Lately there have been a lot of queries about how to grow food not lawns if you live in an apartment. Here is an excerpt from my book, Food Not Lawns, How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community, with some ideas:
What If I Don’t Have a Lawn?
For people who are lucky enough to have fertile soil in their own yard, starting a garden is easy. For those who don’t have good soil—or don’t have a yard at all—starting a garden takes a little more effort. Most soil, especially in urban areas, responds well to organic improvements, and it usually makes more sense to build soil on a convenient spot than to travel far from home to garden in an area that is already fertile.
We’ll learn how to build good soil on any ground in a later chapter, but what if you don’t have a garden space at all? In the next few pages we’ll look at how to find places to grow gardens, and how to make the most out of the spaces you find. The biggest limit to what you can do is your own creativity, so see what you can think of and share your ideas with others. Ultimately city dwellers’ best resource is neighbors, so tap into their hearts and minds, and don’t hesitate to share your own.
The following land-access strategies will help you get started.
Use the Neighbor’s Lawn
It may seem odd in our modern American culture, but in other places around the world people frequently share yard and garden space with their neighbors. If you’ve been eyeing that nice sunny lawn next door, dreaming of filling it with fig trees and big red tomatoes, what could it hurt to ask? Go on, go over there, bring some seeds and a smile, and ask!
I have seen spectacular gardens come together when a group of neighbors with adjacent yards take down the fences between their lots and share the land communally. All the ideas in this book are most effective when done in community, with the people who live nearby. This doesn’t mean everyone can’t have their own space to do as they choose—only that the natural ecology is allowed to be more fully inter- connected, without plants, insects, animals, and natural flows having to overcome fences and other human-made obstructions.
Rent a Plot in a Community Garden
Many cities have some sort of community garden program. Ask at the local university, Agricultural Extension Service, or gardening store, or try doing a search on www.google.com—just type in the name of your city and “community garden.”
Most of these programs lease ground from the city and rent out small plots to local gardeners on a seasonal basis. If you can’t find a pro- gram locally, would you like to start one? Chapter 9 has several ideas for community garden projects. Also see the resources section for a list of books and websites.
Volunteer at a Local Farm or Help Friends with Their Gardens
Most organic farms offer free produce to volunteers, and some will lease you a small plot of your own. This gives you an opportunity to learn from the farmer and access to the farm infrastructure, which includes important resources such as irrigation, seeds, surplus starts, et cetera. Some farms also hire seasonal workers, which can be a great opportunity to spend your summer learning, exercising, and eating fresh produce.
If you can’t find a local farm to work with, volunteer to help your neighbors with their small garden. More options usually reveal them- selves as new relationships mature, so build community through volun- tary interaction and you won’t be without a garden for long.
Garden in Pots and Containers
Most annual vegetables are well suited for container gardening. Even a small patio can hold a few planters—get pots out of a garden center dump- ster or use other recycled containers such as sinks, bathtubs, wine barrels, and plastic buckets with holes drilled in the bottom. Try strawberries, car- rots, beets, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, herbs, and salad greens.
Try a self-contained potato garden: Take some chicken wire and make a round cage. Put a layer of thick straw in the bottom and toss some potatoes in. Cover with straw, leaves, or soil, water often, and keep adding more mulch on top as the shoots emerge. Soon you will have a basket full of fresh potatoes.
Use the Roof
If you lack patio or yard space but have a flat, accessible roof, consider building raised beds or planter boxes on the roof. There are fabulous rooftop gardens in big cities all over the world, with everything from small containers of herbs and salad greens to large planter boxes filled with trees and perennials. Get creative with the space you have now and better options will unfold later.
