Living in the city has plenty of advantages. Being able to fix up a light, summery tomato and basil caprese salad with veggies freshly picked from the backyard, however, is not typically one of them. And foods like cucumbers and squash, with their deep roots and sprawling tendrils, are out of the question. What city slicker has enough space for that?
Fret not, urban gardeners. As it turns out, with a little deeper knowledge of how your favorite garden varieties grow, you can have your own backyard garden – even if all you have is a porch or a balcony.
There are three main factors to consider when planning your backyard garden: How much space do you have? What veggies tickle your fancy? And how’s the dirt?
The dirt? you ask. Well, it’s dirt.
Yes! But according to Nick Tamayo, the Garden Coordinator at the University of the Pacific, there’s much more to dirt than it simply being… dirty. “I highly recommend anyone thinking of starting a garden in their back or front yard to test their soil before planting directly into the ground,” he says. “Our city soils can be heavily polluted with lead and other toxins that are dangerous to consume.”
If your backyard soil isn’t suitable for gardening – even if that just means it lacks the nutrients plants need to grow or there is too much clay in the soil – raised planting beds can be a great alternative. This option is also popular with renters and others who can’t or don’t want to dig up their yard. In a particularly tight space, it is possible to grow your garden in pots or rail planters. “Understanding the root structure of your future veggies should help you determine how wide or deep of a pot you will need to plant into,” Nick says. You can find this information on seed packets, plant packaging, or online before settling on a pot size. Keep in mind that clay pots will absorb heat and will require more water.
Radishes, herbs, lettuces, kales, chards, and other greens take well to growing in pots and mature quickly so you can harvest frequently. Certain varieties of tomatoes and peppers can also thrive in pots but will need more room for their roots to grow. Opt for tomato plants that stay bushy as they grow such as the Big Boy Bush Tomato or the Sweet 100 and expect that you might still have to use tomato cages or steaks. “Try interplanting a long maturing crop with a quick crop, experiment with spaces between plants, and see how close your boxes and pots can be planted without crowding your plants,” Nick says. Expert Tip: Take advantage of what you already have in your yard. Is there a rail around your porch? Turn it into a trellis and encourage your pole beans and cucumbers to grow up instead of out. Not only does this take up less space, but it also makes it easier to harvest.
If you have no outdoor space to speak of, take the garden inside. Herbs in particular thrive on kitchen windowsills where you can pinch off a few leaves here and there to spice up your meal. Some varieties of tomato (like the Window Box Roma Tomato) and eggplant can even grow indoors. “If planting in your own space is not an option, finding a community garden to adopt a plot in or volunteering time at any of the local gardens or farms in our area is great alternative,” Nick adds.