How To: Start Your Own Urban or Community Garden

Urban and collective gardens promote organic farming and foster community.

From Berlin to Bangalore, backyard-deprived urban dwellers are using every spare inch of space to grow gardens on terraces and rooftops while others are pooling talents and resources to set up and manage community gardens.

Autor*in Anna Rees, 09.20.12

Urban agriculture is booming as people look to growing their own foods as a way of managing household budgets and promoting organic farming. The health benefits of gardening coupled with the community-building nature of a common gardening space mean that people everywhere can get involved and benefit.

Do It Yourself! 

Armed with the right tips and tricks, getting started with your own form of urban agriculture can be a lot of fun. RESET International talked to Dan Mowinski, London-based gardener and author of gardening blog Urban Turnip, for his expert advice on starting your own urban garden.

(The original interview has been condensed.)

RESET International: When is the best time of year to plant your own vegetable garden?

Dan Mowinski: If you’re starting from scratch the best time is early in the year – March or April. These months are the perfect time to sow seeds indoors or in a greenhouse (ready for planting out when the weather has warmed and the threat of frost has passed).

Can you talk about the most important factors when selecting a physical space for a home garden?

Light is the big one here. Pretty much everything else – wind protection, irrigation, and even shade for plants that dislike too much direct sunlight – can be artificially provided. Light can’t be. So go for the brightest spot.

Can you summarize the different points to keep in mind when it comes to planting in: pots vs. raised beds vs. natural earth?

If you have natural earth, use it. Raised beds will invariably be built on natural earth and can allow a little extra root space for plants. If you have heavy clay soil, raised beds are extremely useful because you can provide an ideal, friable (what a lovely word) soil. Pots require more maintenance simply because plants can’t establish the extensive root network to draw water and nutrients from the ground. You’ll need to feed and water regularly.

What type of soil should be used?

If you’re adding soil to raised beds, topsoil from the garden centre is all that’s needed. This is a mixture of sand, silt, clay and organic matter – essentially the four components of all soil but in an ideal combination for growing. In pots, any potting mix is OK, preferably with a little drainage material (like perlite or grit) added. Just don’t forget to feed regularly [with organic material such as grass clippings or compost].

Why is it important to add compost or other organic material to the soil?  

That’s where the nutrients are! Fully decomposed green matter or manure is a treasure trove of nutrients.

What are some good “starter” vegetables for new urban gardeners? Perhaps plants that require less maintenance?

Radishes, turnips, potatoes, beets, lettuces, herbs – all are low maintenance and easy-to-grow. It won’t be long before you’re moving onto more exotic and unusual options though. I promise you.

Do you have any general advice about planting with seeds vs. seedlings? Or does it simply depend on the plant?

I always start seeds indoors and plant established seedlings out – it’s the best protection against hungry snails, caterpillars and birds.

What are some of the biggest mistakes people make when planting urban gardens?

Not feeding is the big one! Urban soils and potting mixes are likelier to be nutrient-poor, so feeding is a must.  Not watering, especially in hot spells, is another biggie. Just simple stuff really.

Do you know about or use any digital tools or apps for gardening?  

I subscribe to several great magazines, available digitally. I also think there are some great online courses out there, particularly from the likes of “Learning With Experts” and RHS. On the app front, I rather like the plant identification apps. [At RESET, we suggest checking out examples such as PlantSnap and Plantifier.]

Any other advice you’d like to share with readers planting their own gardens?

Get curious about unusual veggies – for me, growing weird stuff is one of the big draws. Check out veggies like skirret and Brukale (a hybrid of Brussels sprouts and kale).

Community Gardening

Community gardening allows people to cultivate a common piece of land (e.g. public space, apartment complex courtyard) and plant all manner of herbs, flowers and vegetables for their own personal use. Community gardens bring beginners and experienced gardeners together, and all members reap the benefits. Participants learn techniques from one another, share tools such as shovels and wheelbarrows and, of course, enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Development of urban agriculture could in many contexts even help curb global food security issues. Basically because, if you can grow your own ingredients, your dependency on global food supplies is greatly diminished. Countries such as Cuba have used urban agriculture to help meet national demand for food, rather than rely solely on imports into the country. The initiative has proven to be such a success that the government implemented infrastructure to support the growing industry.

And unsurprisingly, according to research conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder, participation in community gardening also promotes an active and healthy lifestyle and helps strengthen ties between neighbours.

Much of Dan Mowinski’s advice also applies to community gardening, and below are some additional tips for newbies, courtesy of CommonFloor:

  • Form a planning committee to share out responsibilities and handle administrative tasks such as budgeting for supplies.
  • Identify a piece of land for your garden, and remember, it’s better to start with something small or medium if your group is new to community gardening. Make sure to include a composting area, a space for storing tools and maybe even a special area for kids!
  • Assign plots to individuals, groups or families and set up rules for working in the garden so each member knows what is expected of them.
  • Schedule regular meets for members to share ideas and socialize.
  • Research garden insurance in your area — this can help cover losses due to theft or an accident. 

Do Your Research

Whether planting your own rooftop garden beds or caring for a plot in a community garden, remember to do your research. For instance, it is possible for urban soil to be contaminated, so check with your local environmental authorities regarding the viability of local gardening resources. And don’t forget to plan. Before you buy any seeds or empty out old containers, consider: What plants would I like to grow? How much time can I devote to caring for them? What tools (if any) do I need to get a hold of before I can get started?

Solid preparation and maintenance will help you achieve a fruitful garden. Happy planting!

Author: Anna Rees / RESET Editorial
Updated: Laura Depta (August 2018)

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