By Katherine Strain, student director of UT Green Corps
It’s tough to grow food without a yard. However, a resourceful mind is the key to growing food sustainably without busting your wallet. It’s likely you already have the items in your own home to build your own urban food garden! This post overviews sustainable and affordable ways to grow your own food in small spaces.
Growing Food Without Growing Bills.
There are many ways to start your garden without sinking your savings into purchasing plants. Here are some tips on how to get your garden up and running for lower costs. Just add dirt!
Make Planters from Household Items
You can find many common household items to use as a planter. The best items are ones you can drill or poke holes into so that your plants can have drainage. Plants respirate through their roots, so overwatering or lack of drainage will cause them to drown! Some of my favorite homemade planters include colanders, milk cartons, tin cans, cookie tins, and milk jugs. These can easily be personalized with some paint and a little creativity!
Save Seeds or Propagate from Kitchen Scraps
You can reduce food waste and begin your garden virtually for free by saving seeds from fruits such as apples, avocados, lemons and watermelon. Many plants we eat are not fruits but are stems and roots. These also can be regrown by clipping and setting in water until new growth forms. This process is called propagation, and can be done with many vegetables like celery, lettuce, potatoes and carrots!
I’ve included later in this post a list of plants you can propagate or grow from seed.
Save Rainwater, Save on Utility Bills
If you live in a rainy area, this tip is particularly useful. Collecting water in buckets can be a great way to irrigate and save on water bills. Additionally, you aren’t wasting treated drinking water. Non-potable rain water will do just fine for your plants, and saves the fresh drinking water for you! You can learn how to build your own cistern or stick to the good ol’ pitcher under the roof method. Often, cities will have incentives or tax rebates for cistern installation. You can check here to see if your area incentivizes rain water collection. If you have the real estate, you can even set up a drip irrigation system, though I recommend you have a yard to do this.
Use Kitchen Scraps to Fertilize your Plants
Its true! Some plants like a stiff cup of coffee in the morning. Food waste like coffee grounds and eggshells can help add important nutrients like Nitrogen and balance acidity levels in the soils. This can encourage growth in your garden. You can mix them directly in the soil or add them to your compost.
Compost your Food Waste
This tip is tricky and requires a little more expertise. For healthy compost, its best to use mostly plant materials. Don’t worry, healthy compost shouldn’t cause any sinister smells. You can compost plant clippings, coffee grounds and eggshells in a small container under your kitchen sink using vermicompost, and can be ready within two weeks! Compost helps fertilize the soils and encourages plant growth! The EPA also has a great guide on composting tips.
Propagate your plants
These plants are stems or roots that we eat. They require sitting in water and sunlight until they grow roots and new leaves. These plants include but are not limited to:
Celery– Set the base of celery stalk up in a bowl until new growth forms. when roots appear you can plant.
Lettuce (Romaine is best for beginners)– This must be a head of lettuce, not just leaves. Place heart in water, changing it every few days. You can plant the heart once its grown leaves.
Chives– leave the base in some water over the course of a week. I’ve even had success simply sticking them in the ground!
Carrots (grow from tops)- leave the tops in water for a week or until new growth forms. Then plant them in soil!
Potatoes- Chances are you’ve done this in science class. Balance the potato using popsicle sticks or toothpicks so that it’s sitting halfway into water. Because the potato plant is a stem, not a root, it will form roots and shoots. Potatoes are tubers, which is an underground stem. Our food comes from many different parts of the plant, and how we regrow them depends on the anatomy we eat.
Save those Seeds!!
When saving seeds, organic produce seems to be more likely to germinate. Save seeds from fruits and fruiting veggies like peppers to regrow your own plant! Here are some plants you can use to grow in small spaces:
Peppers– this includes peppers of any kind, though I’ve had the best luck with bell peppers. Save the seeds from your kitchen scraps and plant them in late spring.
Watermelon– I’ve had a ton of success growing watermelon. Make sure it’s not the seedless kind, which sometimes produce null seeds. This is due to their genetics! Plant them in early summer for best results, but be warned, they can take over a balcony!
Pumpkins– This post is in perfect timing. Save some pumpkin seeds from a toasty fate and plant them in your yard or in a container. Plant in early spring after the last frost!
Tomato– cherry tomatoes work best, and plant in early summer. Pinch off the “sucker” stems that grown in the elbow-like stems to increase the vitality of your plant.
Avocado- Avocado is a fun plant to grow from seed because the process is similar to a potato. Balance in a cup of water and wait with patience until it begins sprouting. When roots and stems have formed, plant!
The possibilities are virtually limitless. Here’s a great list of 25 foods you can plant from your kitchen. The Food Revolution Network also has a great food scraps article with excellent illustration.
For best results, plant in-season! If you need help figuring which cuttings to propagate and plant, refer to the Aggie Horticulture chart! You can check out my guide to winter farming in my last post.