Growing your own food can be intimidating when you’re drowning in a metropolitan sea of glass and concrete, but it doesn’t have to be. Right now people are growing everything from chives and rosemary to lemons and tomatoes in their apartments, and you can too! You just have to get your hands a little dirty with this four step guide to urban farming.
Step 1: Location, location, location (and sunlight)
The number one rule in real estate also applies to the microcosm of your apartment: location. Location will dictate every other decision that you make in your new urban farm, so it’s important to spend a little time thinking about it. Do you have a fire escape or balcony you plan on tilling, or are you trying to stay strictly indoors?
These are important questions to ask because they will decide which crops are available to you and where they should go based on sunlight requirements. In a city, it may be difficult to grow plants that require a full 6+ hours of light, because a lack of sun will lead to stunted growth or death. But don’t worry Urban Farmer, there are plenty of indoor and outdoor partial sun plants to be grown, and a whole array of of techniques to use.
Outdoor locations allow for more and larger plants, larger containers and usually more sunlight. However, this also leaves plants more exposed to the cold and pests, so depending on what you’re growing you may need to bring it in before the first frost. That being said, you can take this chilly opportunity to plant flower bulbs that will stay dormant until spring, when they will spread their buds and thrive.
Indoor plants can still get enough sunlight, you just need to put them in the right place. Most plants you buy come with helpful guide explaining how much sunlight they prefer, and it’s worth spending thirty seconds to read it. This will help you decide whether you should leave your herbs right next to the windowsill or in a nice, shady corner. But more on that later.
For some ideas, here are a few more locations for herbal real estate
- Fire escapes/balconies/porches
- Hanging pots off handrails
- Easily installed shelves (but be sure to get your landlord/super’s permission)
- Windowsill boxes and planters
Step 2: Containers and pots and shoe organizers, oh my
Congratulations Urban Farmer, you finished the first step! You decided on a few locations throughout your apartment, and are ready for the next step. Now you need to decide on potting, because real estate means nothing to your plants if they don’t have a house to call home.
Unless you’re growing something that needs an outrageous amount of water, drainage is a huge consideration. Much to my five-year-old self’s chagrin, (I accidently overwatered my venus fly trap when I was little), it turns out plants can drown. The best way to avoid this is making sure that your pot is prepared properly before planting anything in it.
Be sure you have enough drainage holes in the bottom, between half a dozen to a dozen half-inch holes should be more than enough. Many sites will tell you to put shards of broken pottery or gravel to allow for drainage, but this is only for pots without drainage holes. Finally, if you’re planting inside be sure to have some sort of saucer under your pot, otherwise you’ll have a very wet floor.
Speaking of potting plants, there’s a whole host of different ways to do it.
Any Home Depot/Lowes/mom & pop gardening store will sell pots of every shape and size. They also sell window boxes that can be easily installed outside of almost every window.
For a more DIY approach, consider making your own pots out of old tin soup cans. They’re cheap, easy and it’s a good way to reuse and recycle--just be aware that metal containers heat up much faster in the sunlight and can cook your roots.
Shoe organizers can be a great way answer to the question of vertical gardening in an apartment, just be sure to hang it on a stud in the wall, or else it could turn into a horizontal garden very quickly, with plants and dirt splattering on your floor. Similar to preparing a pot for planting, simply poke a few drainage holes in the bottom of the pockets. A rolled up towel inserted below the nail between the wall and the organizer helps keep the wall dry.
It’s also possible with a drill, jigsaw and a few other tools, to make a self-watering pot, but that’s a bit more advanced.
Step 3: Crops
Now for the fun part. What do you want to grow? This alone can be a daunting question, but there are a few factors to consider when trying to decide. What’s your gradient of available sunlight? What plants do you like to use or eat? What makes the most financial sense to grow? What season are you planting in?
Personally, I grow almost exclusively herbs. Before, I’d buy rosemary or something for a recipe, end up using a quarter of it, and letting the rest go bad in my fridge. That’s extremely wasteful, and it begins to get expensive. Now I just have to pick what I want directly off the plant.
However, available sunlight has the final say in what you’re able to plant. Levels of sunlight are broken into four categories.
- Full sun (6+ hours of sunlight)
- Partial sun (4-5 hours of sunlight)
- Partial Shade (2-4 hours of sunlight)
- Shade (less than 1 hour of direct sun)
Carrots and green beans are more than happy in a partial shade environment, and there are a variety of dwarf fruit trees like kumquat and lime trees that can do well indoors. Beans, broccoli and scallions are also happy in a shady environment, just be sure that they get around three hours of sunlight a day.
With a little work, you can grow an entire salad in your studio apartment in Queens.
Step 4: Final Preparations
Here you go Urban Farmer, last step! Preparations. There are just a few things you’ll need to pull your garden together, all of which can be purchased at aforementioned hardware stores. Some of these may be optional depending on what you’re growing.
- Potting soil- This is absolutely necessary! There are lots of different kinds of soil, dirt, and manure and it’s not all considered equal. Ordinary garden soil can introduce disease and is too heavy for container plants, so it’s necessary to get soil specifically for potting.
- Trowel- This is pretty important, as I’ve found soup spoons and ladles don’t work nearly as well.
- Gloves- This is really up to you and your plants. I only use gloves when dealing with plants that have thorns, but to each his own.
- Garden Fork- Basically a mini pitchfork, it’s really only needed when dealing with really compact, rocky or frozen soil, or when weeding.
- Fertilizer- This again is dependant on what’s growing. Some plants require fertilizer once a month or so, others are perfectly happy without it. It’s a case by case basis.
- Stakes & Twine- This is used when growing climbing plants like beans, tomatoes or ivy. It’s important to stake them up for when plants get between half a foot and a foot tall to allow them to grow properly.
And there you have it folks, you’re officially urban farmers, with land as far as your kitchen unit down the hall!
Don’t forget to water your new plants, usually once a day depending on drainage. An easy way to check is just stick your finger in the dirt. If it feels too dry, it’s time to water. Give the plants enough to make the soil look wet without oversaturation. Some plants such as dwarf fruit trees benefit from fertilizer, others really don’t need it. And in just a few weeks, you’ll be ready to start eating from your own personal garden! Happy farming my friends.