The Urban Green Thumb

Healthful eating means sourcing food locally.
It doesn’t get more local than your own yard—even if it’s in the city.

May 2016

By Jodi Helmer

Working in the garden is a form of meditation for Scott Lindsley.

The realtor and urban farmer spends his mornings inspecting the beehive, checking on seeds germinating in the small greenhouse, pulling weeds and watering vegetables growing in raised beds in the backyard of his Charlotte, North Carolina, home.

“It’s therapeutic,” he says.

The urban garden, dubbed Linwell Farms, produces most of the fresh produce that he and partner Joey Hewell consume.

“We cook a lot and like to eat local,” Lindsley explains. “Some nights we go into the garden and, 45 minutes later, we’re eating a meal made with the produce we’ve grown. Having a garden makes it a lot easier to eat fresh produce and the flavor is much better.”

Although the pair lives in an urban neighborhood and has less than 2,000 square feet of space to grow a garden, their sustainable landscape produces everything from tomatoes and peppers to berries and herbs.

The interest in growing food is, well, growing.

The National Gardening Association reports that food gardening in the United States is at the highest levels in more than a decade with 35% of all households growing food at home—a 17% increase since 2009.

Cultivate the Benefits

Creative gardeners know that growing food in urban spaces doesn’t require a huge piece of land. In fact, it’s possible to produce vegetables and herbs in containers or small beds, says Jodi Torpey, editor-in-chief of Western Gardeners.com and author of Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening (Storey).

“It doesn’t take much space at all to plant a small vegetable bed or grow a few herbs,” Torpey says. “Look for the sunniest spot and be creative.”

A single cherry tomato plant in a pot can produce fresh fruits all summer and one container of basil will add fresh flavor to salads for months (longer if the pot is placed in a sunny windowsill in the winter).

Some chefs are so enamored with the taste of fresh, hyper-local produce, they are building on-site gardens at restaurants, hotels and stadiums.

At the InterContinental New York Barclay Hotel, the rooftop garden includes an apiary; AT&T Stadium in San Francisco serves salads, soups and smoothies made from produce grown in its 4,300-square-foot garden behind the centerfield wall; and in Florida, the Ritz Carlton Naples grows greens for salads in an upcycled shipping container.

While the taste of fresh, local produce is a major reason to grow produce, there is another reason to get your hands dirty: Gardening offers major health benefits.

The American Horticultural Therapy Association reports that regular involvement in gardening improves fitness, burns calories, increases consumption of fruits and vegetables, reduces stress, bolsters cognitive health and eases depression.

The positive aspects of gardening are so well-documented that many hospitals, including NYU Langone Medical Center, St. Louis Children’s Hospital and Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital, have on-site gardens and include horticultural therapy as part of the rehabilitation process.

Planting a vegetable garden “gets you outside in the fresh air, helps reduce stress and gives you the satisfaction of growing your own food,” Torpey says. “It also adds beauty to the environment and helps pollinators like bees and butterflies. Honestly, I can’t think of a single downside to urban gardening.”

Seed to Supper

The other upside is the ease of starting a vegetable garden.

Soil, seeds and sunlight are the basic building blocks of an urban garden. Mix all three, add water and plants will thrive. Of course, there are also weeds to pull and potential pests to manage. “You can’t just assume that if you stick it in the garden and water it, it’ll grow,” Lindsley says.

Before planting, Torpey suggests doing a soil test (kits are available at garden centers) to uncover possible issues like nutrient deficiencies or pH that is too high or too low to be hospitable to vegetables. With the results of the soil test, it’s possible to amend the soil to help vegetables thrive.

Bill Maynard, director of community gardens for the City of Sacramento and past president of the American Community Gardening Association, (communitygarden.org), advises beginning gardeners to skip seeds and purchase plants instead.

The germinated seeds, called starts, have sprouted, eliminating some of the guesswork of gardening. Choose hardier vegetable varieties like tomatoes, squash, radishes and peppers or herbs like basil that are less prone to pests and disease.

