Getting Dirty

By on 11 April, 2012 in Gardening, Heather Coleman, Outdoors with 0 Comments

There is something about spring that makes even a city girl want to dig in the dirt. I grew up in the country, and we grew most of our own vegetables, freezing and canning them for winter. When my husband and I moved to Midtown, we moved into a house with a ton of beautiful trees. Trees that are not at all conducive to gardening. My backyard is actually considered deep shade. Growing grass is a challenge, so I knew that vegetables weren’t really going to be an option.

For several years I was content with container gardening and shopping at the Farmer’s Markets and the wonderful Curb Market. Recent years have brought even more options with CSAs like Red Root and Hampstead Farms. Then there are U-Pick options in surrounding counties where we can get our fill of blackberries, strawberries, blueberries and even peaches.

Even with all of these choices, I still missed having a real garden. As a kid I hated it — hated all of the work, the bugs, even the getting dirty. Now I can’t imagine my kids growing up and not understanding how to garden. My ten year old has recently shown an interest in healthy food, and so I decided this would be the perfect year to try and figure out a garden space in our yard.

Much of the shade problem in the backyard is caused by trees on our neighbor’s property, so trimming back the trees really wasn’t an option. The front yard doesn’t have the same shade problem as the back, but much of the yard has awful yellow clay. For our first real garden I didn’t want to deal with having to deal with amending such a large area. We decided to get some beds laid out this year, get our soil tested,  and do a bit of amending, planning to start a front yard garden next year.

For many people, raised beds are the perfect choice for small scale city gardening, but because our problem was shade rather than space, they won’t work for us. Raised beds allow you to create your own soil mixture, instead of relying on the existing soil. Square foot gardening is a fantastic place to find resources on soil composition, companion planning, and really making the most of a small space. Although we weren’t able to utilize the 4×4 planting boxes that they suggest, some of the planting techniques were really helpful.

Raised beds can be expensive, especially if you decide that you don’t want to use treated wood. A 4×4 cedar bed is somewhere in the neighborhood of $80. A composite/resin one is only slightly less. Recently I came across the idea of using untreated pallet collars for beds. At roughly $30, this is a considerably cheaper option (although finding a shipping company that is willing to give them away is even better!).

Potatoes are something that we go through a ton of, but I had never dreamed that with our limited space that it might be possible to grow them– that is until I saw this tutorial on pinterest. I love the idea of using pallets, but I wasn’t sure if they were safe, so I started researching pallets and food safety. (I also came across this tutorial, but I don’t feel good about using trash cans because of the grade of plastic used)

My research led me to multiple pages on pallet gardening. It tends to work best for lettuces, herbs, strawberries and the like. Most pallets are heat treated (look for an HT stamp. If you find an MB stamp, that pallet has been chemically treated and cannot come in contact with food) so they are safe to use for planting. The heavier duty pallets are oak rather than pine, but for this either will work. Mounted vertically, pallets make great use of space.

Another option that really utilizes vertical space is a gutter garden (and alternately a hanging gutter garden ). We have a fence that is in full sun that runs the entire length of our driveway, so these are very viable options for us — perfect for lettuces in the fall.

Last spring we created a bed between that fence and our driveway. It is about 48 feet long and about 4 feet wide. 2. We planted a few herbs in it, but mostly did some compost layering (aka lasagna gardening) to improve the soil. We had intended to use it for decorative planting but after looking at our options, decided that although it wasn’t ideal, it was probably our best bet for a garden.

We bought a few organic pepper plants from the plant sale at Hampstead’s downtown farm. A friend suggested that we go to the guy Wilson at 2314 Cherry Street for tomatoes. He has 27 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes and sells them 3 for $10. Okra, cucumber, squash and beans all grow better from seed, as does basil, so we placed an order with High Mowing Organic Seeds on the recommendation of a friend. We have started planting and hope to get everything in in the next few weeks.

Gardening in the city, especially with the sometimes small and often shady lots of Midtown can definitely be a challenge, but with a little planning and a bit of creativity, you can always find a space to put some food in the ground.

Heather Coleman is a freelance writer and part-time DIY’er who mostly manages to fit her projects in around her family and her volunteer work. She lives with her husband, two boys and two pets in Midtown. She is on Google+, Linked In, Twitter and Pinterest.

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