If you love gardening but you live in an apartment building in a city, don't despair! Just look around, and you just might be able to find a neglected piece of land you can claim for yourself or for your community.
I was very lucky. After living in my apartment building for several years I looked out the window from the common laundry room in the basement and realized there was a strip of land, about 12 feet wide, which ran the length of the building (about 400 feet). It faced south, and the growing conditions were clearly excellent because the weeds were growing lustily, five or six feet high. Sometimes it can take a while to see what's right in front of your nose, but even if you don't discover a hidden acre of prime land on your property, chances are you DO have a roof. So use it!
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Step 1: Preparation
Once you've found your land you've got to get it ready.
Building a Community
This is the secret ingredient to the continuing success of the garden, and what makes it such a special place. I wasn't the first person to notice that piece of land -- old timers told me of a super, many years ago, and another resident who had put in a tomato plant or two. But these efforts had all ultimately failed because they were individual efforts. A garden which is tended and cherished by many people is far superior to a private yard for reasons both practical and intangible.
I first conceived of the garden in the summer, but I waited till the very end of winter, when there would be the least plant material to remove, before putting up flyers and inviting all my neighbors to join in the clean up. Twenty or so neighbors came together that first chilly weekend to dig up stumps, pull out ivy, and remove some truly disgusting amounts of trash. We ultimately filled up two whole containers!
One kind soul who had her foot in a cast baked us cookies, instead on contributing heavy physical labor. Everyone pitched in, and as we all worked together, we discussed how we wanted the garden to be organized (see next step for more details).
Face it. If you need to lug buckets of water into your garden every day, unless you're a saint your plants will die of thirst very quickly. There was no spout in our "back yard" so I had to convince the powers that be to get a plumber to hook up a pipe to one of the many lines criss-crossing the basement ceiling and extend it outside. This is something any person with the right tools and soldering skills can do themselves, but this being an apartment building, a licensed contractor had to do the work. Just make sure you put a valve indoors, so you can shut off the water on the inside and drain the exterior portion of the pipe in the winter (assuming you live in a region where water might freeze outside).
Use your Trash
We piled up all the chunks of cement, broken bricks and rocks, pressed some soil and seedlings between the cracks, and presto! We had ourselves a pile of dirty rubble, which over time turned into a beautiful rock garden.
Under layers of ivy we discovered portions of a rusty old steel fence, which we propped up against the building wall, to the delight of cucumbers, green beans, and vining flowers.
Step 2: Organization
Even with a group of lovely people and the best of intentions, if a few rules aren't defined at the get-go, conflicts can arise. This is why the organization and rules of a community garden need to be planned as carefully as the layout.
I had initially thought of the garden as purely communal, but after asking around I realized most people wanted to have their own plot which they could plan and plant for their own use. This makes sense: it would be frustrating to tend a garden, only to discover someone picked your ripe tomatoes and cucumbers right before you were going to eat them!
On the other hand, some types of perennial plants are better suited to be grown outside of a 3' by 6' plot, and are easy to share with everyone. Blueberry, raspberry, or blackberry bushes take a couple years (and space) to reach their full potential, so they're not ideal in a small plot "rented" one growing season at a time. I also really wanted the garden to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible, even for those who did not reserve their own plot.
That is why I drew the garden plan with a combination of both "private" and communal spaces. Less desirable spots (by the laundry room vents, in the shade, etc) were reserved for communal use and plantings. Individual, numbered raised beds were lined up side by side on either side of the path (which we only discovered after clearing up the mess -- it had been so overgrown we had no idea we had a path beneath the bramble).
The first year, we built as many plots as there were households who expressed interest. Since the goal was to make the garden self-sufficient but not a cash source for the building, we set a modest annual fee for a plot, to cover expenses ($100 a year -- which is less than the set-up cost of a bed, but which after 2 or 3 years does pay for itself and general maintenance and supplies).
Plots were allocated randomly, and assigned by the growing season, but once a resident has a plot, they can keep it until they decide to give it up. If another more desirable plot becomes available existing gardeners get the option to switch, then posters go up and new gardeners are recruited for the vacant bed. If someone has a plot but doesn't plant for a season, they are gently encouraged to give their plot up to someone who shows more enthusiasm. So far it's worked pretty well. We built one communal raised bed near the garden entrance where anyone can plant anything (anything legal, that is), so residents can get their toes wet and fingers dirty before setting down roots on their own 3' by 6' piece of land.
Step 3: Growing Organically
This step is not about pesticides, it is about ambition and patience. Another important factor for success is to limit your initial goals and expectations. It won't be perfect from the start, and it will never be a "finished" project either. A community garden will grow organically.
Our first year, we cleared just enough land and built just enough beds for the pioneers who showed interest first. We had minimal tools, but we managed. By the second year more residents wanted to join the community, so we cleared more land and built more beds, and bought more tools. We added a bench, saved from the trash, to encourage more people to come out and enjoy the sun while waiting for their laundry...
