(Recently submitted this piece to Listverse; it wasn’t in keeping with their style, but it stuck me as pertinent nonetheless. Enjoy)
All around the average US Consumer–from highly-scripted home-improvement shows, to magazine covers in the grocery aisle–there exist examples of other folks growing their own herbs/food/fruit in beautifully-designed, eclectic walled garden spaces, overflowing with abundant produce, featuring relaxed adults holding wine glasses under grape arbors and happy children wearing white playing in fairy-light bean vine huts as cello solos fill the air. If you have a lot of money, then the above scenario is fairly attainable… although, mosquito bites and the challenges of getting green stains out of white play-clothes are ever-present, no matter one’s tax bracket.
The reality of urban gardening is often more like a cement side-patio, a tiny apartment balcony or a small grass backyard with neighbor’s trees encroaching on either side. My own backyard garden runs just under 20’x14’ and every year we get enough herbs, lettuces, tomatoes, strawberries, squashes, root vegetables and greens to seriously alleviate our monthly grocery bill. On average, my family saves $3,000 annually–in organic produce–from just that one, little garden.
But, we’ve had seven years to figure out how to maximize every square inch of our little city space, and I’ve had the benefit of seeing other gardener’s work, tips which I am happy to share here. This list comprises only ten items; there are many more plants (such as chili peppers) which are suitable for city-dwellers to grow, but these were chosen for not only their adaptation to an urban growing environment but for their decorative properties and, more importantly–cost-savings.
- Climbing Beans
Climbing bean plants can be grown from spring through fall and are amazingly versatile; they can be trained to grow up almost anything and take up a fairly small footprint if grown in a container, such a five-gallon bucket (with holes in the bottom) or more than one plant in a half-wine barrel. The best part about climbing beans and peas is that they can be decorative as well as edible. Last year we planted Scarlet Runner Beans for the first time, and trained them to grow up the trunk of a White Alder Tree and I was extremely pleased with the results. Not only was it fast-growing, the leaves were lush, the vines delicate and the sweet-pea-like flowers variegated in color, from a deep rusty-red (budding stage) to mature blossoms of both pale & vibrant orange hues. Not long after, thick, long green pods began forming, which we harvested when green and tender, chopped up and fried with onions, garlic and olive oil, with just a little salt & pepper. When lightly fried the pods tasted very meaty. We even coasted some in cornmeal breading and deep-fried; the freshness of the green pods reminded us of green beans, but heartier. The pods we left on the vine hardened quickly and we let them dry out. From 2 plants we harvested 60+ green pods and 14 dried ones, gathering plenty of beans to have on hand for future planting. The dried beans are a beautiful sight in of themselves, being a deep purplish-brown with off-white marbling. Green beans, snaps peas and other legumes (even chick-peas) make lovely potted plants; the climbing varieties can be trained up arches for added shade or adding that ethereal touch of beauty to a patio or outdoor sitting area.
- Edible Flowers
We’ve seen them on gourmet food shows and cooking competitions: Nasturtiums, Marigolds, Sorrel, Violets, Lavender, Pansies & Linden flowers are just some of the many edible flowers one can grow in raised beds, window-boxes or containers, either year-round outside or indoors. Put edible blossoms in salads, deserts or even soups (like sorrel) or battered and fried (squash blossoms) or even frozen in little ice blocks and used to dress up party punch bowls.
A full-sun plant that even the most novice gardener can tackle. I’ve seen–but never tried–that upside-down hanging tomato plant, and while the idea is interesting I remain loyal to the tried and true method of raised bed or container tomatoes. Large, meaty tomatoes need more ground to grow in (unless you are into hydroponics) but smaller, “cherry” tomatoes may be a better fit for small-space or container gardening. I have successfully grown a fountain-like cherry tomato plant in a 5-gallon Home-improvement store bucket, with holes drilled in the bottom and pebbles placed before soil and compost added, and garnered more than 200 tomatoes from that one plant. Tomatoes are perfect “corner” plants and can be placed in tiers to maximize sun exposure. Tomato branches can be tied up to a free-standing trellis, or a flat leaning trellis against a wall, or even tied up with fishing line to be out of the way. Cherry tomatoes are fabulous, can be eaten out of hand, are child-pleasers and love being halved and added to salads. One of my family’s favorite summer snacks is cherry tomato halves on a toothpick, stacked with fresh mozzarella cheese piece, anointed with pepper and balsamic vinegar glaze. Simple, easy, fresh and good.
