The Urban Garden: A Small Vegetable Garden for Family Food & Nutrition OL 305
How to Grow Food in the City. How your nonprofit can start a small space vegetable garden program: Fresh vegetables for at-risk urban families.
What? A hands-on training course for actually launching a nonprofit urban garden program: teach at-risk families in your community how to grow nutritious, fresh vegetables in 8 weeks. You will learn how to grow food too!
A two-pronged approach will be used in this course:
1. If you’re not an experienced vegetable gardener YOU will learn how to plan, plant, and produce vegetables in an urban setting.
2. A component of each assignment is to address how you will do this with your urban constituents so that you will be able to teach THEM how to plan, plant, and produce vegetables in an urban setting on their own.
Who should take this course? This course, OL 305, is for nonprofits working in an inner city setting. If your nonprofit works in more of a residential or rural setting consider taking the sister course to OL 305: OL 303 Community Gardens & Family Gardens for Food & Nutrition.
Welcome to my new course on The Urban Garden: A Small Vegetable Garden for Family Food & Nutrition. I had a backyard vegetable garden for decades. I was even a co-founder of an urban agricultural center in the 1980s: Seattle Tilth. But 15 years ago I moved out of my home that had a yard large enough for a big vegetable garden; I even had enough room for a greenhouse. I moved to a dense urban environment without a garden—and so have been successfully growing fruits and vegetables on the flat roof of my home all this time.
I have also been teaching an online international family gardening course for the past 10 years. This is a sister, companion course to Urban gardening: Community Gardens & Vegetable Gardens for Family Food & Nutrition: OL 303.
These ideas are not solely for a rooftop urban garden. If you have a terrace, a patio, balcony a small garden plot—or even just part of your driveway—these ideas will work equally well for you too.
In transitioning to an urban garden I faced a steep learning curve. But I learned a lot that I want to share with you—so that you can avoid some of the pitfalls that I encountered—and so that you can get growing vegetables faster and more successfully than I did at the beginning.
My Personal Story
So, today I am going to give you a personal overview of an urban garden—or small space vegetable garden program—and then once a week over the next eight weeks I will focus in depth on these specific parts of the process so that you can do it too.
The 8 Weeks:
Here is a step by step summary of the urban garden process that I’ve experienced.
Week 1. Choosing space for your urban garden and containers for your vegetables. Where: A balcony, rooftop, a small plot?
What Kind of Containers for Your Vegetables? Where will you put them?
When I began growing fruits and vegetables on my roof in containers, I started small with maybe only four or six containers. That was a good idea because there was a lot to learn. I actually started in the first year in a small 3′ x 10′ (1M x 3M) balcony before moving up to the roof.
You can use almost anything for containers—there are a multitude of examples on the Internet. I settled in on plastic containers that are 12" wide x 24" long and 12" high. I buy 3 or 4 each year and now I have around 45 containers. These are readily available, inexpensive and can be moved around easily. One person can handle them after the harvest during a soil change before replanting.
Week 2. Selecting Seeds.
Nutrition, Planning and Selecting Seeds for Your Vegetable Garden.
|I studied up on what would grow well in containers. I evaluated what vegetables would be nutritious. Some container vegetables needed special things like trellises. This would have required additional time in my first year of learning about a rooftop vegetable garden—so I decided to stay with simple crops in the beginning. Some vegetables were things that I could buy at the local farmers market very inexpensively and so I decided to postpone planting those in the beginning too.|
That got me down to a selection of vegetables that I could grow easily and enjoy by simply going onto my roof before making a nutritious dinner and picking them fresh, on the spot. Plus, I could grow vegetables that I couldn’t get where I was living like English parsnips and Asian greens and herbs. And then there are novelty vegetables like red and purple carrots, striped Italian beets—and fiery hot peppers from places like North Africa and Vietnam.
Because of limited space—both on my roof and in the containers I had to make some space saving decisions. I have also learned to be cautious about how much I plant at once. Suddenly having 30 lettuces ready to harvest isn’t terribly efficient. Carrots and beets are a bit more forgiving because they can be harvested slowly over a number of weeks. Herbs and spices, fruit trees, and peppers are also forgiving because they have an extended window for harvesting.
I had to discipline myself to plant a fewer number of seeds for each individual crop—but plant more frequently—say only 10 or 12 lettuce seeds, but every three weeks or so.
