Sunday, May 26, 2013

Food Production with Limited Space

I love gardening. I grew up in a semi-rural area, and have been gardening for as long as I can remember. My parents used to send me to an elderly couple's house to help them with their tomato garden, and to this day, the scent of tomato leaves brings up wonderful memories. When I moved out on my own, I found myself in apartments without yards. For a few years I ached for a yard to grow a garden and thought I'd never be able to unless I could move out of the city. Fortunately, I began experimenting with small-scale gardening.

Here are some tips for those of you in apartments, cities, shaded yards, suburbs with restrictive landscaping expectations or other challenges to your green thumb.

This shaded patch by the front door provided an entire
season's worth of salads. I planted endive, landcress, and
lettuce. Some dandelion poked through, but I let it grow
since it was edible too.
If all you have is a partial shaded spot, focus on lettuce. Lettuce likes cooler weather, so the shade keeps it from overheating and bolting. At my old apartment, there was a patch of dirt by the front door. It got only a couple hours of sun each day. I was tired of it looking so trashy, so I asked the landlord if I could plant it and he said yes! I scattered a few varieties of lettuce seed over the area and hoped for the best. Soon I was enjoying microgreens to supplement my salads, then I was getting all of the lettuce we could eat in salads and sandwiches. Since the area was shaded, it didn't bolt in the hot weather. That little 2x3 foot patch kept us in salad from late May til October. Other plants that may do well in partial shade: broccoli, peas, beets, radishes, beans, carrots, turnips and bok choi.

Plan to keep your garden plot working all season long. Early in the season, get some radishes, lettuce and spinach in. Once that's ready, it will be time for summer crops like tomatoes and peppers. Then as you take out the spent plants, get more lettuce, radishes, spinach and perhaps some kale in. Look for varieties that can withstand snow so you can go out in early winter, brush away the snow and dig out dinner.

By the time the harvest came in, the bean plants were 15 feet
tall and grew to the top of the branches behind the trellis.
The trellis is just a planted headboard I curb-shopped.
Use your space wisely. When planting lettuce, alternate lettuce seeds with radish seeds. Radishes will mature while the lettuce is still tiny and will be harvested before the lettuce needs the space. Plant lettuce, radishes, basil or carrots in between tomato plants to use otherwise wasted space. Grow vertical when you can to make the most of your square footage.

Grow multi-purpose plants. Everyone knows you eat radish bulbs, but the leaves are also edible. Beet and carrot leaves are also edible. When choosing a bean variety, look for one that you can eat immature as a pod,
or as a dry bean (Scarlet runner beans are good for this, and they're beautiful!)

Who can say Romanesco Broccoli isn't beautiful?
If you live in an area with strict rules about landscaping and gardening, mix edibles in with flower beds. Edible flowers are beautiful and add a bit to salads or can be used for fritters. Ornamental kale, swiss chard, or red-leaf lettuces hold their own in a flower bed.

Salad made from thinnings from the
outdoor radish and carrot beds and
from the indoor lettuce pots.

Eat your thinnings. If you have to thin radish, carrot, beat or lettuce, make a salad out of the tiny veggies.

A sunny window is the perfect place to grow
some lettuce for winter salads.
Grow some edibles indoors. I've had mixed success with indoor food gardening, but my failures were really because I was stupid. For example, my first indoor food garden, I used all tiny containers and tried to grow tomatoes and onions in containers that were in no way appropriate. However, even being stupid, I still got lots of green onions, some lettuce and exactly one pea-pod. In later years, I had better luck by choosing appropriate plants and containers. Lettuce, radishes and herbs will grow in smaller containers. If you have the space for larger containers, you can grow a lot of other things, such as tomatoes. Look for "container" or "patio" varieties. Put in a south facing window with lots of sun or get a grow light. Don't forget to water once or twice a day.

If you have a small patio or balcony that gets a bit of sunlight, you are in luck. A lot of great vegetables and fruits can be grown in containers. I've grown tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, radishes, cucumbers, and more in containers in the patio at my old apartment. The south-facing patio got just enough sunlight. I salvaged food-grade buckets from my job at a restaurant for many of the plantings, and used small trash cans that I bought for less than a dollar at a thrift store.

If you have no yard, no balcony/patio/porch, and no sunny windows, you can still grow a bit of food: sprouts. Get lentils, mung beans, or other beans/seeds, soak for 8 hours in water, then drain, rinse and place in a cupboard. Once or twice a day, rinse and drain well. Soon you'll have delicious sprouts to add to sandwiches, salads or stir-fry. It's an easy and cheap way to grow a little food.

Pick wild foods in your area. Dandelion leaves are a deliciously bitter green for salads or steamed to use like spinach, the flowers make incredible fritters or jelly and the roots make a delicious coffee substitute. Violet flowers and leaves are great additions to salads. Red clover flowers make a nice tea. I find lots of edibles growing in the heart of the city, and I take full advantage of them. Fruit trees left over from a more self-reliant time are still dotting the city landscape. Look for mulberries, crab apples (use in jelly or add to other apples when juicing for a bit of zing), and pears growing along parking lot edges or hanging over sidewalks.

Guerilla garden. If you cannot find a place that you are allowed to grow some food, look for a place that you can grow food without anyone noticing. Abandoned lots and empty planters (such a depressing sight!) beg for some green beauty. Take over the flower beds that your landlord has long since stopped planting. A sprinkling of lettuce seeds are easy enough to plant without anyone noticing.

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Wildcrafting Wednesday

1 comment:

  1. I love posts like this one. I live on a city lot and I'm always amazed at the vegetables and fruit our backyard produces. We're growing more veggies and less flowers these days. :-)


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