8 hard truths about city gardening for newbies

May 9 | Guest post by Sultana Khan
City Garden © by Michael_Lehet, used under Creative Commons license.
I'm gonna give y'all some city vegetable gardening tips that might help you save some cash and beef up your summer dinner menu at the same time. You see what I did there? Food pun!

Let's look at some truths.

You must choose your plants carefully.

Browsing through a Burpee catalog without having your vegetables already picked out is like going to the grocery store after a fast. It's a terrible idea, you'll buy way more than you can possibly eat (I'm looking at you with the Chubby Hubby container in the trash), and eventually you'll refer back to this article and wonder if I'm psychic. I am.

Also, I go through this every year. I buy too much and have to give away plants, or I stuff them into the garden anyway, and everything suffers.

Try picking out only the essentials the first year. Lettuce varieties are cheap, grow well in pots, and you'll actually use them throughout the growing season. Herbs are equally easy, and if you decide to grow traditional ones like rosemary, basil, and dill, throwing in more exotic spices like tarragon or marjoram will add major flavor factor to your meals. Beans and peas are also versatile, and there are plenty of varieties that pot well if you're short on space.

Remember that gardens take time.

If you're growing from seedlings, which I don't recommend for beginners, or even if you've bought established plants, it's going to take most of the summer. Your rewards are only going to come after some serious time and investment, so while the "watched pot never boils" metaphor is annoying, it's probably pretty spot on.

As with any time-consuming venture, the bragging rights you're working toward are going to be freaking awesome come August at the annual family boozy barbecue. "Who has two green thumbs and grew everything in this salad? This girl." Yeah, you can use that — and you don't even have to quote me.

It's best to let go of asparagus.

It's not gonna happen. And here's why: it's crazy overpriced to buy, like, 10, year-old crowns which basically means you're buying delayed gratification. I'm telling you up front, it's going to disappoint you. Paying 20 bucks for plants you can't even harvest until next year is ridiculous. If you're a long term planner, I still wouldn't recommend asparagus for you because you'll still only get 25 spears out of that first harvest (NEXT YEAR) and cost-wise, it'll be cheaper and more satisfying for you to suck it up and walk your butt down to Whole Foods or Trader Joe's or wherever purple asparagus is sold these days.

You're probably going to have to touch poop.

Compost, humus and most organic fertilizers incorporate nature's greatest plant booster — crap. When you're getting your garden ready, mixing any one of these options into the soil is essential to having truly happy plants, and that means your green thumbs are going to be brown for a short time. Get over it. It smells bad for about a second and then you remember that you've probably touched thousands of public handles where somebody else has touched something worse than poop and left remnants for you to touch afterwards.

You shouldn't bother if you're not going to water.

Seriously. Save yourself and your CSA-happy friends some time and anticipation. This is a commitment like any other, and unfortunately, while it's not on par with kids or pets, it's still a daily chore. Weeding, watering, fertilizing, picking off bugs — all this will be yours, and it's most needed on those hot, humid days when you want to tell the garden it's over. It was you, not the garden, I know, but suck it up or don't even get started.

You must invest in decent equipment.

Buy yourself a trowel, some knee pads, a few pairs of breathable gloves, a shovel, some clippers, and decent sunscreen. Gardening is hard work, but having tools that are of at least mediocre quality will not only ease your burden, but also lessen the number of hours you spend in Home Depot wondering why your cheap trowels keep breaking every time you barely graze a pebble.

You should challenge yourself to experiment.

Peas and beans and spinach seeds

Choose a vegetable that you don't eat very often to kick your meals into a new gear. Or pick one you don't love, but want to eat more of because Rachel Ray just mentioned that it was a super-food. Eggplant, okra, cabbage — whatever it is, when you grow your own stuff you're more likely to eat it after all that effort, and it can be a great way to trick yourself into om-nom-nomming some broccoli.

You can use more than you think.

See what different plant parts taste like at different stages! Fried Green Tomatoes may have been one of Kathy Bates' best movies, but it's also a tasty summer appetizer. Squash and zucchini blossoms are delicious when added into a salad or lightly fried in tempura batter. If you have space for climbing plants, brined grape leaves can be incorporated into a variety of Greek appetizers. Lettuce leaves… are lettuce leaves.

Follow these rules and save yourself from graden heartache. Now go get 'em, tiger!

What hard lessons has your home taught you?

  1. and if you aren't prepared to do the work (like me, and hell I live in the country) then just own that shit and get yourself over the CSA to support them and take part in the bounty over there! CSA is da bomb people!!

    8 agree
  2. I have to disagree about the asparagus just from a taste standpoint. Sure, your first, second and third years won't give you much, but damn, is that shit tasty! It's so much sweeter and more tender than anything you can buy.

    1 agrees
    • We are starting asparagus by seed this year. Totally cheap!! I don't mind waiting for it either :) homegrown asparagus is the best :) but I do agree, def not for everyone to grow.

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      • It grows wild by the side of the road here. I saw a guy the other day when I was driving home from work, he had one of those giant drywall paste buckets, and he was filling that mofo UP! lol. I was jealous of him. How is it that I make that drive every day and never saw that asparagus?? Oh, yeah, cause I am busy driving 70 mph to get to work on time or to get the hell home to make mah dinner!

