Grow Your Own Food … Even if You Think You Can’t

May 28, 2010, 08:00 am  Posted by Lark

I have some rather vivid memories of myself as a child, foraging through the tangled beauty of our tiny backyard garden. I recall pink-hued stalks of rhubarb taking up house right next to a knot of bountiful bean plants. I remember the beautiful red orbs of fresh tomatoes ripening on the vine, knowing that my mom would likely be tossing them into a simmering pot of soup or sauce later in the season. It wasn’t much, just a little rectangle in the dirt off our back stairs, but it was a favorite place to sit and watch the changing of the seasons. Even though my family certainly partook of our share of processed foods that magically birthed from cans and boxes of every shape and size, we still saw the value in tending to your own little patch of food.

I forgot about it until just a few years ago when I found myself inspired to jump on to the gardening bandwagon.  At the time I was becoming more mindful of the ways in which nourishing the earth can also nourish ourselves and our communities. Living in the thriving Foodtopia of Asheville, brimming with farmers’ markets, restaurants specializing in local food, and organizations such as Slow Food Asheville and the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, it’s hard not to get swept into the farm to table foodie fantasy.  “But I can’t even keep a common houseplant alive,” I thought. “How would I, Queen of the Black Thumbs, possibly be able to tend to an entire garden?” Well, I’ll tell you. What happened surprised me to no end, and continues to fill my life with a sense of wonder and delight.

urban garden before shot

Sometimes inspiration strikes in the least expected places.

Living in a large, urban building surrounded by asphalt and alleyways like I do, I assumed my gardening adventures would be limited to a few kitchen containers filled with herbs or perhaps a windowbox or two. Sure, that’s a great start for a newbie. But inspiration struck, and I opted instead to transform the neglected, weed-infested patch behind our building into a functional gardening space. There’s nothing quite like a creative challenge.

As you can see, I didn’t have a lot to work with. The awkward canvas measuring just three feet by thirty feet might intimidate even the most optimistic of gardeners. But I armed myself with some incredibly helpful resources, including You Grow Girl, which helped build my confidence. And I learned that the south-facing placement and proximity to a brick wall might just be the perfect spot. With the plot weeded and new soil spread, I planted my first year of veggie and herb starts and crossed my fingers. There also happened to be plenty of mindful watering, meticulous observance, and lip-biting optimism along the way. To my amazement, my first year’s attempt was vibrant and thriving. Succulent tomatoes! Glorious, bushy basil! More squash than I could possibly imagine coming from one plant! After that first harvest, I was absolutely hooked. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean.

urban garden after

It may not look like much now, but in a month this will be pretty lush. And please excuse the graffiti embellishments. Perhaps a good reason to start taking the gardening in a more vertical direction?

Every year the garden has gotten more ambitious in size and scope. I’m starting to get the hang of what works (anything sun loving) and what doesn’t work (lettuce). After learning how to can last year, I’ve planted some cucumbers that are destined for a batch of bread and butter pickles. And my tomato lust pushed me to plant a happy dozen this year in a number of varieties that will find their way into sauces, sandwiches, salads, and more. The eggplant and peppers? Perhaps some experiments in Indian cuisine. And the lemon verbena and lavender? They’ll show up in exotic cocktails and herbal infused condiments. I’ve got my very own gourmet market right outside my door.

If you’ve never had a garden right now is a fabulous time to try. Gardening edibles is a valuable lesson for yourself, your family and your community in food systems, water and draught awareness, self-sufficiency, neighborhood beautification, and so much more. Besides, there is something really satisfying about to snipping fresh greens, harvesting zucchini right from the plant, whipping up fresh pesto from fragrant basil you grew yourself, and the absolutely divine taste of sun-ripened tomatoes.

You don’t need much:  a container or plot of land, some good soil, a little (or a lot) of sun, a dose of helpful encouragement, and some persistence. Dip your nose into one of the many great books out there right now: Grow Great Grub, Garden Anywhere, Food Not Lawns, The Bountiful Container, Starter Vegetable Gardens. Chances are you’ve got someone in your life already with a wealth of skills (and seeds!) they would be more than happy to share. Whether you’ve got a windowsill or fire escape, small yard or expansive rural retreat, you can do it. I’m living proof.

So if you’re yet to try your hand at growing your own food, what would you like to start with? Already fully equipped with a green thumb? Then let us know by commenting below what you’ve got in this year’s dirt.

Some Helpful Links:

Mother Earth News article on the value of growing your own food

Food Not Lawns site, focused on transforming lawns into gardens, gardens into communities

Garden Girl’s helpful site, packed with videos, links and an entire section devoted to edible landscapes

Design* Sponge article by Homemade Living series author Ashley English about Container Gardening


5 Responses

    I love this article! I got hooked on gardening this year. My husband and I decided to stay in our apartment after our landlord wanted us to move out due to our new dog Jack. After some negotiation, we convinced him to let us stay. I decided then and there I was going to take advantage of our large deck (large for Brooklyn!) and “plant roots”, literally. I find myself visiting Stacy at the garden center every other weekend. I spend delightful mornings and afternoons ooowwing and awwwing over the miracle that is life. Everyday something new pops! The flowers that I thought my dog got into because they looked smushed, I watered and I realized they were just thirsty because we had a heat wave! My basil almost was ruined by heavy water from the upstairs balcony during a rainstorm, but after a little love and replanting it is coming back. My tomato plant finally has its first fruit….and I just realized that the plant needs pruning and the removal of stems below the first fruit. I'm enamored with how the tomato plants in different pots grow at different speeds…it is endless wonder! I'm truly glad that we decided to stay in our place where we have such a wonderful outdoor space. Outdoor space is hard to find in New York City and we are lucky. Just yesterday I made a vegan tofu roast with oregano and parsley from the “garden”.

    Thanks for your article Nicole! It made me happy to see another “city” garden…where plants flourish in the most unlikely of spaces.

    Here is what I have planted for my first year: roma tomatoes, basil, oregano, parsley (Next year I'm going to expand the edibles) tulips, mandavilla vines, pansies, jump-ups, marigolds, a lilac bush, and some beautiful blue flower I'm not sure of the name of…

    Here is a photo of my tomato plants when I first planted them back in April. I will post another photo of the first fruit!

    Amber says:

    Awesome! I'm out in Candler, right near Ashley! *grin* I'm turning my yard into a food-bearing, native herb-sustaining plot, which is indeed one of the big reasons I came to this area in the first place. I've spent days out crawling through the clay, talking to the big ole black snake, and cooing over every worm…identifying weeds and their uses throughout the who lot has been a full time job since May hit and everything is exploding into life!

    I'm making my progress on my blog, http://www.SwampPixieHerbal.blogspot.com if anyone cares to visit! :) If I can be any inspiration to folks doing it for themselves, I'm happy!

    Elizabeth, you have a great collection started this year! Check out “rain chains” and see if those might help with your basil being squooshed by the balcony water flow!


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