We:Generation is a blog by Eva Leung. Her posts explore the transformative role of Regeneration & the convergence with design, food systems, spirituality, systems thinking, architecture, education, land use, politics and technology. Plus the occasional stream of consciousness and random babel.

Her Studio is an evolving platform for experimenting ideas and reflections.

Urban Gardening Basics - Getting Started

So you want your urban garden-to-table experience, but still traumatized by that one time when you killed a cactus. How do you recover from that? Let's take things at bite size. This 5 minute read will equip you with the know-how on site selection and garden systems options.

Site Selection

Follow the Light - how much?

In general, the more light, the more growing potential. A planting plan can then be setup after you have determined where the best planting location is. A spot is in:

  • Full sun - if it receives 6 or more hours of unobstructed sunlight
  • Low sun - if it receives 4 to 6 hours of unobstructed sunlight

sun tracking tools - where & when?

Light changes throughout the day and season. A spot maybe in full sun during your favorite summer days, but maybe completely in shade during winter. You will need to consider factors in the immediate environment, such as changes in deciduous tree foliage, and up-coming buildings that may shade out the garden. You can check the amount of sunlight received at any location on your property using the following 2 tools:

photo by Eva Leung

photo by Eva Leung

  • Sunseeker App

Soil Assessment

A soil test is recommended to evaluate its suitability for gardening. Places with a history of industry, where lead paint and leaded gasoline were used prior to 1970s have a tendency of poisonous heavy metals concentration, which can lead to brain development issues in young children. A soil test also provides information such as nutrient levels and soil pH value to inform amendment, remediation strategies. This in turns influence your budget and environmental protection decisions. The Center for Food, Agriculture and the Environment at University of Massachusetts Amherst provides soil sampling instructions and laboratory service at $15 per routine sample, at a turnaround time between 5 to 10 days.

other Tips for garden placement

  1. How accessible is the garden? Can you move around it to plant, maintain and harvest easily? Is it near a water source, convenient enough that you will not give up on watering after a week of hazzle ?
  2. Avoid planting within root zone of trees. Why? They have a tendency to shade out the garden, and aggressive species such as Black Walnuts and Maples have extensive root systems that could out-compete your garden for water and nutrients. Root system is typically 2 to 3 times the diameter of canopy. If possible, place gardens at least 50 feet away from trees.

Which Garden System Make Sense?

We could categorize growing systems into 3 basic types - raised beds, container and in-ground. When choosing which garden system to use, here are 6 factors that will influence your decision:

  1. Sun availability - How big is your gardening space ? Small front porch or big lawn?
  2. Water Needs - How good is water retention? how often does it need irrigation?
  3. Soil Quality - How easy is it to control soil quality?
  4. Cost - What is your budget?
  5. Mobility - Do you intend to move the plants, and how easy it is to do so?
  6. Aesthetics - What material and looks appeal to you most?

raised beds

These are typically planter boxes of varying sizes, built in wood, metal or fabric. They are suited for large areas, and generally easy to irrigate if sited well. Soil quality, drainage and nutrient levels are easy to control as the soil can be custom mixed. Depending on the choice of material and size, raised beds can be moderately expensive . Despite being modular, they are challenging to relocate because of the volume and weight of material within. They can accommodate a good variety of plants because their soil depths could be custom.

2017 Somerville Urban Agriculture Ambassadors building a cedar raised bed. Photo by Eva Leung

2017 Somerville Urban Agriculture Ambassadors building a cedar raised bed. Photo by Eva Leung

Galvanized Water Trough Raised Bed Planters. Photo by Eva Leung

Galvanized Water Trough Raised Bed Planters. Photo by Eva Leung

Smart Pot - Fabric Raised Beds. Come in various sizes, the small ones that could be easily  relocated are essentially containers. This is the setup in my tiny front yard, just enough for a 3' diameter smart pot. I have about 12 plants in this bed, transplanted from a mini-herb spiral demonstration pot shown below.  It is small, but highly productive! There is Comfrey, Marigold, Chamomile, Chives, Mint, Purple Sage, Tomatoes, Rosemary, Mesclun Greens. Photo by Eva Leung

Smart Pot - Fabric Raised Beds. Come in various sizes, the small ones that could be easily  relocated are essentially containers. This is the setup in my tiny front yard, just enough for a 3' diameter smart pot. I have about 12 plants in this bed, transplanted from a mini-herb spiral demonstration pot shown below.  It is small, but highly productive! There is Comfrey, Marigold, Chamomile, Chives, Mint, Purple Sage, Tomatoes, Rosemary, Mesclun Greens. Photo by Eva Leung

Container

You can think of container gardening as small versions of raised beds - typically ready-made, found objects and pots available in garden stores. Due to their large volume to container surface ratio, the soil tends to dry quickly and needs frequent watering. Compared to raised beds and in-ground systems, it is the most expensive option if you think in terms of $/ crop output. On the upside, they are pain-free when it comes to mobility.

Before being transplanted to the 3' Smart Pot (shown above), this is the table-top herb spiral that I made from a recycled stone pot and cork (as the spiraling divider. Photo by Eva Leung

Before being transplanted to the 3' Smart Pot (shown above), this is the table-top herb spiral that I made from a recycled stone pot and cork (as the spiraling divider. Photo by Eva Leung

For scale purposes, this is how big the table-top herb spiral was.  A well-received outreach tool at the Somerville Community Growing Center stand at the Union Square Mobile Farmers' Market!

For scale purposes, this is how big the table-top herb spiral was.  A well-received outreach tool at the Somerville Community Growing Center stand at the Union Square Mobile Farmers' Market!

in-ground

You will need a sizable area with full sun, and it is generally easy to set up an irrigation system. Drainage will depend on soil type. Soil quality will be hardest to control among the 3, and should be tested to ensure it is safe for growing edible crops. Depending on the type of edging material and detailing, it is comparatively the least expensive per food output of the 3 systems. However, there is no flexibility to move the planting bed, unless the garden is re-configured. 

What's Next?

Now that you have selected your garden site and system, it is time to move on to Crop Planning. Stay tuned.


Note & Resource

This post is part of the Somerville Urban Agriculture Ambassador Program blog series. It contains highlights, notes and additional research gathered by the author from participating in the ambassador program in March/April 2017. Through this series , it is the author's hope to expand accessible, community knowledge around urban agriculture. 

For an excellent elaboration with engaging diagrams of the above information, check out Green City Grower's book The Urban Bounty - How to Grow Fresh Food, Anywhere by Allison Houghton. While the author has no affiliation with the sales of this book, it is the main reference throughout the ambassador program. It is concise and easy to understand, highly recommended.

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