The third year we expanded even further, and added a safety railing by the garden entrance steps. The fourth we finally built our tool shed, and replaced the (rotting) wooden bench with a sturdy new industrial one. This year (our 5th) we're installing a screen door, and I poured some gravel around the bench to discourage weeds. I also planted some climbings roses by the shed, so in a couple years it should look and smell even more beautiful. If the roses don't work out, I'll try something else.
This what I call the garden zen (which probably has nothing to do with the real thing). It's the feeling that allows you to temporarily let go of your controlling type A personality. You become attentive to what the garden is telling you; rather than try to enforce a preconceived plan, you adapt, and enjoy the never-ending process. Of course you want a nice crop, but if your tomatoes succumb to early blight, so be it. You'll try again next year. You think in the long term...not just a growing season but 10, 20, 50 years even. Why else would anyone plant an oak tree? It's not all kumbaya though... yanking out ivy or spraying soapy water on aphids it a very satisfying way of expressing and getting rid of pent up aggression. This is why (for me at least) just a few minutes in the garden will wipe out the stress of a whole day. I'll brush against the thriving lavender bush, pull a weed or two just for fun, gather a few herbs for dinner and I'm ready to face the most sullen of teens with a renewed sense of humor.
But enough of this. Let's get back to the nitty gritty details:
Step 4: Soil
Even though our plot of land faces south, it has one major drawback: it is adjacent to a busy highway, courtesy of Robert Moses, who built it back in the days when cars filled up their tanks with leaded gasoline. We didn't even bother test the soil, we just assumed the earth was filled with heavy metals of all sorts, making it unsuitable for growing any type of root vegetable. According to a Brooklyn Botanical Garden publication I read, heavy metals and soil pollutants do not contaminate higher growing harvest like tomatoes, but still, most of us preferred not to grow food in that soil.
I spoke of my garden plans with a professional, Paul, owner of Form & Foliage in Brooklyn, who very kindly came up with a "recipe" for filling the raised beds:
Raised Bed Soil Recipe
- 1 Bale of Pro Mix, watered and turned over then add the following (when it is uniformly dark)
- 1 Bag of Sweet Peat
- Half a Bag of Premium Compost
- 1/8 of a bag of Turface MVP (comes to about 14 cups)
- 4 cups of fertilizer (we used Myoplex)
- 3 cups of gypsum
Start with the Pro Mix, and get it wet, till it turns from light brown to almost black. You will need to mix the soil as you hose it down. Add the other ingredients while you’re watering it down and mixing and turn it over with either the dust pan or the shovel. Make sure everything is well incorporated. Add the sweet peat and compost last, because they don’t need to be wet and they’ll add weight, making it harder to mix. The soil is going to be much lighter and fluffier than what you are used to with regular soil. This is the way it should be; also, when you are mixing/planting do not compact the soil down too much, the air space is important for the roots and water holding capacity. That said, you do need to pat it down a bit. Over time rain and watering will make the soil settle, so every season, add more of this mix. The soil level should come up to about 1.5-2″ from the top. After planting add a good layer of mulch to help retain moisture.
With this dynamite mix our first crop literally burst out of our raised beds. A few weeks after planting, the cedar beds were hard to see under the lush growth. But the second year, those who hadn't replenished their beds with either the complete soil mix or more nutrients (compost or fertilizer) noticed their plants didn't do quite as well. Especially if you're planting heavy feeders like tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, eggplant you really need to replenish the soil. A raised bed is like a giant pot, and its reserves of nutrients can quickly get exhausted.
Step 5: Infrastructure
You will find dozens of tutorials for making raised beds here and all over the internet, but since we would be making so many, and since we wanted a certain consistency and uniformity, we bought cedar beds with mortise and tenon joints from The Farmstead. They were very easy to assemble, attractive, reasonably priced, and durable. The key for successful installation is to get them level. To keep our beautiful soil mix pristine, we stapled a layer of landscape fabric to the bottom of the beds before filling them up.
When a community is composed of gardeners with varying levels of experience, time, and interest, having a good automated irrigation system is essential. It saves water AND plants. There is nothing as frustrating as loosing an entire crop, representing months of work, because you went away during a single long, hot and dry summer week-end -- and a beginner who hasn't yet learned the cool garden zen might just give up and abandon the whole project forever.
I ordered our irrigation supplies from Dripworks (and much as I'd love to get a sales commission, I am not affiliated to them in any way... just a fan). My system is connected to an indoor timer and a rain sensor, to avoid wasting water. Overwatering won't really a problem because with the soil you made your raised bed will drain beautifully and any excess will just go away -- that said, some types of plants need to be slightly stressed to stop growing in size and start producing fruit (being thirsty will remind them of their mortality and inspire them to produce flowers (ie. a new generation). So I added a shut off valve to each bed, which allows individual gardeners to reduce their watering. Depending on the time of year, the beds are watered once or twice a day, for 20 minutes early in the morning or in the evening. Here's a summary of what I got, starting from the faucet to the beds:
- high pressure hose extension (you need a piece of hose which can stand the "always on" water pressure)
- Female hose to pipe adapter
- 3/4" Amiad filter with 155 mesh (this one can stand the "always on" water pressure)
- 30 PSI limit valve (you need to regulate the water pressure for the drip emitters)
Now since I have 2 different zones, I got the manifolds and this add-on assembly for the electronic valve... but for a single zone you can skip the manifold part and just add the
At this point, what you need depends on your layout, but you will probably be needing various 1/2" Ts and figure 8 end pieces. To punch holes into your mainline tubing (so you can attach the emitter lines) you will need a punch tool (I have the pocket punch which works just fine).
