The urban farming movement is exploding with inspiration. No matter how small your space, if you have a small yard, courtyard, apartment balcony or patio you can grow a diverse mix of lettuce and greens, herbs, and tomatoes through most of the summer and even into early fall from a few raised beds and container pots.
If you live in a condo or apartment and have sun for about 6 hours or so a day, you can make this work. And with filtered sunlight, lettuce, kale, and chard will thrive.
Resist the temptation to overdo it the first year—start with a manageable mix of vegetables and herbs that you'll enjoy eating every day—that’s what makes the urban home garden so rewarding. In my small courtyard patio, I have two 4 ft. x 4 ft. raised beds, one 2-1/2 ft. x 5-1/2 ft. raised bed, and one 3 ft. x 5 ft. elevated bed plus a few container pots.
Vegetables can deplete the soil in raised beds and containers quickly so starting with the best soil is critical. Composting will give you rich, healthy soil and is the sustainable choice. I use a Soilsaver composter (find online), which is compact and simple to set up. If you’re not ready to compost yet, there are compost-blend soils with worm castings online (like Organic Mechanics).
I prioritize growing greens and tomatoes for highly nutritious salads for a couple of reasons. There’s nothing that comes close to the taste of just-picked fresh greens, herbs, and tomatoes—and this is what I want to eat once or twice a day. Also, organic lettuce, tomatoes, and herbs are typically some of the most expensive items at the grocery so this can save quite a bit of money.
Find organic, non-GMO seeds online (or check farmers markets in early spring for seedlings). My first-choice is High Mowing Organic Seeds.
Here’s the top producers I rely on for daily organic salads throughout the summer in my Michigan garden:
Abe Lincoln tomato: Compact and manageable, about two feet tall. Consistently produces meaty medium-sized red tomatoes for a long-stretch of weeks. Perfect for bruschetta. Also disease and pest-resistant.
Black cherry tomato: Fantastic flavor from this larger cherry tomato. I’ve grown this for several years in five-gallon containers, and it thrives with no fuss. Biggest problem is I eat them before they ever make it to the kitchen!
Red planet blend lettuce: I’ve grown this fast-growing baby-leaf mix for over five years in both raised beds and container pots, and it never fails. A nice blend of tender, mellow red’s and green’s. This is a ‘cut and come back’ lettuce, so the more you pick the more it regenerates.
Lacinato kale: This kale is hardy, fast-growing, and tolerant of a wide-range of temperatures and soils. Last year I was still harvesting kale in late October in my Michigan garden. I prefer baby kale for salads, so within six weeks (or less) you’re set to go. Another ‘cut and come back,’ so it just keeps regenerating. This is a big winner.
Silverado chard: Another super winner like kale with high nutritional value. I grow it for the baby leaves, which are tender and perfect in salads. It’s also a ‘cut and come back’ so just keep harvesting and it regenerates. I planted in late April and am still enjoying chard in late August.
And the herbs…
Growing your own herbs is so easy and will save you money—they thrive in pots and balconies as long as they get the sun and water they need. Check your local farmers markets for seedlings or find organic, non-GMO seeds online. My must-haves every year:
Basil: Ubiquitous ingredient for pastas, sauces, salads, bruschetta—just cannot be without it. I usually plant several types and always at least one sweet basilplant. This year I tried Genovese and have loved it both for the large leaf (nice in sandwiches) and the intense flavor.
Dill: Rarely do you see dill used in salads, but just try this. The unique flavor it adds is fantastic. Dill gets a bit tall and can be easily staked. May flower and go to seed quickly so try planting more than once throughout the summer.
Cilantro: Obviously essential for salsa and Mexican dishes but is also great in salads, eggs and omelettes. Just keep growing it through the summer for a fresh supply (stagger planting seeds every month or so).
Rosemary: A wonderful pungent herb to add to pastas, pizza, home-baked breads and muffins. One plant produces more than you’ll ever use for cooking, and you’ll have some to preserve in the early fall.
Winter is the time to research online for ready-to-go raised beds or plans to build your own. The important thing is just to start, however small. You can expand gradually each year if you have the time, space, and desire. Once you get going (and get growing) you’ll become addicted to fresh organic food from your own garden that not only tastes far better than anything at the grocery but also makes you feel really good inside—for physical and psychological health and for the planet.