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Becoming an Urban Gardener

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.

Concern about the safety of certain products has been rising, triggering a growing interest in producing foods and other items used. For example, the presence of some chemicals in shampoo may have you worried about what other pesticides and chemicals you may be ingesting.

What are the benefits of Urban Gardening?

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 WesternGardeners.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.

Planting the seeds

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.

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. Bill Maynard, past president of the American Community Gardening Association, 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.

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.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Urban Gardening

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.”

Another benefit of urban gardening is that it allows you to use your creative skills. Creativity can feel rewarding and positive, especially as you arrange your garden in a way that lets the plants grow efficiently, allowing you to grow foods you enjoy eating.

Although urban gardening doesn't necessarily have disadvantages, it does come with a few challenges.

The smaller space can make it more difficult to plant and grow the plants that will produce the foods you want to eat. What's more, the excessive winds that whip across rooftops and between the sides of high-rise buildings can create issues with your greenery. A lack of light may also pose a problem, though you can find solutions that help your plants to grow.

Despite these challenges, gardening in an urban area is a worthwhile endeavor. Following a few tips can help you overcome the difficulties and plant a beautiful garden.

Tips for Creating a Garden

1. Find the Right Container

With the right container, your plants have space to grow and spread out. You can find all types of styles, from affordable plastic buckets to beautiful glazed and terra cotta pots. Choose a larger container than you think you need and pick out one for each plant you plan to grow.

2. Fill the Container

Fill the container with high-quality soil. In an urban setting, the soil tends to be rocky, depleted of nutrients and polluted, so it's best to get some potting soil. You will also need to create a drainage system at the bottom of each container to prevent root rot. Make sure your container has drainage holes and place a layer of rocks at the bottom to allow the water to escape. Finally, pick up some fertilizer to give your plants the nutrients needed, especially when they are first trying to grow.

3. Determine What Will Grow

The setting will impact what you can grow on your deck, porch, patio, or rooftop. In a shady spot, herbs may be able to grow efficiently, such as mint and chives. If you have more sunlight, plants that produce fruits and vegetables may work. Maynard 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.

Some of the best plants for beginners to grow include herbs, potatoes, beans, bush and cherry tomatoes, and peppers. These plants don't require a lot of space to grow and can thrive in containers. It's important to look at the space you have available and how much sunlight it gets before deciding which plants to add to your garden.

4. Plant Your Garden

With the necessities in hand, you can start cultivating and creating your urban garden. If you plan to grow more than one type of plant, look at the sunlight requirements for each and place it accordingly. Plan a watering schedule, and water your plants directly into the soil where the stem connects with the dirt.

**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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