Squash is a must-have additional to any garden, as they can be grown in full sun, part shade or even mostly shade. Depending on your amount of space, squashes can be a wonderful plant for container gardens or oddly-shaped gardens. Butternut squash rambles all over, but has an added bonus of moisture retention in the soil covered by its heart-shaped leaves. Yellow crook-necked squash and Zucchini are ideal for smaller containers, but—as with all container-borne veg—needs vigilant watering and fertilizer; they both harbor edible flowers, the “male” flowers which are not attached to the ‘fruit’ or squash but are on solo stalks. Fried squash blossoms are considered gourmet delicacies in many countries. One or two containers of zucchini/yellow squash should keep you in the veg most of the mid-late summer; these soft-rind squashes are best picked young, but the large, more mature ones (especially zucchini) can be hollowed out, stuffed with meat, garlic & cheese, wrapped in foil and baked for a truly special entre, one that will make your kids actually want to eat their vegetables. Unused, fresh-picked squash can be washed, cut and packed in Ziploc bags for freezing, to add to a quick stir-fry later in the year. If you have the space to grow them, butternut squash and other hard-rind varieties are a labor of love and take a good, long while to mature. They also make fabulous fall gifts, washed and polished and presented in basket; in Northern California, organic butternut can go as high as $6.99 a pound in the grocery store around Thanksgiving, so a gift of a 12-lb butternut is not a small token of affection, as is one of the more appreciated squashes to cook with.
- Onions, Scallions, Garlic & Chives
Not only do these plants have tangy greens to add to salads, sauces, soups or as garnish, their bulbs are renowned in almost every culture for flavor and mentioned in almost every savory recipe. Most have pretty flowers to boot, such as the puffy, pink blossoms of chives. Garlic ‘leaves’ are subtler in flavor than their root counterpart, perfect for salads and garlic spreads, and can be grown in a window box, alongside scallions and chives. Leeks are a more intensive plant to grow, requiring a little more soil and effort in piling mulch up high on the plant, to produce the desired white, tender bottoms.
- Hardy Greens
Chard, Kale, Spinach and some root vegetable green (see #4) can all be grown in containers and raised beds, and can be harvested almost continuously throughout the late spring, summer and fall. Chard is an especial favorite in my house, although not as a large pile of steamed greens in a bowl, but sautéed with turkey pastrami and onions and stuffed into fresh ravioli pasta with little bits of mozzarella cheese. We’ve used steamed chard or kale as substitutes for spinach in lasagna, and many a gardener I know adds these super-greens into their daily juicing regimen. In the colder months, some greens can be grown indoor with proper light.
- Lettuces & Micro-greens
Most folks have a space in their kitchen, garage or outdoors that can harbor a few flats of delicate lettuces or microgreens, whether grown by sun or grow-light. One can even put long containers of lettuce on ‘ladder’ shelves, leaning up against a wall to maximize space. Lettuces need some sun but can thrive in morning sun with shade in the afternoon. Head lettuce needs more space and water and usually can only be harvest once, while Mesclun lettuces or spring mix lettuce can be harvested over and over again and can fill a growing tray like a multi-colored forest of goodness. Sandwiches and burgers are far more interesting–in our house–with crisp, tangy arugula leaves instead of the ubiquitous Iceberg, and Jericho Lettuce is like Romaine, but is more heat-tolerant and can be harvested many times. Microgreens have been ‘trendy’ for salads all the way back to the days of my flower-children parents: alfalfa sprouts, beans sprouts, broccoli sprouts, etc. all have been touted as harboring large health-benefits; they taste great in pita sandwiches, salads and in the role of a healthy garnish.
Strawberries might invoke mental images of large fields of hilly rows, tarped off with black plastic, but these spindly, vigorous plants do very well in containers and can be placed wherever there is 6-8 hours of full sun. A friend of mine grows them along her good neighbor fences in stacked rows of guttering, put at a slight slant, with drip lines; on her average-sized city lot, she grows enough strawberries to can her own organic jam. In our garden, the only place we had left for strawberries (with enough sunlight) was the top half of our fences on one side of the house; I built ‘ladder’ shelves to lean against the fences and put my strawberry plants in long, plastic window boxes along each shelf. So far it’s been successful, and the lettuces underneath get bonus watering from the drips.