        1 agrees
  3. If we're talking "real" city gardens, I have to add #9, which is "be realistic about your light". Most edible plants require copious amounts of sunlight to thrive and produce, and city dwellers (depends on your city, of course) have copious amounts of shade from their surrounding buildings. Putting that herb container in a window that gets some direct light in the morning is not going to cut it…your plants will be sad and leggy. See if you can get roof access to your building, or borrow some sidewalk space from someone whose house is south-facing (or north-facing, for any southern hemisphere readers).

    Good luck and enjoy! There's nothing more gratifying for me than gardening, and if you really MUST garden, you'll find a way. I live in an RV and have a thriving herb garden in buckets. =)

    5 agree
    • Yes. This.
      It's the reason I have trouble starting anything from seed. The leaves just aren't hearty enough to get enough sun to keep the plant alive.
      I only have luck gardening from started plants.

      0 agree
    • I just started a leafy greens container garden on my back patio only to realize two weeks into it that my plants are probably not getting enough light. Also, storms throw me into a container collecting frenzy as I try to save them from drowning in the inches of rain that beats down on them. So far the plants seem to be doing okay, but sun is definitely an issue for me.

      0 agree
      • I don't know how much light you're getting, but I have had some luck with positioning mirrors around my plants. I set one up directly behind the plants (in the dirt) so it was in the direct path of the light. Two other mirrors are positioned on the edges of my window to help bounce early afternoon light around.

        0 agree
    • Hells yes, Groom wants to grow everything we eat and I keep telling him this very fact. We could grown some lettuces and spinach and a few herbs, but those pepper plants are out of the question. We live on .05 acres of land and have three trees on our ground, and two in the city's right of way. There is not enough light to grow pretty much any of the foods we like to eat.

      0 agree
  4. We do all of our vegetable gardening in containers… a single tomato plant in a medium pot, add a tomato cage, and all you have to do is water. No weeding, woot woot!
    We've had success with cucmbers, small squash, strawberries… I figure that if you added a tall stake you could try beans or peas as well. And herbs are super easy this way… you can combine them and they look pretty all summer.
    The thing I like is that all you have to do to add on is pick up another pot. (or reclaimed dresser drawer, or thrifted metal bucket, or repurposed wash tub, etc.) No clearing or cultivating and easy to do in small spaces if you have the light.
    Easy wasy to start if you are just learning and the small scale makes it more fun than work.

    1 agrees
  5. I'd also add that, depending on where you grow, emotionally prepare for theft. I am in a community garden, and the rule of thumb for us is sweetcorn gets stolen for eating and most round things get stolen for smashing or chucking at friends – when you have 75 tomatoes a few thefts go unnoticed, but when you only have 3 pumpkins on the vine…

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    • This is really true. We had an entire tree FULL of peaches that were almost ripe, and some idiot came out to our house when no one was home and took them ALL. They had to have had a ladder. Of course no one saw anything. I was hella mad!

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    • This happened to us, too. We have a community garden plot, and the first year we lost probably half our crop to theft. We've found that growing smaller veggies that don't take a long time to ripen helps – if someone steals a zucchini, you know you'll have more in a few days. (As opposed to growing butternut squash when you only get three squash that have to ripen for months and somebody steals them before you can eat them.) I also recommend growing smaller varieties of tomatoes that turn something other than red. People are less likely to steal them if they don't look ripe. And so far nobody has stolen any of our herbs or salad greens.

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      • Seconding the tomato advice. Our first year in a community garden, all of our gorgeous, red, heirloom beefsteaks disappeared – and our equally gorgeous Green Zebras were untouched. We still grow a red-fruit plant or two each year, but try not to get too attached.

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  6. I'm going to disagree about asparagus for SOME city-growers. My plot's previous caretaker managed to squeeze four large asparagus plants (well, the root system was large) in a 2'x6' space. According to my plot neighbor those plants yielded plenty asparagus for a couple of years. In fact, they would have still continued growing if I hadn't of mistaken ripped them out! If you have a definite plot and intend on using it for the next four years, it'll be worth your while to plant one crown per person.

    0 agree
  7. DON'T EXPECT IT TO BE CHEAP.

    In this economy, I think a lot of people come to vegetable gardening with the idea of "I'll save so much on produce" rather than "I'll have super fresh, healthy, delicious produce." While you may end up saving long term, the truth is that the start up costs can be pretty daunting if your goal is to save money. If you're planting straight into your backyard, you're still going to need to rent a tiller. If you're planting in pots, or a plot, you're going to spend far more than you expected on dirt and let me tell you, paying for dirt can be pretty demotivating. Plus, while you're growing tons of produce, its all gonna be the same three or four vegetables (as a n00b, I'm assuming that's all you're trying for), and you're gonna get kinda sick of them. So a lot of your "free" produce is going to be given away while you still end up purchasing the out of season or hard to grow goodies you're used to eating year round.

    But what you do grow … SO good.

    1 agrees
    • Oh yeah. I think it's best to think of it as a hobby and budget accordingly. Quilting doesn't save me money (ha), it provides me with a creative outlet. Gardening is the same.

      1 agrees

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