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

Do you dream of an organic garden, but don’t have a yard? A flock of chicks, perhaps, but don’t have a yard? Home-grown food, and lower grocery bills (but, alas, no yard!)? Dream no more, because you can have it, and without quitting your job, trading your bus pass for a pickup, or moving to the rural north.

A new wave of farming is happening in a city near you. While true, Old MacDonald had a farm (ee-i-ee-i-o), his offspring have some urban fish to fry. They’re working off loans, and can’t necessarily afford a parcel of land. They’re young parents who want to save money on cherry tomatoes. They’re newlyweds paying off healthcare debt, and growing taters in their trashcan. They’re students avoiding crappy dining plans. They’re urban farmers. Plain and simple.

In Fresh Food From Small Spaces: The Square-Inch Gardener’s Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting, author R. J. Ruppenthal turns a seemingly anti-urban idea—that farming has to be done outside, with a red barn and rolling fields of wheat—on its head. Because urbanites, too, can grow their own food indoors, in cramped spaces, and without access to land! For real.

So without further ado, I give you Ruppenthal’s comprehensive "how-to" info for growing fresh food in the absence of open land; it’s here for the taking. Nom nom. Here’s my discussion with him:

Q. Without the luxury of land or space, is it really possible for someone to grow and produce their own food?

A. You do not need much space to grow some of your own food. If you live in an apartment, condo, or townhouse, you might not think that you have enough space to grow anything, but my goal is to change your mind on that. You can grow nutritious sprouts on a counter top, salad greens on a windowsill, dwarf fruit trees on a patio, tomatoes on a balcony, and much more. Most vegetables, and even fruit trees and berry bushes, can thrive when grown in containers. Indoors, try mushrooms, sprouts, and fermented cultures such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi.

Q. What are the top five things a city resident needs to know about urban gardening?

A. First, you need to know that you CAN grow a lot of different food crops in limited spaces, even in apartments, condos, townhouses, and other small homes. I described some of the possibilities above, and there are more in my book. Hopefully, you will try some of these and also come up with new ideas on your own, as many of my readers have done. Second, start with something that is relatively trouble-free (such as salad greens, peas, or even tomatoes) and work up from there. You will learn a lot from your successes and your failures. If you try some simple crops and do everything you can (such as provide good soil and water) to ensure their success, then you WILL experience some success. Third, do not be afraid to fail. All of us have our hits and misses. Sometimes you forget to water or you planted the wrong variety for your climate, or for whatever reason, a particular plant simply was not happy. A lot of people would quit after an initial failure, but I hope you will stick with it. The only difference between a “black thumb” gardener and a “green thumb” gardener is that green thumbs learn from their mistakes, try again, and keep trying until they get it right. Then they replicate, and build upon, their successes. A black thumb gardener would quit after the first failure or two, not understanding that there is a learning curve associated with gardening, just as there is with anything else. Stick with it and you will succeed.

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.

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.

Depending on the variety of seed, you may need to “pot up” (transfer it to a larger pot) after the plant gets its first true leaves and starts to outgrow its old home. You should put your seedling pots on a tray that catches water runoff and it is important not to over-water seedlings (which is tempting to do). Over-watering will increase the likelihood of disease, so keep the soil just barely moist between waterings. As the plants grow, you need to harden them off by gradually exposing them to the outside sunlight, wind, and temperature changes. Pick a nice, mild day and put them outside for half an hour in bright shade, then an hour the next day, and then some more time in the sun, and you get the picture. Then they will be ready to succeed in the garden.

Q. Is fruit from trees grown in lead contaminated soil safe for human consumption? If not, what about birds and animals eating berries?

A. I have not dealt with this personally and do not know much about it. The soil may need some remediation before being used to grow food crops. I would not advise anyone to eat food grown on contaminated soil. There are ways to remediate the soil using certain deep-rooted plants like sunflowers and comfrey, but then the plant matter needs to be disposed of as toxic waste. It is a multi-year procedure which requires some crop rotations and regular soil testing. Anyone interested in this would have to research it more and follow proper procedures.