De-pave Your Sidewalk or Driveway
Rent a concrete cutter or just get together some friends with crowbars and rip out the pavement around your house. It doesn’t take that much work to convert a driveway or parking area into a garden. I have seen several wonderful examples, and the residents didn’t regret the lost pavement for a second. The broken-up pieces—aptly called “urbanite”—work great as stepping- stones or patio pavers or for building raised beds and terraces. Park on the street and enjoy the extra exercise while walking home through your new garden. You may even want to tear down a whole building, such as a garage full of junk; recycle the junk and building materials, and grow plants instead. I would much rather have a living, edible garden next to my house than a dirty old box full of consumer crap. Think about it—you probably wouldn’t pave over an orchard to build a driveway, so why choose the pavement over the trees just because it’s there now?
Grow Food in the Existing Landscape
You don’t have to turn over a big area or even disrupt existing plantings to integrate some food plants. We once rode bikes around town with a big bag of zucchini seeds, planting them wherever we saw a gap in the landscaping. Later we saw big plants in some of the spots and harvested some delicious zucchini! I have also planted fruit trees into existing beds in front of local businesses or at the edge of a park.
This strategy works well, because the city or property owner main- tains the landscape, and your plants get watered—sometimes even weeded and fertilized—right along with the plants that were already there! The downfall is that whoever is in charge of the site may notice your plant and pull it out or may spray it with toxins. Still, this is a good option for generating more food around town, and it can be great fun.
Also look for good spots in alleyways, along back fences. Often there is a garden on the other side of the fence, and you can plant small beds along the outside that benefit from the surplus water and fertility.
Start a Garden in a Vacant Lot
You can do this with or without permission. Sometimes property owners will let you plant vegetables and fruit trees in a sunny, under- used corner. Others may say no if you ask but won’t notice for a long while if you just do it without telling them.
When the Food Not Lawns collective started our first garden, in an overgrown section of the park, the city didn’t know we were there for almost a year. We got the combination to the gate from a neighbor, cleared out all the trash and debris, and started gardening. By the time folks from the city came along to ask questions, we had a beautiful garden established, and they let us continue to use the space. They even sent park workers to drop off chip mulch once in a while!
There are countless examples like this, where people took over an area, grew food, and maintained access for many years. Some of these squatted gardens eventually gained ownership of the land. Sadly, there are just as many examples of gardens that were eventually bulldozed and paved over. In my opinion it is usually worth a try, and you will probably get at least a season’s reward for your audacity. This and the previous option are often called guerrilla gardening—see chapter 9 for more tips along these lines.
As you look for places to grow, ask yourself some important, prac- tical questions: Will you actually go there to garden? Will you be inspired by the surrounding space? Will the plants have an opportunity to reach maturity? Will you want to eat the produce? Grow what you love, what you eat, and what you want to look at, in a space that makes you feel healthy and empowered.
Making the Most of a Space
Don’t let the idea of the perfect garden spot keep you from planting things right where you are now. Making the most of every space is one of the primary purposes of paradise gardening and ecological design. Here are some important pointers for maximizing the space you have available now.
Using vertical space wherever possible will double or even triple your yield, because for a tiny amount of ground space, you get lots of pro- duce. Grow plants that climb, such as cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, gourds, and beans. Hang a salad garden near the kitchen door. Or grow plants up a trellis, rooted in large pots or small beds.
Try growing upside-down tomatoes by planting a handful of seeds in a hanging bucket with a hole cut in the bottom. Water often and watch tomato vines grow out from all directions. Thin to the strongest few vines and harvest often.
Grow in the Shade
Many gardeners value only the sunny spots, but thousands of edible and beneficial plants thrive in partial to full shade. True summer veg- gies usually prefer full sun, but try spinach, kale, collards, raspberries, mints, beets, and most salad greens in an area you thought might be too shady. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Think Outside the Raised Bed
Filling big square areas with annual vegetables is but one of the many varied and wonderful ways to grow good organic food. Even a small corner can become a fruit-bearing oasis filled with cherries, currants, grapes, or any number of perennial shrubs and trees. Carve out odd- shaped sections where a large bed won’t fit. Convert curvy strips around your lawn into garden beds, leaving wide grass paths in between. Or just plant little islands around the yard.