So over several years I was able to add a few containers each year and expand upon my list of rooftop vegetables. During this time I have regularly grown:
Carrots – 2/3 kinds
Beets – 2/3 kinds
Radishes – 2/3 kinds
Chilis – 8/10 kinds
Sweet Peppers -2/3 kinds
Beans – 2/3 kinds
Peas – 2/3 kinds
Lettuce – 5/6 kinds
Tomatoes 2/3 kinds
|Fruit Trees & Exotic Spices:
Lemons – Meyer, Eureka
Persian Limes & Key Limes
Kaffir Limes (Thai)
(Oranges from Africa)
Cara-Caras – Venezuela
Kumquats – Nagami
Curry Leaf Tree (India)
Basil – 2/3 kinds
The majority of these vegetables have done very well. However, some don’t where I live, because of the humidity: I don’t have much luck with tomatoes. They get a mildew or a fungus and just don’t do well. But I do get a first flush of cherry tomatoes on each plant which are absolutely delicious. So I try and replant every 3 months.
This assortment of vegetables allows me to go up at 6 o’clock in the evening and pick most everything that I need for a salad, or a soup or a side dish. I have enough unusual vegetables, spices, peppers and fruit trees that I can cook international recipes that I enjoy.
We will provide resources for you on nutrition and planning meals with the vegetables that you select.
Week 3. Soil Part One.
|Avoid Future Weeds||
What kind of soil? Where to get it? How to weed-proof it?
Over time, my soil was just gathered from flowerbeds or wherever. I just found soil as I needed it when I got a new container. That was a little naive. I discovered that this led to problems that developed over time.
For example: In the early days, I always had a few weeds—but was able to control them with a few minutes of weeding here and there.
Recently the weeds hit some kind of a threshold point where within a couple of weeks—after planting say three of rows of carrot seeds—I would suddenly have an entire container full of weeds and could no longer see the emerging carrots. All of my containers had become equally choked with weeds. I’m not certain where all of these weeds suddenly came from. Possibly from some manure that I used. Perhaps they had just been developing over the past 15 years and hit a peak. I was spending hours weeding
I came to the realization that something needed to be done. We will be talking about how I solved this weed problem next week. You can prevent a future weed problem too—just like I have—and save yourself a lot of frustration further down the road.
Week 4. Soil Part Two.
Soft open texture, nutrients—and the importance of worms for making compost!
Over many years, my vegetable gardens have been strictly organic. No synthetic fertilizers, no chemical pesticides. I’m still learning how to provide nutrients for my container plants. Having a compost pile is complex in a small rooftop setting. About the only soil amendments that are easily available for me are chicken manure and worm compost.
I really didn’t have a measuring stick for fertilizing my container crops. So a friend suggested that I buy an inexpensive soil testing kit just to get a bench mark about where I was. I then was able to do some research to find out what types of organic soil amendments might balance out my soil health.
Also, for a long time, some of my plants appeared to stop growing after a couple of months—as if they were stunted. For example, sometimes my carrots were quite short!
I suspect this had to do with two reasons. One is soil compaction in the containers. I would put 10 inches of soil in the container and after a couple of months I might only have 7 inches of soil. So I became concerned that the soil had become too compacted for the roots of my plants. So I’ve discovered that I can add coconut fiber (coir) to my soil just before planting and that gives it some loft so it doesn’t compact quite as badly.
So, this week we will be learning how to provided nutrition for your plants and explore how you can have healthy, plant friendly soil too.
Week 5. Planting.
Planning and Planting Seeds and Seedlings.
After harvesting, and once I have rejuvenated the soil in my planters—I can do one of two things.
1. Planting seeds directly in the container. I can plant rows of root crops (beets, carrots and radishes) and green onions and mesclun directly into the soil in the planters. No need to start these kinds of seeds in a seed tray and then transplant them.
2. Transplanting seedlings from seed starting trays into the containers. But my other seeds are all started in plastic seed trays with individual cells (my favorite size has 51 cells—each about 3 inches deep) filled with either peat or coir (coconut fiber). I simply plant the seeds the depth recommended on the seed packet. Typically, 4 to 6 weeks after germination, the ‘plugs’ are ready to transplant directly into the containers.
Week 6. Sun & Water
Learning how to gauge sun and water.
Watering is a constant. Sometimes, if it’s hot, dry and sunny, I have to water every day. Coconut fiber mixed into the soil absorbs water and also creates air pockets in the soil which allows moisture to accumulate. So this can reduce the frequency of watering. Simple mulch on the soil surface also helps to reduce evaporation. Some cool weather crops (like lettuce) work well in partially shaded areas of the rooftop.
Week 7. Insect Vigilance.
