Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Growing Stuff in Small Spaces, Part I

With more urban dwellers becoming interested in growing food in limited spaces, we thought it would be fun (and hopefully informative) if we start relating our own efforts at growing veggies on the deck of our 900 square foot condo. We are relatively new to the world of urban gardening ourselves, but hope those of you just wading in can nevertheless learn something here. If you're already a seasoned gardener you probably won't discover much you don't already know in these posts, but any tips or thoughts you can share along the way would be much appreciated.

So today we'll start the process by planning our early spring container garden. Planning a successful container garden begins with five steps:

Step 1: Assess your space
I guess it's obvious, but you can only grow so much in any given area. If you have a large deck you have more options, but even with only a fire escape there are still plenty of things you can grow. Think about produce that might do well in the area you have available. If you're not sure how much space a particular type of produce needs to grow successfully, search online or visit your local nursery and ask someone for help. If you describe your available space, a good nursery employee should be able to point you in the right direction.

Another seemingly obvious but important point: you need a space that gets some sun. At least a little. Plants can't grow without it. ;)

Step 2: Learn the growing schedule in your area
This is super important. In gardening, timing and location is everything. What and when to plant vary considerably depending on where you live. We moved to the Portland area last fall. With a relatively mild climate, you can start planting things relatively early in the season here. In fact, even though spring is a month away, now is probably just a tad bit on the late side to start planting some of the earliest spring veggies. So depending on where you live, it's time to get moving! Do a quick web search to find out what grows best and when in your area.

Step 3: Learn what to plant outside, and what to start inside
Many things do best when planted directly outside in the soil. But other plants need to be started inside and away from the elements before they can be transplanted outside later. If you are looking to grow things that are started inside, make sure you have a good growing space indoors. This means finding a warm spot near a window that gets some sun. If sun isn't available, you'll need to grow your starts under fluorescent lights or grow lamps. We are lucky in that our condo has a row of floor to ceiling south facing windows, making the place a pretty
passable greenhouse.

Of course, there are sometimes other considerations as well. Animals and pests are one. Yes, such gardening enemies can even be found indoors. For instance, I live with an extremely curious lovebird who loves to poke his beak into tiny green things growing in soil. Be sure you have a spot where your indoor starts are safe from such dangers!

Step 4: Get some seeds
Thinking through steps one through three above should help you decide exactly what you can plant where you live. The next step is to adjust for personal taste and get some seeds. Again, pay a visit to your local nursery. Most seed packs available for purchase will provide you with plenty of seeds for growing things in limited urban spaces. You'll end up with plenty extra. Be sure to save the excess seeds somewhere safe for the next season.

Step 5: Get the right equipment
Growing things in containers doesn't require many tools. Things like shovels generally can sometimes come in handy, but basically you'll only need proper containers and a small amount of good soil. If you are starting plants indoors you'll also need indoor containers along with good seed starting mix. Plants are best started indoors in small "ice-cube tray" type containers (see image above) and in a starter mix instead of soil. A good starter mix should contain a high percentage of peat moss, an ingredient that helps protect young plants from disease and fungal infections.

Something to think about here is drainage, especially if you are planting indoors. Be sure to think about what you’ll place under your containers to collect excess water and occasional bits of soil. Most commercial containers offer drainage collectors or drip trays which fit snugly underneath the container. Be aware these collectors are usually sold separately.

...so that's basically the plan. The next step is to actually do the planting. We bought seeds today for onions, cherry tomatoes, and red peppers. All of these are good candidates for planting now, and all will need to be started indoors. We plan on planting them tomorrow or the next day, so check in later for the blow-by-blow. We also plan on planting some sugar snap peas directly into a 1' X 3' container outside within the next six weeks, once the chance of frost has pretty well passed. Our lovebird is hoping for a bountiful harvest of peas this year. If we could only get him to do some of the work, we would really be in business...

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

We are a little bit behind the West Coast here in Maryland, especially considering the snow storm we just got. Still, the days are longer, there's more sunlight, and despite the late snow the plants outdoors are starting to get their spring on.

I'm taking the slightly lazier route starting my seeds indoors using a "Jiffy Windowsill greenhouse". An egg carton sized plastic contain that comes pre-loaded with a dozen little "peat pellets" in which to start your seeds. I'll post more about my attempt to start a garden here in Baltimore soon!