Urban Planting

A guide for getting your garden growing

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Mike Ryan, a member of Support for Local Urban Gardeners (SLUG), who wrote this article.

“If you found a sandwich sitting on a sidewalk, would you pick it up and eat it?”

This is one of my favorite questions to ask people when the subject of local food production comes up. The answer is almost invariably “no”—obviously, you have no idea what that sandwich has been through.

Curious, then, that we can say the same thing about most the food available at supermarkets or restaurants.

Unfortunately for all of us, the odds are that the food we eat has likely been modified to include something we can’t pronounce, much less explain, and it may have traveled more miles to get to your plate than you have traveled in the last month. There is a certain sense of accountability as well as a sense of community that is lost when the grower and the consumer are separated by such significant barriers.

But, fact is, almost anyone can take steps towards creating their own food source. Starting a garden in whatever space you have available—backyard, front yard, on your patio in planters—is patriotic, rebellious, political, and most of all, freeing. But it does take some work.

This brief guide covers the basics to help you get your garden started.

Site Selection

First thing’s first. Where is your garden going to be? The name of the game in urban gardening is taking what space we already have, and putting it to better use.


• Find a spot that gets sun. It doesn’t have to be 100% full sun exposure from sunrise to sunset.
• If you do get lucky and find a completely unobstructed space to grow, keep in mind that this scenario has its challenges, too; more watering and monitoring will be necessary, but if you stay on top of things, you’ll reap the benefits of better plant growth.
• Make sure the location you choose is close, and accessible, and it will be easier to keep an eye on.
• Another benefit to keeping our gardens close to the house is that it may help in deterring pests and nuisance animals. It’s amazing how quickly a gardener learns to vilify the rabbits and deer that they used to see as nature’s harmless creatures—just wait until they beat you to eating the food you’re growing!

A really easy option wherever you locate your garden is a “raised bed” garden. You basically take some 12” wide boards, build a four-sided box and fill it with soil. Raised beds are great for maintaining good drainage, increased soil temperature, and less soil compaction as there’s no reason to walk in your raised bed. Raised beds can take almost any shape; however, you should limit the width to three or four feet so you’ll be able to reach across them.

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SLUG coordinators Jessi Asmussen and Kevin Prather have been gardening in the back yard of their house for several years. When asked about their soil, they said, “Our soil is mainly clay-loam and we use a variety of amendments to help with soil-structure and fertility. By growing cover crops of vetch and wheat, as well as top-dressing with composted horse manure, homemade compost, fish emulsion fertilizer, spent coffee grounds and organic fertilizers, we have been able to slowly improve the soil.”

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Even if you don’t have a yard, you have some gardening options. Jeremy Rockwell’s entire garden is on his second floor porch. He uses five gallon buckets as hanging planters—he grows tomatoes upside down through holes in the bottom, and whatever else in the top. “I don’t have any grass [to grow with] at all,” he says. “It’s a great use of space because you can plant herbs and other things on the top-side of the buckets.”

Soil

A gardener’s greatest asset is their soil. Soil, not dirt, is a fantastically complex and (ideally) living entity.

Many parts of Lawrence have a great start on healthy soil already, but some is definitely better than others. Ideally, we aim for loamy soils. Loamy soils have a nice balance of sand and clay as well as decomposed organic matter. A good balance helps retain water yet also provide air in the soil. The organic matter essentially helps feed your plants—more on that later.

Any type of soil can be enhanced enough to grow with, by making the proper amendments. Since everyone’s soil is a little bit different, the Douglas County Extension (2110 Harper) provides free soil tests and will tell you exactly what soil amendments you need to optimize your soil.

Compost

When we consider the soil as a component of our garden system, it may be helpful to think of it as a bank account: if we’re going to feed the growth of our plants with the contents of the soil, we have to remember to put back at least as much as we take out for things to stay balanced, and for our soil to stay healthy.

Compost is essentially decayed organic matter. Again, this is one of these subjects that can become incredibly complex, but essentially anything that was ever plant-based can be composted. At our house, our scraps go in the orange bowl on the counter. When the bowl fills up, we go and dump it in our compost bin.

Easy compostables include:
• ash from your fireplace or fire pit (in moderation)
• eggshells
• coffee grounds, (we compost our filters too)
• shredded newspapers
• leftovers like oatmeal and vegetable soups

Two things to remember with compost: brown and green. Brown represents carbon, and green represents nitrogen. In your pile, you will need roughly 25 parts carbon (lets just say dead leaves) to one part nitrogen (i.e. grass clippings) and you should be off to the races.

