Guide to “Growing” it Anywhere: How you can Grow Your Own Fruits and Vegetables Whether You’re Urban or Suburban

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Diet Detective’s Guide to “Growing” it Anywhere: How you can Grow Your Own and Whether You’re Urban or Suburban

You’d be amazed by how many different kinds of vegetables you can grow in even a relatively small backyard.

Here are a few tips and suggestions to get you started with creating your own farm.

Starting Up:
According to Craig Jenkins-Sutton, owner of Topiarius Urban Garden and Floral Design (, there are four steps to creating an urban vegetable garden:
–     Choose the site: Make sure the spot you choose gets at least six hours of sunlight each day. Preferably the location will also have easy access to water and be protected from strong wind.
–     Assess and build the soil: Testing the soil to understand what it needs is an important step. Many garden centers have test kits you can purchase for this purpose. Use the results to guide you as you make the appropriate adjustments. For many urban gardeners, the soil may contain contaminants. If this is the case it may make sense to build raised beds and bring in organic soil.
–     Identify sources for seeds or plants. This is becoming much less difficult as many seed companies are offering so many options. Purchasing starter plants is still a little more difficult. Try asking at local farmers markets and garden centers, or research local garden clubs, many of which have spring plant sales.
–     Research and locate organic gardening products for both pest control and fertilizer. Please understand that many of these products will have application warnings and can still be harmful.

Short on Space? There is Still Hope
Even if you don’t have much space, you can still grow your own food with plenty of options. Here are a few tips from Chris McLaughlin, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Small-Space Gardening:

–     Plant fire escapes with containers on each step and hang planters on railings. Before you start planning a fire escape garden, however, you should call the fire department to make sure it is legal where you live. If not, consider planting a window box or other wall-mounted planter at the front entrance of your apartment (assuming that you enter your apartment from the street).

–     Because window boxes are generally placed at a higher level than most containers, you may feel the urge to plant your window boxes only with trailing plants for a cascade effect, but resist that urge. A planter that houses only vines tends to get rather lost. Add height to your trailing varieties with a few upright plants for a more dramatic effect. You’ll find most window boxes are made of traditional materials such as wood, iron, cement or terra-cotta. But plastic window boxes are becoming increasingly popular because they retain moisture and they’re lighter.

–     Soil is made up of organic matter, minerals, water and air. Soil’s basic structure can be determined by using a simple hands-on method. Take a palm-sized chunk of soil in your hand and squeeze it to form a slightly oblong ball. With your thumb, gently push the soil forward to make a “ribbon.” If you can’t make anything but crumbs it’s a coarse-textured soil – a loamy sand. The best thing for improving soil is compost or composted manures.
–     The first thing to realize about insects is that their mere presence does not a problem make. What kind of bug is it? How do you know it’s eating your plants? Where there are bad insects, there are bound to be good insects. Learn to identify them and look for them. See: and for more information on good and bad bugs.

Edible Walls

–   Vertical gardens are a very cool concept, and certainly ideal for the urban farmer. There is even something called a mobile edible garden created by George Irwin – really incredible. It’s a 6-foot x 2-foot mobile unit that has a special watering reservoir. Although the kit is very pricy at $5,000, it comes with everything you need to have an indoor vegetable garden in your apartment or house year round. What kind of yield can you get from a unit like that? In ideal conditions (crop rotation, the right amount of sun) what you could expect in just one 2-foot×2-foor cell (there are 3 cells per unit): 20 to 30 pounds of tomatoes, 20 to 30 pounds of eggplant, 13 pounds of strawberries or 16 bunches of herbs. Check out Green Living Technologies International Mobile Edible Wall Units (

Here are a few other websites that offer vertical wall gardens / edible gardens:

–     Plants on Walls, makers of Florafelt Vertical Garden Planters (
–     Woolly Pocket Garden Company (
–     ELT Living Walls (
–     BrightGreen, makers of the GroVert Living Wall Planter (
–     Nedlaw Living Walls (
–     Green Walls (

Grow Boxes and Salad Tables

–     Garden Patch GrowBox: (
–     EarthBox http :// This is a self-watering container invented in the mid-1990s by farmers in Florida who were concerned about pollution in the soil and diminishing water supplies. It became available to the general public in 2001. Garden expert and founder of, Boku Kodama, says he’s been able to grow 50 pounds of tomatoes or 40 pounds of cucumbers from a single box measuring 30x14x12 inches–great results without any backbreaking work. He says, “The key criterion is to give your plants eight hours of sunlight.”

–     Salad Table: Worried about bending and back strain? Try building a Salad Table. Created by The University of Maryland, it’s a shallow wooden frame on legs with a large surface area and a mesh bottom that allows water to drain, and it’s inexpensive to build. You can create these to be any height. Also, it can be moved to capture the sunlight (or avoid summer sun) depending on the time of year.

Buying Seeds

Here are a few smart places to start buying seeds for your garden:

–     Burpee ( A family-owned gardening and seed company that’s been around since 1876.
–     Renee’s Garden ( Seeds in unique packets, including watercolor fronts and planting instructions. Also sells organic seeds.
–     Planet Natural ( Provides quality natural and organic products, including fertilizers, seeds and gardening equipment.
–     Park Seed ( ): Committed to offering only the highest-quality, untreated, non-genetically-modified seeds, including certified organic, for 140 years.
–     Seeds of Change: ( Extensive range of open-pollinated, organically grown, heirloom and traditional vegetable, flower and herb seeds.

Vegetable Gardening Blogs and Resources

–     You Grow Girl ( What a wonderful, amazing website! You Grow Girl was launched by Gayla Trail in February 2000. She’s the author of Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces (Clarkson Potter/Random House, 2010).
–     Bumble Bee Blog ( Robin Ripley is the co-author of Grocery Gardening.
–     DigginFood ( Galloway is a former writer for Organic Gardening magazine, an award-winning radio commentator, and author of Grow, Cook Eat. This is a wonderful and informative blog about growing, cooking and eating!
–     Tiny Farm Blog ( “Tiny Farm Blog is one day to the next on a small organic farm.”
–     Veggie Gardener (
–     Urban Farm Online (
–     Skippy’s Vegetable Garden (
–     Garden’s Alive ( Environmentally responsible pest control.

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