Vegetables like lettuce, brussels sprouts and carrots are harder to grow; planting such crops and having them die could make the garden experience less pleasurable.

“Start small,” says Torpey. “Plant the fruits, vegetables and herbs you like the most and keep the garden to a manageable size. The best way to learn how to garden is to jump in and get started. Just keep telling yourself, ‘Seeds want to sprout, plants want to grow.’”

As you get more confident, try succession planting: Sowing new seeds every week or adding plants to the garden to extend the season and produce additional harvests.

“Most areas can have three seasons of gardens with cool-season plants in spring, warm-season in summer and another crop of cool-season plants in fall,” Torpey says.

Plan Your Plot

There is no need to have dedicated vegetable beds. In urban gardens where space is at a premium, Torpey suggests planting in containers, growing vertically on trellises and adding vegetables and herbs to flower beds.

To get her fresh produce fix, Torpey once planted an entire vegetable garden in hanging planters affixed to the fence in her townhouse.

Some urban gardeners have taken advantage of the real estate and sunshine in their front yards to plant vegetables. Before tilling a garden or building beds in front of the house, check local bylaws.

In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases of homeowners facing fines and being forced to rip out their beloved gardens because their cities prohibited growing food in the front yard.

Lindsley, who grew vegetables in the front yard of his previous home and has grapevines climbing an iron gate and fruit trees lining the front walkway of his current home, also suggests checking with your homeowners association for possible restrictions on front yard vegetable gardens.

“Some cities require you to maintain a lawn in the front,” he explains. “But you can certainly grow vegetables in a way that looks good; depending on how you do it, no one may notice vegetables growing in the front yard.”

Urban gardeners don’t need to have their own space to grow vegetables. Maynard suggests looking into renting a plot at a community garden if there’s one nearby.

The communal growing spaces, often managed by municipalities or churches, provide basics like soil, tools and access to water in exchange for a small fee (the average is $25 to $50 per season, according to Maynard). There are more than one million community gardens nationwide.

“It’s a great place to meet the neighbors and grow delicious, healthy food,” he says.

Renting a plot in a community garden is a good option for apartment dwellers, renters whose leases prohibit building new gardens and those whose yards are too shady to grow vegetables.

Maynard also meets a lot of community gardeners who started with small vegetable gardens at home and wanted more space to expand their food production.

“It makes gardening accessible to everyone,” he says. “There is no greater feeling than knowing that the food on your plate came from the garden you grew.”

Lindsley echoes that thought.

“Growing vegetables is no more work than growing flowers but the end result is a lot more delicious,” he says.

Tools for Gardening in
Small Urban Spaces

Garden supply companies, recognizing a fertile market of urban dwellers with green thumbs, provide a number of often-innovative tools and accessories to grow lush vegetable and herb gardens in tight spaces.


The Garden Tower 2 grows 50 plants in a container that stands 44 inches tall, is 26 inches wide and holds more than six cubic feet of potting soil. The entire Garden Tower is made from 100% recyclable food-grade plastic that is BPA-free and contains no phthalates. With a composting tube down its center and a removable compost tea drawer and compost screen, Garden Tower 2 is a self-contained vertical garden that lets you turn waste kitchen scraps into an abundant organic harvest. Visit gardentowerproject.com.

 

Burpee’s Plant Pyramid Raised Planters, for vegetables, herbs and flowers, feature a stacking design that lets you grow roughly eight times more plants per square foot than a conventional garden. The stacked beds let root systems utilize a large soil volume and promote more vigorous plant growth. Because the garden beds are raised, they are easy to reach for planting, tending and harvesting. These handsome and artistic planters, made of natural rot-resistant western red cedar, are available in three- and five-level versions. Visit burpee.com.