Yes, artichokes. These gorgeous plants are really a large thistle; they like well-drained soil and partial shade–and time–but twice a year, in our garden, we get 20-25 tender baby artichokes from each plant over the growing cycle. Each plant will need about 3’-4’ of room for its large, beautiful leaves, but the fruit and neon purple blossoms are an exotic addition to any garden. They dislike hot afternoon sun, so either use shade cloth or plan where they are placed very well to utilize tree or building shade. Pests like artichokes, too so sprinkle the base of plants and containers with diatomaceous earth and cayenne pepper; fertilize and water very well for non-bitter fruit and wash hands well after picking. Par-boiling the baby artichokes in lemon juice and a bit of sea salt takes away any residual bitterness.
Eggplant is a short, stubby plant with vigorous producing capabilities, depending on variety. It is a rather blasé vegetable, but high in starch and protein (especially with nutrient-rich skin left on) and can be delicious when prepared correctly. Other than the amazing treat which is Eggplant Parmesano (my personal favorite) my kids only began to really like eating eggplant after they saw Ratatouille for the first time. Post film, I found a recipe online and made the classic, French dish with our little, tender Japanese eggplants. It was truly delicious… and one of the better summer soups with its savory infusion of fresh squash, fresh tomatoes and hot, crusty bread on the side. It’s been no problem using up the eggplant since then, or freezing it for later use in winter.
- Root Vegetables
In an empty corner of our garden a few years ago, I lined a woven plastic Swedish-themed store bag with alternating layers of hay, compost, a variety of seed potatoes and soil. Two months alter I dumped it out and harvested thirty pounds of fingerling potatoes, which were some of the tastiest I’d ever eaten. We simply filled the bag back up and grew more. We’ve grown turnips, beets and rutabagas in raised beds and containers, as well as eating the greens of each. Growing your own turnips, for instance is beneficial as you can harvest them when they are at their most tender and spicy, when the bulb is approximately 2” in width. Peeled, cubed & sautéed turnips add the most wonderful flavor to chicken soups and really look after themselves if given sufficient water. Roasted baby beets in lemon glaze are a lovely treat that make you forget you’re eating beets. Carrots take have the prettiest fronds, but, like almost all root vegetables, can be very bitter if not given enough water or fertilizer. We grew purple carrots one year, to the delight of the younger children (and ardent distrust of the older) and they were the most delicious carrots I’ve ever eaten.
From the luscious, fragrant basil to spicy cilantro to elegant rosemary, growing fresh herbs are really where our family saves the most money. The mark-up on store-bought fresh herbs in my neighborhood can be as much as 200%-300% depending on the store; my girls and I made a tidy sum of money one summer, selling bunches of fresh basil at yard sales along our street, at a table in the shade with herbs in flower vases and ice-water.
Fresh herbs can enhance so many main course dishes (herb & mushroom stuffed chicken breasts), dress up a sides (thyme & garlic mashed potatoes) and can even be present in desserts (vanilla & lavender shortbread cookies) that the possibilities are as close to “endless” as a cook can get. Herbs can be grown in so many tiny spaces, in sun or shade, tiered or containers, indoors and out… I could literally write 1500 words about just growing herbs.
Each has its own tolerances, but the most profitable herbs—in terms of both use and store savings—that I have grown are rosemary, oregano, thyme, cilantro, basil, peppermint and sage. Taken care of, most of these produce all year long; basil and cilantro flower prettily and then produce striking seed pods for dry arrangements. My children help me gather in the seeds each fall and put them in labelled envelopes for next season. 4 plants of basil, 6 plants of cilantro, 2 plants of thyme, 2 plants oregano, 1 large plant of rosemary, 10 plants of peppermint and 2 American Sage plants are all our family of five needs to keep up in the herbs for a year. The soft herbs (basil, cilantro & oregano) can be gathered in when abundant and then pureed with olive oil and then frozen in ice-cube trays (later stored in Ziploc bags) for perfectly-portioned fresh herb cubes to add to fall & winter sauces. The hardier plants like sage, mint & rosemary usually keep producing until the first frost, and can be dried in a dehydrator, or on cookie-drying-racks on trays in the oven on ‘low’.
Growing food–even in the confines of the city–is an excellent family project, one that your kitchen, guests, family and wallet will all thank you for, not with words, perhaps… but, in far superior ways.
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