How to Grow Your Own Urban Vegetable Garden

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by Jayne Rising

Choosing to grow your own urban vegetable garden is a massive step towards self-reliance. With current events being what they are, supply disruptions, rising prices, and all that, every bite you can provide for yourself and your family is a step in the proper direction. In this article, I will discuss the basic considerations involved in starting your urban garden.

As Daisy says, “It’s time to become a producer instead of a consumer.” 

Ordinances of urban gardening 

Ah, the bureaucracy! Many municipalities, including mine, have ordinances covering vegetable gardens. One is wise who learns these in advance, for the Internet abounds with horror stories of citizens crossing local government. Therefore, forewarned is forearmed. For example, my city has ordinances covering setbacks, which is the distance my garden must be from sidewalks, property lines, and my house.

There are also regulations covering compost piles. While I’m allowed to collect rainwater, my barrels must not be visible from the street. If you’re an apartment or condo dweller, the management or association may also have rules in place. What are the laws covering gardens in your situation?

Urban vegetable garden siting and lighting

Now that you’ve researched the local laws and are good to go legally, where do you plan to put your garden?

If you’re a homeowner, you can site the garden in your yard. Preferably your backyard to keep prying eyes to a minimum. I live right across the street from a high school. Kids often don’t think very far ahead. Someone might see your garden and decide to grab something that looks yummy without considering the effort put into that veggie or the plans you had for it. So the backyard is preferable. And may also help keep the city inspectors from bothering you. Bonus!

The strongest and best light for growing vegetables is typically south and east. Ideally, your garden should be situated to take advantage of this. Light will dictate much of what you can grow. For example, tomatoes need at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day. If your garden doesn’t get that, consider either a different spot or a different menu. There are many shade-living plants, most notably spinach and other greens.

Let’s not forget the water for your urban garden

Where is your water source?

I can think of few things worse than hauling buckets every day, so it would be better to have your garden within reach of an outside spigot. Connecting to a soaker hose and walking away is far better than standing there, by the way. A typical vegetable garden requires about 1″ of water per week, more during the hottest part of summer.

If you’re an apartment or condo dweller, much of the same applies. You’ll have to scale down a bit if you can’t get space in the yard. A container garden might be your best option. Worry not! Nearly anything can be grown in containers. I’ve produced everything from greens to squash and potatoes in them.

You’ll want to think about how much weight your lanai can take if that’s where you plan to grow. Management might even have a rule about that stuff, leaving you no choice but to grow indoors or rent a space with your local Community Gardens. That latter usually rents plots very cheaply for the season! Mine rents plots anywhere from $10-$25. Check yours out! It may be a very worthwhile investment.

What should I grow in my urban garden? 

My local urban agriculture initiatives have a saying: grow what you eat and eat what you grow.

If you’re not sure what exactly that is, I suggest spending one week writing down everything on your plate that could be grown. Do you like to eat salads? Write down the ingredients and include the veggies on your list. From there, you can narrow items down to what can be grown in your garden.

Knowing your USDA grow zone will help. Learn your frost and freeze dates. Then you’ll know how long your growing season is, which will help you decide what you can plant. Some plants take longer to mature than others, so the length of your growing season matters.

Check out The Organic Prepper’s sister site, The Frugalite for amazing money saving tips and recipes to use your home-grown veggies.

Where will I get the plants? 

For first-time gardeners, I always suggest buying them.

Your city is likely to have at least one gardening center or farmer’s market. Those places will stock varieties that grow well in your area. And, those places will have hardened off the plants so you won’t have to.

Seed starting isn’t difficult, but it does take some knowledge and effort. For beginners, I suggest focusing on the garden. Set yourself up for success by starting small. Taking on too much is a recipe for disaster and discouragement. So start small and focus on the garden itself. You’ll grow in knowledge over time. (As Joanna writes, gardening is a skill learned by trial and error. )

If you do decide to start with seeds, Seeds for Generations has everything you need!

Do I plant my urban garden in the ground, raised beds, or containers? 

Typical vegetable gardens are grown either in-ground, raised beds, or containers, or a combination of these. Your choice depends on several factors: soil type, house vs. apartment or condo, and how much you enjoy bending over to weed.

