There are some people with thumbs so green that they seem to speak the language of photosynthesis, turning every barren space into a thriving jungle.
And then there are those of us who struggle to keep succulents alive.
In reality, most people exist somewhere between these two extremes because anyone, in theory, can start and maintain a garden.
People living in cities, in particular, have a lot to gain by taking up gardening: They can reconnect with nature, create beautiful environments, and even grow their own food.
Cities are home to many of the contradictions of the modern food system: lavish supermarkets and neglected food deserts; excessive food waste and widespread hunger; high-priced health fad purveyors and children suffering from malnutrition.
By starting a garden, urbanites can better understand their place in this food system, learn how to advocate for change, and ultimately develop a degree of food freedom.
An estimated 56.2% of people live in cities worldwide, with 80% of populations in some regions living in metropolises. By the middle of the century, around 70% of people will be living in cities and, if they recognize their collective power, they can help transform the global food system, making it more equitable and sustainable. Through urban agriculture, everyday people can practice vertical farming, indoor farming, community garden stewardship, and rooftop production, all of which are greatly beneficial for our environment, social development, and economic resilience.
This is an especially urgent undertaking in the context of the climate crisis — which the food system plays a significant role in causing. As temperatures increase, precipitation patterns change, and sea levels rise, longstanding agricultural practices are being undermined, with potentially disastrous consequences for food availability and diversity in many parts of the world.
Developing a better food system means phasing out the industrial model of agriculture that destroys forests, pollutes rivers, and degrades the capacity of soil to nourish plants, and replacing it with regenerative forms of agriculture that heal the planet. Countries must also invest in climate smart agriculture and community adaptation measures. This means helping communities adapt to heat waves, floods, droughts, and more.
When done well, food production shouldn’t harm the planet. It should support the health of ecosystems and allow biodiversity to thrive. Indigenous teachings have demonstrated this basic fact throughout human history.
Starting a food-yielding garden can introduce you to this wisdom, while also reducing your overall environmental footprint. And what better time than the new year to get started?
Here are nine tips for growing your own food in a climate-friendly way if you live in a city.
1. Plan Your Garden
It’s tempting to start your foray into gardening by buying things first and then setting up. But you should map out your future garden first. This means measuring potential sites (fire escapes, windowsills, kitchen counters, shared outdoor spaces, and more) for pots and beds, determining the light and weather patterns of the area, and doing due diligence regarding any building regulations. You can then research what plants grow best in your local climate. With all this information, you’ll be able to optimize your garden.
For more tips on planning your garden, check out these videos from seasoned city gardeners. If you want a more step-by-step guide, head over to Sustainable Jungle for their extensive how-to list.
2. Buy Peat-Free Soil
The bags of soil stacked up on shelves in your local gardening store might be contributing to environmental degradation and climate change. That’s because many popular soils are made with peat harvested from peatlands that take thousands of years to form. When peatland is pulled apart for use in home gardens, it releases extraordinary amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The commercial harvesting of peat also exposes peatlands to fires that can release more greenhouse gases than the emissions from all the flights taken in a year.
The good news is that peat isn’t an essential for growing plants and there are many varieties of soil you can buy made without this precious resource. So make sure you check the label to find “peat-free” potting soil.
3. Get Seeds With a Purpose
Once you figure out what vegetables would do best in your planned garden space, you can buy seeds online or in-store. Here, too, it’s good to do some research to make sure you’re getting quality seeds.
You can also go a step further by buying seeds from companies and organizations that promote a better food system. The organization Seeds of Change, for instance, invests profits into school gardening programs to teach emerging generations about gardening.
4. Compost for Soil Nutrition
Your soil will need nourishment throughout the year. Sometimes, you might need to feed it specific nutrients found in fertilizers. But, more often than not, you can usually get by with home-made compost. Preparing compost is also a great way to minimize food waste, since it's made from kitchen scraps. If you have too much compost, you can also usually drop it off at collection sites at farmer’s market and community gardens.
Learn how to get started with composting here.
5. Focus on Microgreens
For all the people with small apartments and minimal or no outdoor space, microgreens — leafy greens harvested in their infancy — are a great option if you want to grow your own food. They require less light than heftier plants, quickly mature, and can yield year-round.
The best part is that microgreens are packed with nutrients and can be added to salads and smoothies, used to top stir frys, or even munched as a snack.
6. Plant Wildflowers for Pollinators
Insect populations have plunged under the stress of climate change, pollution, habitat loss, and invasive species — all human-caused disasters. Without serious structural changes, many insect species could go extinct.
On a small scale, you can support the health of local insect populations, especially pollinators that are essential for plant biodiversity, by growing wildflowers. Not only will they provide sustenance to butterflies and bees, but they’ll also look beautiful!
7. Share Your Harvest With Neighbors
Growing food is a great way to bond with neighbors and make friends. You might find that your plants yield more food than you can handle or just that they’re too good to not share with those nearby. Or you can invite them over to lunch or dinner for a meal made with veggies from your garden.
However you choose to share your garden’s bounty, it could spark their curiosity and maybe even spur them to start their own gardens and become better acquainted with plants and the natural world.
8. Join a Community Garden
If you discover your inner green thumb, then you might have to take your passion to a bigger canvas. Luckily, cities are full or community gardens overseen by wonderful people in your neighborhood who volunteer their time to create urban oases. You can join their efforts by volunteering once or twice a month to tend to bigger plots of land and grow even more ambitious fruits and vegetables.
9. Become an Advocate For Sustainable Food
Unless there’s a sudden food shortage and grocery store shelves are empty, it can be easy to forget that the global food system is broken. But a huge percentage of food sold in cities is being produced in ways that are either harmful to the planet, biodiversity, or laborers, or all three at once.
The first step to bettering the food system is to learn about its problems. There are documentaries you can watch, books you can read, and podcasts you can listen to get a better understanding and you can also simply search online for the supply chain of various foods and do your research that way.
At the root of the crisis is the way multinational companies treat biodiversity like an infinite resource that can be exploited indefinitely. In the fishing industry, this means extreme overfishing and marine pollution. When it comes to livestock, it means factories violently churning through animal bodies, polluting environments in the process. In agriculture, it means excessive pesticide use and the death of biodiversity.
Food can and should be produced in a way that respects people, wildlife, and the planet. By learning about the food system and agricultural production, you can become an advocate in your own community and contribute to the global food revolution.