If you’ve got space to keep a few chickens, do it! Chickens will eat most of your scraps and their droppings make great compost and fertilizer. More on that in the Subversive Cultivation blog.

Plant Selection

Seed catalogs do for me now what toy catalogs used to do for me when I was a kid. Think you know your vegetables? Think again. We Americans have become so streamlined that we’ve unconsciously stripped ourselves of the awesomeness of different variety. Ever had a purple potato? What about a yellow tomato?

Obviously, when you’re planning your garden, an easy place to start is with your own personal favorites. You’ll seriously short-change yourself and your family if you don’t order some things you’re unfamiliar with just for the heck of it. It’s a great way to incorporate more veggies into your diet as well.

A few common favorites include:
• Tomatoes—consider different varieties for different purposes such as canning and snacking.
• Herbs—They’re easy, they take up very little space, and they can make a big impact in your kitchen.
• Radishes—A good season starter and ender.
• Leafy greens—Huge selections of lettuces and other greens are available and most do well with cooler weather.
• Peppers—Another great choice for the garden with more varieties to choose from than you’re probably aware of.
• Cucumbers—They’re easy to pickle or can if you get more than you can handle.

A common misconception when people first start to learn about gardening is that we plant seeds in the spring, nurture and fawn over them all summer, and harvest the bounty in the fall... at least that’s what I used to think. Since then, I’ve learned to look at the growing season as more of a bell curve, with a high, hot season in the middle, and an opportunity to grow crops that tolerate cooler temperatures at either end of the season. A well-managed garden is almost continually being harvested and re-planted. This handy reference (PDF) from the Extension office includes a year-round planting schedule.

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SLUG coordinator Jessi Asmussen looks over her garlic crop.

General Care

Weeding

There’s a little saying that goes, “If your plants are growing, then so are the weeds.” Weeding, weeding, weeding. This is where the hoe becomes invaluable. Weeding is a full-time job. It’s may be the most important single activity that a gardener can do. If you don’t stay on top of the weeds, then before you know it, the weeds will be on top of your plants. ‘Nuff said.

Watering

Like mothering, you can end up with too much of a good thing. When you’re going to water, try to do so early in the day. Also, try to water close to the ground. In the mid-summer heat, you’ll end up avoiding burning your plant leaves with careless water application, and you won’t lose carelessly applied water to evaporation as much either. Too much watering, and watering late in the day can be an open invitation for plant diseases and other unhappy things.

Pests

Our gardens are subject to invasions of a wide array of pests. Most of the bigger ones we can simply fence out. Others, particularly of the insect variety, become a little trickier to combat. I encourage everyone to resist chemical applications, which just seem to be an “easier” solution. There is almost always a more subtle solution which is usually a mouse-click away. Many insect infestations can be solved by the introduction of other insects which are beneficial to the garden. Do yourself a favor and learn all about what you’re up against before you make any changes. You’ll be a better gardener for it.

Get Involved

Lawrence is a great place to get into gardening and food production. Aside from the topics we’ve covered, there are a number of resources available in the community to new growers and experienced growers alike.

Support for Local Urban Gardeners (SLUG) — This Lawrence-based volunteer group is a great way to pick up gardening skills. It’s the busy time of year, so they’re looking for more volunteers to assist with the multitude of requests they’ve received. A great way to learn is to help out! They can be reached at slug [at] lawrence [dot] com

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Kevin Prather and Jessi Asmussen work in their backyard garden.

Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture — Although they’re located up the road, the KCCUA is a great resource for those interested in the importance of urban food production. Check out their website at kccua.org.

Growing Growers training program — A program for people seriously interested in learning more about local, sustainable food production. Learn more at growinggrowers.org.

Sustainable Agriculture Entrepreneurship program — Offered through a partnership between Johnson County Community College and Kansas State University, this program is another great option for people interested in more formal training.

Comments

jayryan 12 years, 6 months ago

great article, and timely considering the increased interest in home-grown foods in today's economy. looking forward to preparing the yard this week, and planting over the coming weeks.

leslie 12 years, 6 months ago

Good tips, Mike. And we're supposed to get primo gardening weather this weekend!

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