Friday, July 31, 2009

Growing a garden when you don't have a yard

tuscan window boxes of flowersWe are moving, and we are losing our outdoor space as a consequence.

I've had to grieve through this, which has somewhat surprised me. We've chosen well in terms of the unit we're moving to, and frankly we just can't afford to own land plus decent interior square footage in our chosen neighborhood. We had to choose one or the other, and we chose the interior.

Our decision makes sense, because we're not very outdoorsy people, and we still have an entire beach less than a block away. We shouldn't be so attached to having our own personal piece of land. In fact, we had never had any outdoor space before this current apartment surprised us with a private patio. But we've grown accustomed to the luxury in just the short time we've lived here. Because the patio was broken down already, I added some dirt and called it a garden. We have a porch swing; we sometimes splash in the birthing-now-kiddy pool; our cat likes to sun herself and scratch her back on the concrete; and our toddler rides his scooter and trike back and forth along the length.

And now we're losing it all. We're selling the porch swing on craigslist. We have to figure out some way to store and maneuver all our bikes up the flights of stairs in the new place.

And my garden. My beautiful babied plants — flowers and veggies, berries and lavender and perennials. I'll be leaving them behind, if the landlady agrees and if the next tenant would enjoy them. If not, the yard waste bin (oh, sad...) or given away through freecycle. And this is after I had such resolve to grow my own plants, too, and have enjoyed it immensely so far this season.

It got me thinking about how to garden without a yard, because I did it in small doses in my previous rental before we moved here a couple years ago, and I fully intend to start again next year. I'm not resigning myself to the loss of a garden forever!

So here are my ideas and tips for people in the same position: living in an apartment, high-rise condo, or houseboat (oh, that would make up for the loss of a yard!) but still wanting some green space. Feel free to add any that have worked for you!

1. First of all, consider what plants you can grow indoors. A lot of this will depend on how much light and how much space you have. You'll probably have to forgo the fruit trees, but there are always old favorites like a window box of kitchen herbs, a jar of sprouts, and green houseplants. But don't limit yourself to just that. Seeds, pots, and planting soil are all cheap, so you might as well play around to see what you can coax into bloom. Or you could go futuristic with a hydroponics system! Regardless, you'll need light. If you have a balcony or south-facing window, you might be able to hang a tomato planter or flower baskets to catch the sun, and arrange potted plants wherever they can get the photosynthesizing they need. If you don't have decent light, though, as in our previous east-facing apartment shaded by tall neighboring buildings, you're not going to be able to grow healthy vegetables in the window alone. I'm curious whether supplementing with grow lights would suffice for veggies, particularly in the gray Northwestern winters. I used an inexpensive DIY lighting system (three cheapo reflectors with a mix of higher lumens compact fluorescent bulbs clamped to a shelf overhead) to start my seedlings but then transplanted the baby plants outdoors into the much brighter sun. But if I ramped up my lighting system, maybe year-round indoor salads would be a possibility! If you try it, let me know.

Regardless, if you really want to grow enough to feed your family, you're most likely going to have to move outdoors, so here are some other options for the urban, landless green thumb:

2. Community gardens. In Seattle they're called P-Patches, but I'm thinking that's not a universal name, and the emphasis here is on organic gardening and low-income residents. In Seattle there's also a waiting list, so I won't be getting into one this year, and probably not the next either. But basically they're community lots that are divided into garden spaces and then rented out to members who pay for the privilege by putting in time caring for the common areas as well as their own patch. You can grow whatever you want, as long as it's for personal use. Harvest-time overflow is donated to area food banks.

3. Urban Garden Share. In Seattle, a group of kind souls set up a free website where homeowners with extra land can match with gardeners who are land-poor but knowledge-rich. Some homeowners are looking for mentoring relationships in starting a mutual garden; some just want to see their yards put to good use, for perhaps a share of the yield. Since I love a good romance novel, this description made me laugh. It is a little like a dating website for gardeners. You can write your own listing for either your expertise or your available dirt, and you can contact others securely and anonymously (as you wish) to see if you'd be a good fit. The listings are arranged attractively by neighborhood, so you can choose someone close to share ground with.

4. Get some friends. If the established options don't work out for you, see if you can arrange your own. Ask a friend or family member who owns a house nearby if you can be the garden gnome. Digging in dirt together is a great way to deepen your friendship, and you can share the astonishing amount of tomatoes and cukes you harvest. Or start your own Urban Garden Share idea, or see if you can connect with like-minded souls on craigslist or community bulletin boards (but be safe, please!). See if neighborhood businesses or schools, or even your own apartment building, would appreciate some volunteer landscaping, or maybe ask the city if you can beautify a traffic island. A local elementary school or preschool might relish the idea of a vegetable garden that all the kids participate in, assuming they're continuing through the summer. There's plenty of land around, even if it doesn't belong to you — if you ask, maybe others will share!

Some inspiration from someone who wasn't fazed by gardening indoors:

Happy gardening, all my fellow landless dirt-diggers!

Tuscan window boxes courtesy
Jenny Rollo at stock.xchng


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