For raised beds, the best emitter is some 1/4" drip line (the one I linked to has an emitter every 12", but you can get the emitters spaced closer together if you prefer), and various fittings, Ts, and "goof plugs" to stop the end of each emitter line. For freestanding pots, you'll need to get some 1/4" tubing (I like the vinyl because it's softer and easier to attach to the fittings) and various emitters.
It's a long shopping list, but it is not as expensive as you might imagine. Still, it IS a lot of work setting it up, and your hands and fingers will be aching by the time you're done -- but it is 100% worth it!
A few years after starting the garden we finally purchased this cedar tool shed online. Again, there are plenty of tutorials for making a tool shed from scratch, but with limited time and access to tools, we decided this DIY kit made more sense. Since it fit our space perfectly and matched all the raised beds, it seemed silly to spend much more time and probably roughly the same amount of money making one from scratch. But even though all the lumber came cut and partially assembled, if was still a fair amount of work setting it up: we poured a concrete slab to make sure it would be nice and level, and then putting it together was about a day's work. I was able to assemble it mostly on my own, with a neighbor helping me for a couple hours when it was time to screw the wall together and attach the roof.
Step 6: Furniture
A garden isn't just about plants. It is a place to gather and relax, so you need nice chairs to sit in, a table to place your drink, read a book or play a game of chess. Most of our furniture was gathered from dumpster diving expeditions, but I also made a concrete chess set to put outside (I still need to build the matching concrete table, but I'm getting there!) and we bought a good, sturdy bench after our first wooden dumpster bench started rotting and feeling very unsafe.
Step 7: Things We've Grown and Found in the Garden
With each household in charge of their own plot, personalities shine though; some beds are sparse, with carefully curated plantings. Others seem to contain in a few square feet the same amount of produce usually found on a whole acre. Some are purely ornamental, others filled with herbs, most combine all of the above. Here is a (partial) list of what we have successfully grown:
- Herbs (basil, parsley tarragon, oregano, mint, thyme, rosemary, summer and winter savory, chives, lemon balm, lavender, sage, cilantro, lemongrass, lemon verbena etc)
- Beets (though for some reason I've never been too successful with the root vegetables... maybe the soil is too light and fluffy?)
- Green beans
- All sorts of lettuce and greens like arugula
- Raspberry (yellow and red), blackberry, blueberry, chokeberry, honey berry
- Cabbage (a big big for our beds, but fun anyway)
- Elderberries (use them to make shrub!)
- Aloe (summer only)
- Potatoes (actually this was a complete failure, but I will try again at some point)
And of course many ornamentals and flowers such as roses, geraniums, nasturtiums, borage, marigolds, pansies, tulips, irises, hyacinths, azaleas, hydrangeas, black eyed susans, sunflowers, and, unfortunately, morning glory, which I do not recommend because it wraps around your other plants and suffocates them like a cobra, and also produces millions of seeds so you'll never be rid of it. Be careful of mint, too, grow it in a pot, not your raised beds or it will take over the whole space.
We've planted a lilac tree (no flowers yet), a fig tree (it struggled through a few cold winters, survived but has not born fruit yet either), a hazelnut tree and an elderberry bush which are doing beautifully. I put a laurel tree out in the summer, but bring it inside for the winter because it's not hardy in our zone 6.
We've also found plenty of snails, attracted countless pollinators, bees, wasps, butterflies (but first a few caterpillars) doodlebugs, and the occasional mouse or squirrel -- not too often though, because our neighbors' cats patrol regularly. They seem to think the garden belongs to them! Basically, if it weren't for the mosquitos, it would be a true little paradise.
Step 8: You Don't Need Land to Garden
Though you might not have all the stars aligned to create your own vibrant community garden, don't let that stop you! You don't need to own (or rent) a house, or an apartment, and you don't even need land to garden! All you need is a bit of imagination and then plenty perseverance, patience, and optimism.
I came across this amazing pick-up truck when I was strolling though an industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn, but (in New York City at least) you can just take ownership of the tree pit in front of your apartment building and start planting! The proximity of so many cars and dog pee might preclude growing food, but there is joy and satisfaction to be had with purely ornamental plants as well. The city actually encourages this, because planting under the city trees (assuming you don't raise the soil level and bury the tree trunk) is very beneficial for the trees. Your drooping flowers act like the canary in the mines. The tree will share and enjoy any water and food you provide your miniature garden.
When I'm not gardening I'm making pop-up cards.
Runner Up in the
Low Water Gardening Challenge 2016
Participated in the
Summer Fun Contest 2016
Participated in the
Outside Contest 2016