A green space for urban gardeners

Easy green tips that small-space urban gardeners can embrace

Talk about tough love: This past weekend I came across a cautionary essay on purchasing Valentine’s Day flowers.

The writer, bless his green heart, viewed the arguably commercial holiday through the prism of factory farms. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

But even those of us trying to be increasingly environmentally conscious might have found it difficult to go cold turkey and give up that sentimental bouquet.

If you weren’t quite able to wrap your head (or your arms) around the idea this year, take heart, there are other ways to up your green quotient when the curtain rises on the coming garden season — even if you’re like me and your stage is a small city balcony…

Here are a few simple green efforts that will provide instant (or practically instant) gratification in your urban garden oasis:

Grow edibles: Take a small stride toward sustainability by growing edibles in your small-space garden. Herbs are a great stepping off point, but it doesn’t have to stop there — lots of other produce is adaptable to containers. I’ve become obsessed with growing small-fruit tomatoes and they not only meet salad demands, but manage to find their way into a multitude of other dishes. I’ve also grown strawberries, jalapenos, Thai eggplant, and edible flowers. This season I plan on taking another shot at lemon cucumber (the plant I bought last year died) and to experiment with one of my favorite veggies — sugar snap peas. Oh, and I’m going organic with my edibles.

Encourage beneficial insects: If you go organic, too, be happy those ladybugs find their way into your garden, as they keep pesky destructive insects at bay naturally. Bees are also your friend as they pollinate and promote prolific production. I love watching bees keeping busy making the rounds from plant to plant — tomato, nasturtium, lisianthus and the like. I wrote about the One Seed Chicago contest previously, which will give away plants native to the Illinois prairie — all attract beneficials.

Plant heirlooms: I love heirloom tomatoes; mainly because of the flavor. Once you start with these seeds, which date back many decades, you won’t want to eat another mass-produced tomato again. So, while growing heirloom tomatoes is a completely selfish act, it comes with a built-in selfless benefit: cultivating them is a way of making a small contribution to preservation and posterity. Growing heirloom flowers can also give you a sense of history — it’s a way to step back into a garden of a century ago. And don’t forget to collect the seeds, so you can keep these gardens alive in future plantings.

Wet work: Though harvesting rainwater is not an option for most of us small-space urban gardens, you can still put the reuse principle into practice if you corral (and transfer to the watering can) the runoff water used to rinse veggies before cooking, as well as the cold water that normally washes down the drain when you’re waiting for the tap to heat up. Also, recycling the drip tray runoff from one pot to use for watering the next pot down the line is a nice alternative to letting it just evaporate.

Oh, I recently discovered that my midnight watering habits have an unintended green benefit, too. While I water after dark so as not to accidentally sprinkle my neighbors, nocturnal watering is good for container gardens because without the daytime heat the soil holds the nourishing moisture longer. Ding! Ding! Of course it makes perfect sense, I just never even thought about it.

There’s probably plenty more I haven’t considered, so I’d love to hear about the green principles you apply in your garden — whether it’s a small city garden or a sprawling suburban one. So please, leave a comment.

[Photos: Incredible, edible dill above the city street (top); a lovely ladybug takes refuge on a leaf]


  Jo wrote @

I was forced to be green on Valentine’s day, not a flower in sight for me, awwww. No, we don’t do Valentine’s day in our house. I’m growing a couple of heirloom tomatoes this year, Tangella and Whippersnapper. I’ve never grown them before so it’ll be interesting to see how they do.

  Lynne wrote @

Awesome post !!!! thanks so much!

  Stephanie wrote @

Thanks for those tips Avis! Well, I guess to begin with, gardeners have to show good example in their garden first. Then, others will follow. For example, when your neighbours and friends see how beautiful and wonderful your garden is, then it would spark an interest for them to garden later. Also always share positively how simple it is to garden and the benefits of the crops. Gardening is definitely a simple and good way to green our world!

  Fly Girl wrote @

Your posts always tempt me to start an outdoor garden. Both my hibiscus plants just died and I don’t know what I’ll do without flowers in the spring. Sugar snap peas are my fave too I didn’t know you could grow them in a small place. And those heirloom tomatoes, I expect a lunch party invitation in the spring!

  Wendy wrote @

I like your idea of saving some water. I have been doing this and find there is a LOT of good clean water we waste while cooking that can be saved for the garden. When I wash my spring lettuce for example (I’m pretty meticulous) – that’s a LOT of water that would otherwise go down the drain, but I save.

Have you considered vermiculture?

  City Diggity wrote @

I can’t answer that because I have no idea what vermiculture is, but, let me Google it… WORMS!!!!!! (smile). Interesting! In my small space I don’t have the room for composting, but I promise to do it if and when I get an in-ground garden. Let me know when you post on vermiculture, because I’d love to learn more about the process.

  bughunter99 wrote @

I love this post. Great tips!
I buy my occasional bouquet at Whole Foods when they have the organic bouquets available. They aren’t always there, but the fact that they are grown sustainably and without pesticides make them all that much better.

  MrBrownThumb wrote @

Good tips, Avis.

In a container garden you can add a plastic bottle “drip irrigation system.” That way you don’t water on your neighbors and you can water during the day. I’ll post a shortened URL to my post on it below this comment.

  Pam’s English Garden wrote @

Wonderful post! Such clever tips for a small space. Pam xx

  Jayne – Green and Serene wrote @

This is a great post Avis. Some great information. I’ve heard about heirloom seeds, but not sure where I would get them. Jayne

  City Diggity wrote @

There are lots of suppliers that specialize in heirloom seeds that you can find online by searching. And even your mainstream catalogs tend to have a few “heirlooms” mixed in. In the Burpee catalog, for instance, I’ve seen heirloom flower and fruit seeds. I can recommend Tomato Growers Supply Co. (link at right) for heirloom tomato seeds, but there are lots of suppliers that specialize in these seeds, too. I think I may try a couple new suppliers this season. Let me know what you find, too!

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