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Taking steps to live a more sustainable life has never been easier. People everywhere are no longer satisfied with planet-killing produce and are starting a movement to regain control of the food system. They are demanding to know where their food is grown and how it is produced. And in many cases, they are sticking their spades in the dirt and growing it themselves.

The popularity of urban gardening is taking the world by a storm, giving city residents the ability to cut ties with the corporate food system by becoming more self-sufficient. You might be inspired by amazing success stories like the City of Detroit and want to try your hand at creating your own small garden.

But where to start? Between raised beds, containers, square foot gardening and even indoor systems, many people are confused about what the best gardening solution is for them. This article will walk you through the most popular growing methods for urban environments to help you choose what makes sense for you.

But first, let’s look at why small gardens are such a game changer.
Fresh organic vegetables from an urban garden

The benefits of growing your own food

Growing your own food has incredible benefits for both you and the planet.

  • Self-sufficiency: Fuel prices are rising around the world and devastating droughts and floods are compromising the global food system. It only makes sense to sever your tie to farm fields a hemisphere away by supplementing your diet from your own backyard.
  • Save money: Growing your own food can save you heaps at the grocery store. A packet of seeds costs the same as a pound of tomatoes, but a skilled gardener can get ten pounds of tomatoes from every plant she/he grows. If you go one step farther and process those tomatoes into homemade sauces and salsas, you can enjoy massive food savings all year long.
  • Get healthier: Not only will eating fresh, home grown produce keep you from ingesting toxic chemicals and artificial ingredients, working in the garden will also keep you fit. The American Heart Association recommends that every US adult eat 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables and get 30 minutes of exercise every day. By working in your garden, you can accomplish both.
  • Prevent waste: The global food system is fraught with waste, and over 40% of all food spoils before it’s eaten. For the home gardener, nothing gets wasted- all the food that isn’t eaten is tossed into the compost pile, worm bins or used even as animal feed.
  • Stop burning excess fossil fuel: Growing your own food saves massive amounts of fossil fuels from being burned in the process of planting, fertilizing, harvesting, transporting and stocking produce in conventional grocery stores. Every pound of food you grow saves two pounds of fossil fuels from entering the environment.

Ways to grow your own food in small spaces

There are several gardening techniques that are well-suited to small backyards and urban environments. Look through these four options to find the growing strategy that makes the most sense for you.

Raised planter in a urban garden with fresh organic vegetables

Raised bed gardening

The aesthetics of neat raised beds in a backyard garden is hard to beat. By essentially creating a large container for your plants to grow in, you have complete control over the environment for your vegetables. Because plants are grown in perfect soil and above the ground, weeds and insect pests will be far less of a problem than for ordinary in-ground gardens and your quality soil won’t wash away every time it rains.

The process of installing a raised bed garden is simple. First, plan out the location of your bed by making sure it faces south (which equalizes the light for your plants). Next, double-dig the area where your bed will be to at least 16 inches deep. Pull out any rocks and roots that are in the way. Pile up the soil into the center of the bed so that you have room around the edges for putting in the raised bed frame. The sides of the bed can be almost any material- from wood, rock, brick, or concrete. Timber is the easiest and cheapest material, but take caution to not use wood that has been preserved or treated, because it may leach toxic chemicals into your soil. You can build your own wood bed with these instructions or buy beds pre-made like these.

Next, fill your bed with high quality planting soil. A mix of potting soil and compost works well. It’s best to set up a plan for an irrigation system because raised beds tend to dry out more than in-ground beds. Automatic drip tape irrigation systems are a good idea for keeping the bed hydrated.

The great thing about growing in a raised bed is that you can plant densely. Heat loving plants like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers do especially well, though be prepared to replace your soil every few years after growing these heavy feeders.

Square foot gardening

Founded by Mel Bartholomew, square foot gardening isn’t a different growing technique than raised beds, but rather is an intensive management system for them. Mel retired from engineering at 42 and found he had a passion for gardening. Frustrated with the massive amounts of weeding and wasted growing space that traditional garden rows created, he devised a new system of growing that utilized densely-packed garden squares that grew food in every space available- even vertical spaces.