Also try mixing annual vegetables with existing landscape peren- nials. Plant long-living fruits such as blueberries, plums, grapes, apples, and pears, and enjoy the bounty of your ingenuity for generations to come. Most garden fruits will bear within the first three years, depending on the variety and age of the tree when planted.
Make Use of Available Water and Fertility
In areas that are naturally soggy, such as near a dripping hose or by the roof drain, plant a garden filled with plants that will thrive on the moist soil. Along the same lines, if an area is naturally dry or the soil seems barren, find plants that prefer the dry soil or can improve it, rather than trying to force plants to grow in a soil to which they are not suited.
This principle also applies to soil fertility—if you have a rich area, use it to grow your most important plants, even if it doesn’t seem to be the most aesthetically or socially appropriate area. By this I mean do it in the front yard, y’all! Don’t underestimate the beauty of your food garden. If well designed and tended with love, it will far surpass the beauty of any ornamental landscape, and your neighbors will prefer it to the static lawn that was there before.
Make Microclimates Work for You
Take plenty of time to carefully observe the site—sun, water, soil, traffic, and natural and industrial influences—and make a note of the apparent microclimates around your garden area. The term microclimate refers to the specific conditions of a particular site within a larger ecosystem. This could be your individual garden versus the local growing area, or a specific spot within that garden versus the whole site. Around even a small home or garden site there may be a dozen or more types of micro- climates, each with a distinct set of conditions: hot and dry; cool and wet; sunny and moist; shady, dry, and acidic; and so forth.
There are a number of factors to consider when looking for and designing microclimates, including soil, wind, frost, heat, water, and of course function. First, look at the soil. Where is it dry, wet, warm, cool? Is it thriving with life or is there not a bug to be found? Next, notice how the wind moves through the garden; it can be very easy to filter and direct (more or less) wind through a site.
Cold wind often has a devastating effect on tender plants. Thus it is important to identify the less hardy zones in the garden and plan accordingly. Watch out for these little frost pockets, and look for oppor- tunities to direct warm winds toward heat-loving plants, to prevent cold wind tunnels from damaging tender plants, and to take advantage of (or avoid) wind’s drying effects.
For example, you can deflect a frost using a white, south-facing wall and/or overhead cover. Many plants that are not otherwise hardy in a certain region will thrive up against a nice warm wall. Likewise, rock borders, brick paths, fences, trellises, and waterways can also catch, store, and reflect heat, divert or filter wind, and shelter tender plants.
Existing weeds provide useful clues about the soil and microclimate (see chapter 4 for more on this). Also, look at how the water moves through the garden, and look for opportunities within. Learn to recognize and note the special circumstances that any of the above elements impose on the site. Find several microclimates in your home and garden space, and try to identify their individual needs and opportunities.
Adjacent microclimates influence each other, especially along the edge. For example, a greenhouse not only is a warm, humid microcli- mate in itself but also creates varying microclimates on each side, below, and above. Thus you can create a warm microclimate along the south side of a greenhouse, using the space to grow heat-loving plants. If you put a dwelling on the north side of the greenhouse, it will benefit from the surplus heat and protect the plants from chilly northern winds. Likewise, you can look for a natural microclimate, such as a shady grove of oak trees, and use it to grow useful shade plants that would not survive in the sun of the garden.
Some people recommend following your pets around to find microclimates. On a cold winter day put the cat out and see where she goes; chances are you will find a warm microclimate where you can plant a winter garden or put a sensitive houseplant. On a midsummer after- noon notice where the dog seeks shelter from the heat, and you may find a cool, dark place to dry herbs or store fresh foods.
Further, within each microclimate, and again within the whole, there will be a wide diversity of niches, some of them filled with living crea- tures and plants, others waiting for a symbiotic opportunist or two to settle in. By learning to identify the specialized opportunities within a site, you can assess its potential and determine what steps to take when building beds, improving soil, and choosing plants. Knowing your niches and microclimates will help you make best use of your space, increase the range of plants you can grow, and thus multiply your overall yield.