For example, my soil has lots of clay, which isn’t the best growing medium for most vegetables. I live in a house, and bending over isn’t my favorite activity due to back issues. Therefore, I have mostly raised beds and containers. I elevated one of my larger containers, so I need not bend at all. For the rest, knee pads are an immense help. What’s the best combination for your situation?

What tools do I need for urban gardening?

For my urban garden, most of my everyday tools fit into a standard-sized cloth bag. This bag holds my beloved knee pads, of course, along with my clippers, two trowels (one marked with measurements), a small measuring cup (for side-dressing fertilizer), hemp twine, Kevlar coated gloves, and a Swiss Army knife.

Let’s not forget my water bottle! Gardening is sweaty work.

Other tools that live in my shed include a spade, a broad fork, a rake, and a wheelbarrow. Nothing fancy. All very handy. Many can be acquired cheaply at yard or estate sales. If you have to buy something new, it’s an investment. I’ve had some of my tools for ten years and counting.

Ready to start your urban garden? 

So now you have the basic principles of planning your first garden: where to put it, what to plant, where to get plants, your essential toolset, and you know to research local laws before doing anything. I’ll expand on all of these topics and more in future articles, but you have what you need to get started.

Questions? Ask in the comments! I’ll do my best to answer.

What are you planting this year? Do you have any urban gardening tips you want to share? Let’s discuss it in the comments.

About Jayne

Jayne Rising is a gardener and bookworm with a BS from the University of Wisconsin and a Master Gardener certification. She’s been growing food on her small urban lot since 2010 and teaching others how to do it since 2015. She’s involved in a number of local urban agriculture initiatives, working to bring a sustainable and healthy food system back into the mainstream.

How to Grow Your Own Urban Vegetable Garden
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23 Responses

  1. We have pole beans from seeds we save every year that do well.
    But this year we are trying runner beans along the one fence. As they grow, we will run a string along the fence and spread them out horizontally. See if this is a way to increase diversity and production.
    Oh, and the humming birds supposedly like them a lot too.

  2. “grow what you eat”

    sometimes the climate and soil dictate what can be grown. have to learn to like what is available.

    1. Absolutely! In most cases, climate and soil will dictate quite a bit about what you can grow. So you’re right: learn to like what’s available. Figure out what’s possible, then choose your menu from there.

      1. @Jayne,
        I have found in the past, when not using 2 year aged compost of goat/cow/chicken manure, waste hay, that Mel’s (i.e. Bartholomew) Mix of 1/3 blended compost, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 coarse vermiculite by volume works quite well in raised beds or containers.

        1. Lots of people use both Mel’s mix and his square foot gardening method. I use standard garden soil, amended with fertilizer as needed. At the end of the season I toss my container soil into my raised beds too, along with egg shells, the more easily degraded of my garden waste, and some standard 10:10:10. Amending soil is forever 🙂 but it beats watching TV!

        2. for an urban garden, table scraps and green leaves run through a blender and left to winter over in a dirt pile works pretty good too.

  3. whithner corn field pole beans do well with limited light. they have been used for generations. plant next to corn when the young corn stalk is about 6 inches high. the leaves get extra large, presumably making up for less light. taste good. no need to make a trellis. open pollinated. 🙂

  4. I love my raised veggie garden boxes but have a reoccurring red ant problem. They mostly infest at the corners of the boxes . I’ve used red pepper, pure vinegar, salt water … they usually just move to another corner . Do you know of a food safe, organic , veggie garden ant KILLER ? I live in south Louisiana and red ants love it here. Thank you

    1. I’m sorry, I don’t! I’m ‘way up north of you in Wisconsin, and that’s not a problem I’ve ever had. A quick Google search turn up the stuff you’ve tried, plus diatomaceous earth. You might also consider hitting all four corners at the same time, if them moving is your problem. Have you tried that?

    2. I’m close by in Texas. The fire ants try to infest my raised beds too. I mix a gallon of diluted manure tea with an ounce of orange oil and a teaspoon of dish detergent. I have found it chases them right out.