 

The Miracle-Gro AeroGarden grows herbs, vegetables, flowers and more indoors year-round. Using a built-in lighting system and pre-seeded pods, the AeroGarden yields plants that typically germinate within 7 to 14 days, are ready for harvesting in 4 to 6 weeks, and will produce continuous harvests for 6 months and longer. The indoor gardening system grows plants five times faster than soil. The AeroGarden is available in a range of sizes, and its largest, the AeroGarden Bounty Elite, has room for nine plants and features 45 watts of LED Lighting and a stainless steel finish. Visit aerogarden.com.

The VividGro LED lighting line from Lighting Science uses spectrally optimized photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) to support robust plant growth, development and yield. VividGro works for both commercial growers and do-it-yourself horticulturalists, and adapts to both urban and agricultural environments, including greenhouses of various sizes. Created by the same engineering team that helped develop the next-generation LED lights used to grow plants at the US scientific station in Antarctica and on the International Space Station, VividGro uses at least 40% less energy than standard high-pressure sodium (HPS) lighting. Visit lsgc.com.

Smart Pots: Beyond Plastic Containers

Smart Pots are made of a patented fabric and are designed to produce a healthier plant. Professional tree growers were using Smart Pot for more than 25 years before the pots found their way to the consumer market. Smart Pot fabric containers support healthy root growth, which means a stronger plant. Compared to plastic planters, in which roots are stressed when the plastic gets hot, Smart Pots stay cooler on hot days because they let air flow through the fabric. Smart Pots also encourage root pruning, in which roots stop in place when they reach the side of the fabric, which initiates lateral, or side branching. As this process repeats, the entire area of the container is filled with fibrous root growth, allowing more surface area for mineral and water absorption. A recent study at Texas A&M University showed double the root mass compared to a traditional plastic container. In a plastic container, roots circle around the side and rarely initiate fibrous growth. Visit www.smartpots.com.

Bliss Home & Design Window Boxes

All you need is a windowsill to grow a delectable assortment of micro greens with handsome, elegant window boxes from Bliss Home & Design. In the vegetable box, you can tend home-grown micro-carrots, Tom Thumb peas, and red Russian kale vegetables, whose seeds are all included in this complete grow kit, right in your kitchen or sun porch. The vegetables selected for this box thrive in cool weather and provide a perfect indoor salad garden. 

Providing a perpetual source of culinary inspiration and a clean, updated visual presence, the Micro Greens Spice Grow Box is made from sustainable bamboo and recycled steel. Within the transitional window box, two full crops' worth of seeds for daikon radish, mibuna mustard, and shungiku chrysanthemum are included.  Each box measures 2.25 in. high x 8 in. wide x 3 in. deep. Visit www.blisshomeanddesign.com.

Home Greens Growing Kit

The Home Greens Growing Kit includes four varieties of non-GMO seed for microgreens, including pea shoots (the most versatile and easiest greens to grow), wheatgrass (a nutritional powerhouse), sunflowers (one of the most balanced complete plant proteins and essential amino acids) and radish (adding a slight peppery flavor to any dish). The microgreens are easy to grow. Just fill 3/4 of the tray with coconut coir or any potting soil, sow half a bag of seed evenly, and cover with just enough soil to cover the seed. Gently hydrate the soil, watering as needed to keep the soil slightly moist to the touch. Harvest your greens as shoots and enjoy. The reusable and biodegradable cardboard box doubles as a duo tray system including simple instructions to get growing at home. Visit www.homegreens.us.

Trudeau Tools for Kitchen & Garden

After you grow your urban garden, you’ll need the right tools to bring your bounty from garden to kitchen to table. The Trudeau Toss and Chop makes fresh chopped salad, salsa and more right in any cut-resistant bowl. The dishwasher safe Toss and Chop is simple, safe, fast, and easy-to-use. Two stainless steel blades with micro-serrated edges easily slice through fruits and vegetables and never need sharpening. Green soft-grip handles lock shut for safe storage.
Another tool, the Trudeau Herb and Garden Snips, is designed for fine-cutting jobs in the kitchen and garden. The Trudeau Herb and Garden Snips is ideal for cutting twine, trimming flowers, herbs, vegetables and cleanly stripping spices such as thyme from tough stems. This integrated scissor/stripper with micro-serrated, take-apart blades and soft grip handles is an indispensable all-season tool both in and out of the kitchen. Visit www.shoptrudeau.com.