Practice insect vigilance-organically.
I haven’t really had that many problems with insects. We have an insect that we call a roly-poly (pill bug or armadillidium vulgare). It’s a small oval shaped insect with about 100 legs and when you disturb them, they curl up into a perfect sphere. They like to chew on new growth so they’re very hard on new seed sprouts. I simply have to keep an eye out for them and pick them out of the containers by hand. I’ll tell you about several other ‘secret’ tricks I use in Week 7.
Aphids can occasionally be a problem—you just need to keep your eye out for them so you can nip them in the bud.
Cabbage moths are another problem. You can suddenly have caterpillars on all of your cabbage plant leaves that begin eating them very rapidly. They can denude a cabbage plant in a few days. So likewise, you need to keep a vigilant eye out for them and clean the eggs off of the leaves before they can become caterpillars. You can also put netting over susceptible plants to keep the cabbage moths from laying eggs in the first place.
Week 8. Making Nutritious, Delicious Meals from the Garden.
Nutrition, Meal Planning, Harvesting and Succession Planting.
I’m a pretty busy guy—but I also like to cook. It’s a way for me to relax and unwind in the evening after a long day. Cooking is also healthier than eating out at restaurants! However, with my limited spare time I find that sometimes I become guilty of not paying attention to what’s available in the garden. So I might prepare several evening meals—only to discover that I haven’t been using (for example) lettuce—and all of my lettuce is beginning to go to seed.
|I will share resources that I use for planning nutritious meals using recipes keyed to plants that are ready to harvest. After cooking with your kitchen garden for a year, you will have a much better sense of seeds to buy next year—and the timing/quantities of what to plant.
So a personal goal of mine for this year is to develop a super simple system so I am aware of what vegetables I need to be incorporating into evenings meals. White board on the fridge maybe?
Take this course as part of an 8 week challenge to get people growing food in the cities! Take the challenge now!
The training program will be led by Tim Magee, CSDi’s Executive Director, who has over 40 years experience in urban vegetable growing. Mr. Magee is the author of A Field Guide to Community Based Adaptation published by Routledge, Oxford, England, A Solar Greenhouse Guide to Food Production, Ecotope, and is a Co-Founder of Seattle Tilth. An Urban Agricultural Center.
Mr. Magee has also led, for 10 years, a sister course to “Urban Vegetable Gardening: Community Gardens & Vegetable Gardens for Family Food & Nutrition to students from around the world.
“This course inspired me to set up my own home garden where I could experiment before transferring the knowledge to the community. I have been able to test different brands of seeds, try sack gardens, and research methods of rain water harvesting.” Ivy D’Costa.
What you can look forward to in this urban garden course:
In hindsight, over the past 15 years, I’ve had a lot of fun with the rooftop vegetable garden. It’s been alternately relaxing and rejuvenating. I’ve eaten a lot of very good healthy fruits and vegetables—and have been able to expand the number of recipes that I make because of some of the unusual things that I grow.
So, over the next few weeks, I plan on sharing with you the challenges that I found myself facing at various stages of developing this urban garden—and what I did to solve the challenges. I will also be providing resources that you can refer to that might be more relevant to what you eat and where you live.
I’m not a guy that just decided to write an article on a rooftop vegetable garden—and did a bunch of research to find out what to write about. I’ve actually been growing rooftop vegetable gardens intensively for 15 years. I’ve even kept notes!
So my hope is that with the experiences that I’ve had and the learning process that I’ve gone through, that I can help you to get a productive, urban, small space vegetable garden up and running fairly quickly so you can enjoy the same kinds of things that I enjoy. I will show you how you can be eating your first vegetables in 7 weeks.
|This photo shows a Sunday morning harvest for a Sunday luncheon with friends. Pictured (clockwise from top) are baby romaine lettuce, spring onions, parsnips, daikon radishes, cherry tomatoes, galangal (Thai ginger), krachai (finger ginger), curry tree leaves, cayenne peppers, jalapenos, kaffir lime leaves, thyme, rosemary, cilantro, parsley, red baby carrots, green and red Swiss chard, and Meyer lemons.|
Bear in mind, also, that this information doesn’t strictly apply only to a rooftop vegetable garden. Maybe you have only a small terrace or balcony. Maybe you have a very small backyard. Maybe you have a small plot at a community garden. These urban garden techniques that I will share with you can help you in those situations as well.
I look forward to your comments! Please don’t hesitate to contact us with questions.
Take the challenge now! Take this course as part of an 8 week challenge to get people growing food in the cities!