Set up with the precision of its engineer founder, square foot gardening starts with raised beds built into squares no larger than 4 feet that are filled with ‘Mel’s Mix’: a soil blend of 1/3 coarse grade vermiculite, 1/3 sphagnum peat moss and 1/3 blended compost. Next, a grid is used to divide up the bed for proper planting arrangements. Vegetables are planted based on their spacing needs and are classified in categories ranging from ‘extra-large’ (1 per square) to ‘small’ (16 per square). Any combination of plants can be put in any bed, so long as they all fit within the spacing arrangements.

Thanks to Mel’s efforts, square foot gardening has become hugely popular and has developed into several bestselling books. Though the start-up costs can be high, square foot gardening allows you to grow lots of food in small spaces.

Container gardening

For those with yards too small for raised beds, container gardens provide a great alternative for growing vegetables. Urban gardeners everywhere use this method to cram food into the smallest of spaces on their property. There are even dwarf varieties of many popular fruit trees that are perfectly suited to growing in containers.

The obvious advantage of container gardens is that they require very little space and effort. Where ever you can fit a pot you can have a plant, and weeds and insect pests aren’t likely to get in your pots. However, conditions have to be exactly right in order for vegetables to flourish. Food plants need to get a specific number of hours of sunlight every day to produce, which can often be difficult in urban areas where tall buildings cast shadows on each other. You will also need to water container plants more often than in-ground plants because their limited root structure causes them to dry out. Moreover, potted plants quickly deplete their soil, meaning that fertilizer will need to be added frequently to stave off disease.

In many ways, the plants best suited to container gardens are herbs, because they require little space and often have a habit of taking over raised beds when not confined to their own spot. Herbs are also expensive in grocery stores, so growing your own will save you lots of money.
Fresh herbs growing in containers indoors

Indoor gardening

If you lack sunny outdoor spaces, your best bet for growing produce may be to turn towards indoor gardening. Though houseplants are well suited to indoor environments, it can be hard for vegetable plants to get enough sunlight in order to produce fruit, so a south-facing window or artificial light source is mandatory.

With a proper (though expensive) setup, just about any plant can be grown indoors. However, the results usually pale in comparison to outdoor-grown produce. Indoor vegetables are usually smaller and less robust, and often contain fewer nutrients. Also, be warned that any activity that involves bringing dirt and water indoors can be damaging to your home. Carpets and window drapes near sunny windows are especially at risk if your plants get knocked over. Also, make sure your house can handle the excess moisture that an indoor garden creates. You may need to invest in a dehumidifier for the rest of the house.
Organic carrots growing in lush soil of urban garden

Best vegetables to grow in small spaces

Some plants do better growing in small spaces than others. Here is a list to get you started.

  • Herbs: The expensive herbs you buy at your grocery store can be easily grown at home with minimal effort. You can make a small herb bed next to the house or grow them in pots on a sunny windowsill.
  • Runner beans: This bean variety grows vertically, preventing them from taking up too much space. You can grow them in teepees made from six foot poles that work as a support for the vines.
  • Shallots: As a smaller variety of onion, shallots can be planted together densely in well fertilized spaces.
  • Beets: Another space saving plant, beets provide both greens and a sweet root that’s delicious raw or roasted. Each beet seed is actually a compact ball of tiny seeds that will all germinate in the same area, so when you plant, less is more.
  • Cherry tomatoes: Unlike bush tomatoes, cherry tomatoes grow in vines that can easily be trellised to take up less space, and because each plant will be shockingly prolific, you won’t need to plant many.
  • Kale: Vertical-growing kale plants can be thinned when they get too big by harvesting the outer leaves for delicious salads and sautés.
  • Lettuce: Head lettuce matures quickly, meaning you can get multiple harvests out of the same plot of land. If you plant them too densely, immature plants can be thinned out and eaten early.
  • Early carrots: Few vegetables take up less space than the simple carrot. Just be patient, as carrots can take a long time to grow to maturity. Plant different varieties to experiment with different hardiness and sweetness levels.

In summary

A lack of space doesn’t have to stop you from growing some of your own food. Whether you choose to build raised beds, plant herbs in containers, or try your luck with an indoor garden system, there is always an option that can be explored to achieve greater food self-sufficiency, no matter where you live.

About Author

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Lydia Noyes is an Appalachian homesteader and writer that lives on a land trust deep in the mountains of West Virginia.