The Urban Gardener, Part One: An Introduction


Baby arugula soaking up the sun. [Photographs: Lauren Rothman]

Ah, spring. After that last gasp of a cold snap, we're truly in the swing of it now. Out in the city parks, all manner of colorful flowers are in full bloom, and even most of the trees have unfurled their young green leaves. And in home gardens, green thumbs both amateur and advanced are tending to new blossoms as well as enjoying the season's first edibles: peas, asparagus, and all manner of leafy greens.

As one of the few lucky urbanites with a nice plot of outdoor space, and, despite an increasing interest in agriculture and home gardening over the past several years, this is the first year I decided to go all out: ripping out the remaining aging shrubs that comprised my front yard, conditioning the soil with home-brewed compost, starting a host of plants from seeds indoors, and sowing what I could outdoors.

I'm just starting to see the fruits of my labor, and I'll be here to share them with you. Though by no means an authority on the subject of vegetable gardening, I have learned a few things in my Brooklyn backyard; I'm excited to start a dialogue with you all about what you grow in your garden (or what you'd like to, if you had one).

Urban Gardening: Some Background

As many of you are no doubt aware, urban agriculture is a trend that has been on the rise in the U.S. for some years now. With prices of food and fuel ever increasing, and the number of small, sustainable farms ever decreasing, more and more folks are attempting to spend less on their food bills by converting plots of land, no matter how small, into edible gardens and even chicken coops. Even the government is getting in on the action: there was Mrs. Obama's famous "Victory Garden," which she had installed at the White House shortly after the President's inauguration, as well as the series of bills that the New York City Council passed last summer that provided support for rooftop greenhouses and helped free up unused land for urban gardens. (Then again, the government is also responsible for the new draft of the Farm Bill, which has come under fire for not providing enough funding for regional food systems.)

Another issue that has certainly helped inspire gardeners to grow their own food has been the number of food safety scares that have made the news in recent months: people are turning to home-grown fruits and vegetables to help ensure the health and safety of their families.


Why yes, I believe I will!

These issues certainly contributed to my own interest in starting a sizable vegetable garden, but there was one other, extremely important motivating factor: taste. Over the past few years, I've spent portions of my time volunteering for organic farms through an organization called WWOOF—World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Through this arrangement, the volunteer, or WWOOFer, aids the farmer for several hours a day, helping to plant, weed, build, cook or whatever else needs to get done, in exchange for room and board. It's a wonderful system that provides a great service to both the farmer, who gets access to low-cost and often very eager workers, as well as to the volunteer, who gets a free education in all that farming entails.

As rewarding as the work can be, it's often the meals that are the most satisfying WWOOF experiences. You're eating some of the freshest, highest-quality produce that's often been pulled from the ground just moments before it hits the dinner table. My stays on these farms opened my eyes (er, my tastebuds) to what pristine local produce actually tastes like—the fruits and vegetables are often so flavorful that all they need is a bit of oil and some seasoning—and after that, there was no turning back for me.

At home, I joined a local CSA as well as my nearby food co-op in order to ensure my access to the best fruits and vegetables. But I found that wasn't enough. I wanted to produce my own food, and when I moved to my current apartment, with a sizable—though neglected—plot of land, that desire suddenly became a possibility.

Starting Your Own Garden: What You'll Need


New seedlings acclimating to the outdoors before being transplanted.

If you've found yourself wondering how you can create your own garden, here are some guidelines on what you'll need to get started:

  • Outdoor space: Obviously, you'll need an area where you can do your planting. If you're an urbanite who's lucky enough to have access to a yard, a rooftop, or a deck, then read on.
  • Healthy, balanced soil: Something you'll need to think about before planting edible crops is the quality of your soil. Urban soil is often high in lead and heavy metals due to the use of lead paint on the exterior of buildings as well as to emissions from gasoline, which used to be leaded. Luckily, Brooklyn College's Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences provides low-cost soil testing that screens for heavy metal levels, pH, salinity and more. Check them out at
  • Seeds or seedlings: It's a bit late in the year to start anything from seeds, with the exception of fast-germinating crops like herbs and salad greens. But you still have time to visit your local garden center or greenmarket to pick up seedlings of all varieties, and since we're well past the last frost, you can go ahead and plant them outside.
  • Basic tools: When I'm gardening, I rely mostly on the best tools I have: my hands. But other items that prove useful to me are a set of gardening gloves, a trowel, a sturdy rake, and a medium to large shovel.

Let's Get Gardening!


Beautiful, fast-growing pea shoots. I want to eat them now, but I'm making myself wait until they grow.

  • Prepare Your Outdoor Space: If you're working with a yard, thoroughly weed and condition your soil before you plant. Adding organic matter such as compost or purchased topsoil will go a long way towards improving soil quality, even if you get a poor report on your soil test. Consider composting at home, which is the easiest and cheapest way to obtain organic matter for your garden. You can easily make a composter from a plastic garbage can, or you can obtain one from the city at a low cost. If you're not ready to take on home composting, check with your local community garden to see if they have a composting program and if they'll give or sell you some "black gold." If you have a deck or rooftop, you'll have to purchase or build planters for your container garden, as well as soil to fill them.
  • Decide what to grow: What do you want to grow in your edible garden? Some of the easiest crops to grow include salad greens, peas, beets, and carrots, and it's not too late to direct-sow these in the garden (although they do prefer cool weather). All manner of herbs, such as parsley, basil, thyme, oregano, chives and dill can also be direct-sown at this time. Hot-weather crops such as tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, eggplants and summer and winter squash are also easy to grow, although at this point in the season, you'll have to purchase seedlings and transplant them.
  • Map out your garden: Consider how much sunlight and shade your garden gets and plant accordingly, referring to instructions on seed packets or seedlings. Shade-tolerant crops include leafy greens and herbs, while fruiting plants will require as much sunlight as possible.
  • Get Planting! Get those plants in the ground and be sure to weed and water as often as is needed. You'll want to make sure you have a convenient way to water: an outdoor spigot is best, but I don't have one and use an adapter to attach a hose to my kitchen sink.

Golden chard and lacinato kale.

What About You?

Questions? Comments? What are you growing in your garden, and have you encountered any problems (or unanticipated successes)? Leave me a comment and I'll do my best to address it!

Stay Tuned!

In upcoming Urban Gardener posts, I'll let you know what's growing in my garden, troubleshoot common problems like pests and diseases, and go into more depth on some of the ideas introduced above. If there's anything else you'd like to hear about, please ask in the comments section!