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Urban Farming Tips and Tricks

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Anyone who has a window or a fire escape, some terra cotta or wooden containers, and a bag of soil can grow a multitude of fruits and veggies. Shade-loving plants with shallow root systems—like radishes, beets, and lettuce—can be grown in containers smaller than ten inches in diameter, says Sonia Uyterhoeven, the New York Botanical Garden’s gardener for public programs. The same goes for most herbs—basil, chives, and parsley grow particularly well in contained environments. Deeper-rooted vegetables requiring more light, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, and peppers, grow nicely in three- and five-gallon containers. (Uyterhoeven specifically recommends cherry-tomato varieties Sungold and Sweet 100, along with cucumbers Spacemaster and Fanfare.) All containers should be raised on bricks or some kind of feet for better drainage and air circulation, and container plants must be watered as needed to prevent dehydration. Similar considerations apply to rooftops, although vining plants like pole beans, larger tomato varieties, yams, sweet potatoes, and dwarf and midget fruit trees—from citrus to fig—are more feasible owing to fewer space and light constraints. Those with particularly exposed areas will need to protect their plants from the intense afternoon sun, says Uyterhoeven, who recommends shade cloths and bark chips.

Although backyard gardens typically allow more planting space, they can pose serious soil challenges. Caleb Leech, curator of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s fragrance and herb gardens, suggests that, before planting, you take a handful of dirt and squeeze it together. Good soil will lightly clump, bad soil will either fall apart (too sandy) or mass together (too clay-y). The good news is that soil problems can be remedied by adding compost, manure, and other organic materials widely available at area nurseries. Sun exposure, on the other hand, cannot be changed, so assessing your light prior to choosing plants is essential. Leafy greens—bok choy, kale, spinach, mustard greens, leeks, and Swiss chard—grow well in shady environments, as do broccoli, turnips, rutabagas, zucchini, and cabbage, and those sun-worshippers—tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and eggplants, along with blueberries, strawberries, and even certain varieties of kiwi (try Arguta and Kolomikta)—are nice for sunnier expanses. Herbs of all varieties are hard to botch in part-sun, part-shade areas, and experts recommend interspersing edible plants with flowering ornamentals, both for aesthetics and insect control. The New York and Brooklyn botanical gardens offer year-round workshops on urban gardening, and the BBG staffs a Gardener’s Resource Center to vet questions. The hotline (718-623-7270) is open on Tuesdays through Thursdays from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Check online for walk-in hours, helpful e-mail addresses, and other resources.


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