It is possible to grow your own food even if you live in an urban space and have no outdoor room to garden. If you have just a bit of space on a balcony or rooftop, you can grow even more. Here’s an overview of how to grow food for yourself and your family if you’re living without a large yard and transportation to move large quantities of plants and supplies to your house.
Urban Survival Gardening: Challenges
Gardening inside presents unique challenges. Techniques that are simple outside require a bit of ingenuity inside. For people living in urban areas without transportation, getting all of the necessary supplies for gardening is also a challenge.
Issues for Urban Gardeners
- Supplies: where to find, how to have them shipped
- Space: small apartments aren’t conducive to traditional fruit-tree growing techniques
- Light: light levels are drastically reduced on the inside
- Crops: which will produce in shadier conditions
- Pollination: certain fruit crops require pollination (generally done by insects) in order to produce
There are ways to get around all of these issues. Here’s how.
The Internet has made getting supplies much easier. You can get everything you need shipped right to your door—including potting soil. Many items that you use for everyday life can be re-purposed for gardening. In the excellent book “Fresh Food from Small Spaces” by R.J. Ruppenthal, there are instructions for making a self-watering container out of a plastic Rubbermaid container, some PVC pipe and a colander.
There are lots of things you can grow that are healthy, nutritious, and require relatively little space.
- Sprouts: Sprouting is one way to grow a lot of food in a little bit of space. Some of the best seeds for sprouting are: radish, mung bean, garbanzo bean, broccoli, clover, alfalfa, lentil, wheat, and buckwheat. Within less than a week, a tablespoon of seeds can give you plenty of greens. Start a sprouting operation on top of your refrigerator, and you can grow a full complement of plants to provide calories, vitamins, minerals and proteins to keep you and your family healthy.
- Dwarf fruits and vegetables: There are many varieties of fruits and vegetables that can be grown in pots. Citrus trees, small patio apples, peaches, and other fruit trees grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks will do just fine in pots. “Determinate” or bush-type tomatoes can be easily grown in containers, and with a few tricks of light, will produce fruit.
- Vines and climbers: Peas and pole beans all grow up and can be trained on a lattice or trellis to grow up instead of spreading out. Training this up will help the plants take advantage of light that is available.
In addition to specific plants, you can also creatively use your space. Here are some ideas for spreading plants out in the space that you do have.
- Hanging plants: You can grow plants in traditional hanging baskets. You can also hang them upside-down (the topsy-turvy tomato planter is an example of this), or grow them in a wall pocket or gutter garden.
- Plant Stands or Terrace gardening: To take advantage of vertical space, use plant stands and boxes to create a “terrace” garden in your living room.
- Trellising and Training: Create a trellis or train your beans and other climbers up instead of out. You can even grow them up a lamp!
One of the most important concerns for growing food inside or along a balcony is the light. Some plants need more light than others. Any warm-season crop that produces fruits (think: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants) needs at least 6-7 hours of full sun a day. An un-obstructed (as in, no tree or other building in front of it) south-facing window should provide enough sun to try these plants. But, if this isn’t possible, here are some plants that can grow in shadier conditions:
- Bush beans
Each of these plants will eventually produce enough to eat, though it might take longer than if the plants are growing in full sun. Therefore, if you’re really dependent upon the crops, you might need to plant more. In terms of sheer calorie production, potatoes have the most calories per square inch of growing space, so make plans to grow potatoes inside for extra calories and nutrition.
One way to make the most of your existing light and space is to reflect light from the outside, in. Position a board painted white, a piece of cardboard covered in foil, or a shiny piece of metal near a window so that it reflects light back onto the plants. Do not use a mirror or glass because that focuses the light to the point that it can start fires.
Some crops need to be pollinated in order to produce fruit. (And, anything that has seeds in it-squash, zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, etc. is fruit.) Outside, that’s not a problem, because honeybees and other insects take care of pollination. Inside, that’s an issue. You’ll have to pollinate your fruiting crops yourself. You can simply use a Q-tip to move pollen from the stamen (where the pollen is) to the pistil (the sticky area in the center of the flower) to pollinate the plants.
Feeding Your Plants
If you’re growing plants outside, the easiest way to feed them is with a liquid organic fertilizer. If you’re growing everything inside, you probably don’t want to use one of these because they usually have a strong odor. A way to get nutrients for your plants and avoid the odor is to compost with worms. You can keep a worm compost bin under your sink and solve two problems at once: getting rid of food scraps and feeding your plants.
Here’s how to make an indoor worm bin:
- Rubbermaid container with lid (not clear)
- Shredded paper
- Glue or duct tape
- Drill two holes of about ¾ inch across in each side of the container and the top. (Not the bottom)
- Cut a square of screen to fit over the holes and glue or tape into place. (These are air holes)
- Soak the paper until wet, and then wring it out until it is about as damp as a wrung-out sponge.
- Then, add your worms!
Red wrigglers are the best worms for indoor composting. Each ½ pound of worms can eat about a pound of food per day. Don’t feed the worms animal products. Coffee grounds help absorb odor. Keep the worms fed, and occasionally remove the “castings” and add them to your plants.
Growing food in small, indoor spaces is possible with a bit of planning and creativity. Stop relying on the industrial machine for your food. Start growing your own!
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