I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Published March 10th 2010
Few people remember the "victory" gardens of World War II, but during that era of food rationing, Americans grew 40 percent of the nation's fruits and vegetables in an estimated 20 million backyard gardens. Being an urbanite, however, you might be at a loss for a backyard to transform, but press on. With a little investment of time and money, you too can create an urban oasis by container gardening on windowsills, rooftops, fire escapes, or any patch of green that gets adequate sunlight.
Winter is the best time to start preparing your garden, beginning with seedlings. Some prefer ordering their seeds by mail from catalogs or from websites (think heirloom tomatoes), but harvesting seeds from local farmers' markets or buying quality varieties from retail outlets is also recommended. (Be sure to check expiration dates to obtain the best results.)
Instead of starting seeds in fancy trays, try using recycled egg cartons. The cups are a perfect size to root individual groups, and if you use cardboard, the entire cup can eventually be transferred into a pot once you generously pierce the underside. If your dwelling has good window light, you can grow seeds for any number of herbs, lettuces, and other vegetables. To make more room, consider outfitting tall windows with temporary glass shelves. One large-sized apartment window can house hundreds of seedlings and small plants.
Once the seedlings are established, you'll have to transfer them to small containers. To do so, you'll also need a quality soil. New roots need room to grow, but they don't do well in tightly packed conditions, so look for brands that are a mix of soil and vermiculite, preferably for seedlings. Most quality brands also include fertilizer, which is useful for people new to gardening. If you're short on containers, comb area recycle bins for glass jars, chipped ceramics, odd coffee cups, or broken vases. Almost any container can be used if your soil mix is adequate (not too loose, not too tight) and provides drainage. Either drill a hole on the bottom for draining, or start with a layer of stones to wick the water away from roots, which reduces exposure to mold, one of the chief causes of root-rot, a condition that sounds as bad as it is. (Tip: Plantings in clear jars make excellent "experiments" for small children who can witness first hand how the plants grow from seedlings to lush greens.)
If your rooftop is your inspiration, check first with the building's owner or management company and/or your neighbors to make sure that you're not breaking any rules about using the roof. They might have some great ideas to help, and some buildings may even qualify for tax offsets under green incentive programs. (Tip: If your landlord is less than keen about you hanging out on the roof, he or she might have a change of heart if the enterprise lowers his or her property taxes. Neighbors might also want in on the action in exchange for some fresh veggies.) For inspiration, check out local rooftop community gardens in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens.
Once you have your spot in mind, measure the space and design your garden on paper, figuring out how much room you need for the yield you'd like to produce. People new to gardening will likely be more comfortable with containers (large discarded plastic buckets drilled with holes are wonderfully economical) while others will want to build raised beds, usually at least 1- to 2-feet deep. If you're game, you can try a combination of both.
Comb the neighborhood for discarded wood, old window boxes, buckets, and any other materials useful for gardening like mock stakes (for climbing plants), terra cotta pots (even broken pieces are good for lining pot bottoms), or even an old chair or bench for relaxing. The ideas are as limitless as your imagination. (Tip: Popsicle sticks or discarded balsa wood painted with chalkboard paint are terrific markers to label different plant varieties.)
New gardeners should also start with some established plants, readily available in one of New York City's farmers' markets. Start with a selection that includes some easy-to-maintain favorites, such as baby lettuces, cucumbers and squashes, onions, peppers, peas, carrots, tomatoes, herbs, and strawberries. (Before purchasing, check which vegetable varieties grow best in local conditions.) Before long, your container garden will take off, yielding enough veggies to spare without darting out to the supermarket. Better still, you'll be healthier for making the effort!