Q. This might sound weird, but, what about dog poop? Is it toxic?

A. Animal poop CAN contain pathogens and parasites, so it is important to keep this away from food crops. Generally, fresh manure of any sort should not be applied directly to plants, since it can burn them (though there some safe exceptions, like rabbit manure). However, aged and composted manure is an excellent source of plant fertilizer, and the composting process can kill both bad organisms and break down the manure into a compost that is safe and nutritious for plants. Compost of any sort also improves the soil structure by adding more organic matter.

It may sound gross, but both pet poop and human waste (humanure) can be composted for use in gardens as well. You would need to follow proper “hot composting” procedures to kill any potential pathogens or parasites. Because small-scale compost piles and composting bins rarely get hot enough to achieve this, I would discourage small-scale gardeners from composting pet waste. Manure from non-carnivorous animals (e.g., cows, chickens, rabbits, sheep, goats) is a lot safer and makes a great addition to a compost pile.

Q. What types of food work well grown in the “off-season”?

A. A diverse array of salad greens can be grown in cooler seasons in many climates. In the coldest climates, they may need some protection from a small greenhouse, row cover, cloche, or other type of covering. Spinach, arugula, mache, and kale are some examples, along with a bounty of Oriental greens such as Chinese cabbage and mizuna. You could try green onions (scallions) as well. Or plant some root crops earlier (such as beets or carrots) for winter or early spring harvest. Indoors, you can grow sprouts, microgreens, and mushrooms.

Also, if the indoor temperatures do not drop too low, and if you have a sunny spot under a window, you could try growing dwarf citrus trees in containers. They can live outside in warmer seasons and come indoors in winter. Lemons, and some limes and mandarins, do not need as much heat to ripen as oranges and grapefruit do. Most citrus bear during the “off-season” months and do not need pollinators to set fruit. For that matter, if you had a sunny room that did not get particularly cold in the wintertime, you could experiment with a parthenocarpic variety (no pollination needed) of just about anything, from greens beans to cucumbers to tomatoes. Some of these may not ripen with the shorter day length, but there are some amazingly prolific varieties of veggies being developed for “off-season” greenhouse cultivation; the only way to know is to experiment and see what works!

Q. Many more urbanites are raising chickens or keeping bees. How does one deal with zoning laws?

A. Of all the food-growing topics I covered in my book, I have been most surprised by the overwhelming interest in raising chickens for homegrown eggs. This has been a huge trend over the last year or two, and local governments are responding by changing their outdated laws. Most of these ordinances, for public health or zoning reasons, limited the number of chickens or livestock that someone could raise on a city lot. In my book, I go through some examples of these laws. The good news is that many cities have been waking up to the fact that it is not a health hazard, nor is it loud or obnoxious, to allow someone to keep a couple of hens for egg-laying.

A few months ago, I gave a presentation in San Francisco and a gentleman was there who told me a story about how his young granddaughter had wanted to get some chickens but found out they were illegal to have in her town. So this young lady, who I think was in middle school, went to her town’s council meeting and showed them that all of the neighboring cities and towns allowed chickens. And she got them to change their law to allow this as well. So the trend definitely is in that direction, but urban residents should be especially careful to follow any applicable laws. Check with your city, county, or other local authority, and make sure that what you want to do is legal. If it is not, let them know they are in the dark ages.

Q. Is it possible to make an in-apartment root cellar?

A. Any small home might have some good areas for food storage. Even if you are buying most of your food, some produce is cheaper in season and can be stored for periods ranging from weeks to months. An apartment dweller can think of any unused space that may be good for storage, such as a closet, carport, cabinet, or underneath a staircase. There are different temperature and humidity requirements for optimal storage of various fruits and vegetables, and air circulation can be important, so someone interested in serious root cellaring should research this more thoroughly. I do not have a root cellar, but we normally store some apples and winter squash in the garage for later use. In addition, we have enough refrigerator space to store a few beets, kohlrabi, and carrots.

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