 

Edyn Garden Sensor Conserves Resources

The Edyn Garden Sensor measures and gauges soil nutrition, soil moisture, ambient light, humidity and temperature to provide smart recommendations on when and how often to water or fertilize your plants. The sensor transmits this data to the Edyn App to provide a real-time snapshot of your garden, as well as alerts and suggestions to maximize plant health and recommend the best plants, flowers and herbs for your garden. The Edyn Water Valve is a smart irrigation controller that ensures you deliver the right amount of water to your plants without waste. Visit www.edyn.com.

 

Zyliss Swift Dry Salad Spinner

You’ll need some accessories for after you harvest all those delicious greens you’re growing. The Swift Dry Salad Spinner from Zyliss features a basket designed to increase air flow via additional angled water vents and is shaped to disrupt the leaves as the basket spins, assisting the drying process. The efficient salad spinner has been presented with the coveted Red Dot Design Award. Operated by a single press of the one-touch lever, the basket starts to rotate while drawing air in through the lid. The rotating basket is stopped by pressing the break button, and the handle neatly locks and stores flat for convenience. The Swift Dry Salad Spinner is available in two sizes. Visit www.ZylissUSA.com

 

Cole & Mason Extends Life of Herbs

The Cole & Mason Self-Watering Single Potted Herb Keeper gives longer life to your potted fresh herbs. This attractive, fuss-free pot does not require you to re-pot; simply insert a hydro felt pad under the retaining arm and place your potted herb in the container. Fill with water through the spout and check regularly to refill as the plant will absorb water through the pads. This potted herb keeper ensures less water evaporation as the vessel is covered. Four pads are included, and each lasts for roughly three months.

The Cole & Mason Fresh Cut Herb Keeper will keep your cut herbs up to 10 days longer than usual. The container fits neatly in your refrigerator door and lets your herbs breathe through air vents. It holds up to 380ml of water and has removable dividers to store a variety of herbs. A “Flip and Slide” lid and upper sheath provide easy access to the herbs with less damage. The Herb Keeper includes three removable dividers to help store a different quantity and variety of herbs. Visit www.coleandmason.com.

 

Insect Lore Butterfly & Insect Kits

Give your kids some extra insights into a garden ecosystem, urban or rural, with butterfly and praying mantis kits from Insect Lore. With the butterfly kits, children, students and families can watch caterpillars change into chrysalides and then emerge as beautiful Painted Lady Butterflies. After raising and feeding your own butterflies, you can release them outdoors. The transformation from caterpillar to adult butterfly takes about three weeks. Praying mantis kits come with egg cases, or Oothecas, each dormant when you receive it. But sleeping inside are 75 to 200 tiny praying mantises. Within three to six weeks, dozens of little praying mantids, or nymphs, will awaken and emerge from the egg case. Ladybug and ant kits are also available. Visit www.InsectLore.com.

 

Ant Farm Sheds Light on Garden Ecosystem

Make learning about a garden’s ant residents fun for kids, and put a little nostalgia in grownup lives, with an Uncle Milton Ant Farm. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Ant Farm, as well as the 70th anniversary for Uncle Milton as a company. To celebrate, the company has introduced  three new anniversary edition Ant Farms.  Each version features a sleek new design, different colors and 3D lenticular scenes with ant worlds of the future. The three new edition Ant Farms feature unique and comical ant worlds of the future: Antes Mountains, Ant Canyon and Antopia Rainforest. Each of the Ant Farm habitats can be connected into one larger unit. Consumers can order harvester ants online. Visit www.UncleMilton.com.

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