get enough light energy, and you will need to run the light for at least eight hours per day.

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