  5. I’ve been gardening for a few decades and cannot begin to explain the benefits I get from it. Obviously the food but also the serenity, achievements, challenges and exercise. Health and longevity plus a complete lack of trust in our food system has pushed me to try and grow all of our food. I’m at about 60% now some years are more because as you said trial and error play a big role. I do at least a few experiments each year, lately its mostly growing more in less space. Urban gardening is great for this even if you have the space. I like to call myself a lazy gardener, my friends roll their eyes at that but it just means I put a little more effort in at the start to make it easier later. I don’t want to be weeding when I need to be preserving. Container gardening is a wonderful suggestion for beginners, I tend to recommend lettuce as it’s very easy and it is almost instant satisfaction any greens are great to start with and many of them are also attractive so it doubles it’s purpose on a patio or balcony. I encourage anyone to just try to grow one thing. Each plant gives just a little more experience and confidence to take the next step. Happy growing!

    1. Oh yeah! Garden and learn. Work smarter and not harder. Try new things and learn new things! It’s a great hobby and the best therapy, plus you get yummy food.

  6. Rabbits are a huge problem in my urban garden. I have had to put chicken wire (called poultry netting at the local big box store) supported by small steel fence posts around everything.

    1. Chicken wire is what I use too. While learning to process rabbit meat is probably a great skill, my city doesn’t allow me to shoot them and I hesitate to poison them since I doubt I could use the meat at that point. So, poultry netting it is! Rabbits decimated my new plantings once and if I have my way, it’s not happening twice! Bird netting is also useful. Birds can be as bad as rabbits!

  7. I have grown vegetables for 3 years now in Grow Bags. Each year, I add a few new vegetables to see if I can grow them. I grew my own cabbage, broccoli, and lettuce from seed. Container gardening is much easier than growing in the ground, although there are startup costs of containers and potting mix. No weeds with containers. Ants are a problem but Sevin dust works on them. The plants have to he watered EVERY day because the bags are felt and dry out. It’s a pain, but not as much of a pain as weeding. I have tomatoes 6 feet tall already and ripening. This year I have grown bell peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, squash, 3 kinds of lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, strawberries, and sweet peas. I have 74 Grow Bags of veggies. They don’t take up much room, and I have them just off my porch where I can check on them easily. I have learned to inspect my plants twice a day. If you don’t catch the bugs and worms at once, they can take out your crop in just a few days.

    1. I built my raised beds (and my compost bin) out of discarded pallets. Just make sure they’re heat treated. They will have HT stamped on them somewhere. That way you know they weren’t chemically treated. Nothing better than a FREE raised bed!

  8. I suggest to see if it is possible for work at a friends garden, community garden or farm, in exchange for earnings some veggies. So that you will gain knowledge and experience when growing your own garden. This is also a way to garden without the gardening cost. Our understanding of one of the farms nearby deal is an hour of earns a bag of veggies.

  9. Super helpful article, thank you. Total newbie here – is there anything whatsoever I can grow easily indoors? I’ve heard sprouts and I believe I can get a box of herbs for the windowsill that will keep growing but what is the best and most self-sufficient way to do any of the indoor things? I’ve seen many videos on You Tube with things like endless scallions in a mason jar. Thank you!

    1. Herb gardens are a good start. Greens can be done, and this year I’ve been experimenting with micro-tomatoes. Grow lights will be a huge help here, as even a bright windowsill may not yield enough light for fruit to set. Also, some plants need a pollinator, such as cucumbers. Tomatoes, including micros, are self-pollinating. I would start with these simpler things: greens, herbs, perhaps a cherry tomato. Use grow lights. If you’ve got any space outside at all, I would put a few pots out there too. Keep watering in mind as pots dry out quickly. By starting simply, you’ll set yourself up for a better experience than by trying to do it all at once.

      1. Thank you so much, I had never heard of grow lights or that greens and even micro tomatoes could be grown indoors versus just herbs so thank you.

  10. Oak leaves are a great addition to soil. If I didn’t have oak trees, I would be offering to rake leaves for others. I fill my deep container garden planters with this year’s fallen oak leaves & put my soil mixture on top of that. All the extra oak leaves go into my compost pile. After this year’s growing season, I will transfer a lot of that soil/leaf mixture out to my big garden to help with my crop rotation.

    1. Oh yeah! I don’t have oak but I do rake my leaves into my raised beds at the end of the season. I also add my old container soil and the easily degraded parts of my veggie plants. Soil amendment is forever but it’s good exercise and what passes for fresh air in the city.

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