The Zero-Budget Urban Garden

March 21, 2013, 20:45 pm  Posted by Lark

Start slow and small!


Today I would like to share with you some inexpensive DIY garden projects, some of which I have done, and some others that I aspire to do! I will share our highly functional—if a bit ugly—wooden pallet garden beds, a home made screen door, a soda bottle “cold frame,” outdoor Mod Podge ideas, a little inspiration for beautifying a low-budget-small-space garden, and a few free projects from our book Eco Craft by Susan Wasinger!

Last summer, together with one other garden-loving Larker, Jeff, I started a small container garden on the rooftop patio here at Lark WHQ. We set out to spend as little of our own money as possible, and none of the company’s money. So, I put out a call for containers, spare lumber, pallets, and patio furniture; and Jeff purchased some organic soil from a nearby mulch yard. We carried soil up to the third floor and out to the patio, one bucket at a time, slowly filling landscape-fabric-lined pallets and ugly old flowerpots.

Next, the growing was up to me. I started late, and I had little to work with, but I managed to grow cucumbers, tomatoes, jalapenos, poppies, bachelor buttons, sweet potatoes, marigolds, nasturtium, and lots of herbs! As an unexpected bonus, the garden lasted into December, thanks to protection from the wind on three sides and heat rising from the office space below. I picked the very last Cherokee Purple tomato on December 12th; plus the sage, thyme, lemon balm, and parsley all survived the entire winter!

Here we are, entering the second year. Goals for this year include: planting a couple of small trees and shrubs (from cuttings of my own trees and shrubs), starting an office-wide compost arrangement, finding a table so we can eat our lunches out there, placing some sort of bird bath, and general beautification. Perhaps a bit lofty, but I promise to forgive myself if it doesn’t all get done. Also if none of it does.


Pallet Beds

Pallets make pretty decent garden beds for plants that don’t have deep root systems. My thyme and parsley have done really well in the pallets, as have nasturtium, marigolds, and lamb’s quarters. The latter is actually a weed, but it’s an edible one very high in both calcium and magnesium, delicious sautéed with some spinach or other greens.

When I posted photos on Facebook, my friend Marti pointed out to me the potential hazards of growing in pallets: When you’re seeking pallets to use, be sure to look for ones that have an “HT” stamped on the side, not an “MB.” “HT” stands for heat treated, and “MB” means methyl bromide. I did not know this at the time that I collected these pallets, and now they’re so weather-worn that you can’t see any stamp. Frankly, I’m not particularly worried about it, though, as I’ve grown primarily ornamentals and herbs in these beds, and the herbs are eaten only in small quantities.

Anyway, I stapled landscaping fabric around the bottoms and sides of these pallets, and that holds the soil in. A lot of people actually use this method for vertical beds: After they attach the fabric, fill the pallet with soil, plant some things, and let the roots grow a bit to hold the soil together, they lean the pallet up against a wall. That is a great idea if you have a very tiny space! Here’s a wonderful tutorial on the whole process. I have chosen to keep ours flat on the ground, though, once I’ve filled them with soil.


An empty pallet awaits this year's soil.



I stapled landscaping cloth around the outside of the pallet to keep the soil in, and I used a double layer of it, so it would be more likely to hold.








Landscape fabric detail















Screen Door 

This is pretty specific, but if you’re in an urban multi-story building like we are, you might have a weird door like ours leading out to your rooftop. Actually, this makeshift screen door idea is perfect for any portal to the outdoors that lacks hinges and/or standard dimensions.

Our door frame is metal, and the building manager specifically told me I couldn’t put any holes in it, so I simply measured the frame, bought some 1×2 lumber, and asked them at Home Depot to cut it to the sizes I needed, remembering to subtract the width of the lumber from the length of one dimension. (Actually, I forgot to do this, assembled the frame, realized my mistake, detached the brackets, cut the right length with a handsaw, and reassembled the frame. Don’t make that mistake!)

I also bought four sturdy corner brackets, short screws to attach them to the thin little pieces of lumber, a roll of screen material, and a little box of very heavy-duty Velcro. Everything cost about $27. I laid out the pieces of wood in a perfect rectangle and used a cordless drill to screw the brackets to the inside corners of the frame.

It isn't really warped, that's just my wide-angle lens!


Next, I cut a piece of the screen material big enough for the frame, made sure it was all straight and tight by stapling it at the corners (on the bracket side), and then stapled it all the way around, every inch or so, all the way around. You’ll need a staple gun for this step.

Finally, I stuck the Velcro in corresponding places on the door’s frame and the wood frame (non-screen side). Now, we can just stick the screen onto the door frame any time we want fresh air without fresh bugs!



There is our screen door in the background, and that ugly thing in the foreground is both a doorstop and a composter!








Here is the detail of one of the corners.













For this zero-budget garden, I have asked friends and family to donate any kind of container they’re not using. This has turned up a lot more generosity than I’ve expected, and well, some ugly containers. Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled to receive them, and I will happily use them! But, you know, sometimes they aren’t all that good-looking. An idea has occurred to me in the past week that I have yet to try: to dress them up with decoupage!

Think outside the pot. Plants will grow in trash cans and rain barrels and coffee cans and all sorts of other things! Also, thanks to my awesome mother-in-law for this ugly container that is going to be SO useful.

This former rain barrel that I am going to use to plant a tree seems like the perfect candidate. This will be highly experimental, since I cannot seem to find any evidence online of anyone having tried it. My plan, however, is to either paint the outside of the barrel with primer (because I have an uneducated assumption that things will stick to it better if I do that). Next, I’ll go down the basement and dig through our boxes and boxes of scrap fabric, and then I’ll use fabric Mod Podge to stick it all over the barrel in a spontaneous way, and then I’ll coat all that with a waterproof varnish or Mod Podge Outdoor! If anyone gets to this before I do, I’d love to know how it goes.

Obviously, there are other ways to decorate something up like this. You can paint your own design using waterproof oil paint markers. Magazine pages or any paper media can be decoupaged to just about any type of surface; or you can just glue objects right onto a container too. Here is an embellished pot project from Eco Craft, by Susan Wasinger.



This coffee can is transformed into a really charming little earthy-looking planter or vase. Be sure and use waterproof glue if you intend to keep it outdoors!



Soda Bottle Greenhouse

If you take a chance and plant early like I am too lazy to do, this is a great way to give the little guys a fighting chance! Just place a clear soda bottle with the bottom cut off over a seedling. Ventilation is built in, and it will stay several degrees warmer in there, plus the bottle will hold the day’s heat into the night. Here is a tutorial from Wendy at botanusblog.














Pretty Additions

If your garden lacks electricity, as ours does, or if you prefer subtle mood lighting over the all-out illumination of your compact fluorescents, perhaps you’ll dig this easy and brilliant pots of light project, also from Eco Craft. I cannot wait to try this one!

And finally, not every single thing in your garden has to have a purpose. These metal ornaments made from soda cans are pretty, and they would really look great an urban garden! The instructions are for Christmas tree ornaments, but your finished product can certainly hang from anything. I’m picturing a big tree or an awning, with these beauties hanging like mobiles over a picnic table, maybe from twine or old reused fishing line instead of wire. (Their reflectivity might actually scare flies and bees away from your eating space.)

And finally, here is the reason I’m so attached to this silly old rooftop: the view!


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