Container gardening is a great way for city dwellers to have their own home-grown food source in a small space. All you need is a deck, a roof garden, or a tiny patch of well-lit space to start your own small garden. To learn the basics, we attended a session with Merill Smith, from Chicago's City Farm. Get ready for growing season!
What You Need
- The planters Merrill uses are made from recycled 2x4s with a plastic screen lining the bottom. She lines the screen with newspaper or burlap, so the soil doesn't fall through. A wine crate is another great option.
- For herbs and lettuce, a planter with a larger surface area and shallow roots in about 2-4 inches of soil will create a higher yield. Tomatoes require a deeper planter. (Merrill uses a plastic bucket lined with burlap and filled with compost.)
- The materials for Merrill's planters came from the ReBuilding Exchange, an organization that works with contractors to recycle materials from demolitions and renovations.
- The compost Merrill uses comes from City Farm, a sustainable vegetable farm between the Gold Coast and Cabrini Green. They sell compost to the public for $5 per bucket.
- The seeds and sprouts shown above also came from City Farm.
- Merrill sells her Green Box (the large version shown above) through City Farm for $75, $50 of which goes to the farm.
- Planter that provides aeration for roots
- 2-4 inches of good soil (high-quality compost is best)
- Seeds or sprouts
- Sunlight (most herbs and vegetables require a couple hours of full sun per day)
- Hand-held garden cultivator (claw)
- Choose what you're going to grow. Good options for container gardening include herbs such as basil, sage, and mint; red and green lettuce; and tomatoes.
- Purchase or build your container. For herbs and lettuce, it should be a shallow container with a large surface area and a screened bottom that allows the roots to aerate. For tomatoes, use a deeper container, such as a bucket. (See "resources" above for details.)
- Find a sunny spot for your herbs and vegetables. Herbs and lettuce need at least a couple hours of good sun per day; tomatoes need full sun.
- Fill the container with 2-4 inches of compost soil. If you're planting sprouts, make sure to give them a few inches of space around the roots. If you're planting seeds, scatter the seeds evenly across the planter.
- Keep a couple of containers of each plant going at once, so that when you've clipped one plant, you have another one ready for your next meal.
- Water your plants regularly. Herbs should have somewhat damp soil—don't let your shallow planters dry out. Tomatoes, on the other hand, are easy to over-water. Feel the soil before you water them. If it's moist, wait until it's dry before watering. Water around the base of the plant, rather than through the leaves.
- Use a hand-held garden cultivator (a claw) to aerate the surface soil without disturbing the roots too much.
- Herbs and lettuce take about 2-3 weeks to grow from a sprout into enough to cook with. If you keep a couple of containers going, you can cultivate/reseed/replant every 2 weeks to keep a constant supply going.
- To harvest your plants, use scissors to snip the leaves or vegetables. Snip the leaves around the base of the plant first, so that it will continue to grow and fill out.
- At the end of the growing season, you can store your compost soil. Next year, turn your soil over and reseed it for a new crop.
Tips for Herbs, Lettuce, and Tomatoes:
- Lettuce: Lettuce is a good cool-weather crop; its growing season lasts until the end of October. Lettuce goes through a sweet phase before it turns bitter. Before you clip it, try a little to make sure it tastes good.
- Tomatoes: Tomatoes need full sun and a deep pot. They don't like lots of rain or over-watering. For a strong tomato, you want to see full leaves before the tomatoes sprout. (See above sections for more details.)
- Basil: Basil is a fairly easy herb to grow. Space the sprouts/seeds evenly when you plant it to give it enough room (see photo #1 for an example). As it grows, clip any "flowers" before the plant goes to seed.
- Cilantro: Like basil, cilantro "flowers" should be clipped before the plant goes to seed. It requires plenty of drainage for the roots.
- Mint: Mint grows like a weed, and should be planted in its own, separate container so that it doesn't overtake other plants.
- Arugula: Arugula does better in cool areas than most herbs or vegetables. It works well on a shadier porch, but it still needs some full sun every day.
- For more information about City Farm (at Clybourne and Division), click here.
- For more about the Green Grocer (at Grand and Noble), click here.
- For more about ReBuilding Exchange (3335 West 47th), click here.
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(Images: Sarah Coffey)