Thursday, May 3, 2012

Growing an Urban Garden

Growing an Urban Garden 

by Haley Stewart of Carrots for Michaelmas 

When we bought our first home two years ago, one of the things we were most excited about was turning our front yard into an urban garden. And we've had the best time making it happen! Currently, we're successfully growing onions, garlic, oats, potatoes, tomatoes, fresh herbs, summer squash, lettuce, swiss chard, peppers, cabbage, and eggplant. Also, despite the raccoons best efforts, we've kept 3 chickens alive long enough to provide us with fresh eggs each day. Our reasons for designating our front yard for vegetable beds and a chicken coop included health, frugality, education, and love of good food (although never having to mow again was a motivating factor).


Save Money 

Concern for what we eat, both for our health and for food ethics, prompts us to eat organic and local produce. However, eating this way isn’t cheap and for a four-person family making do with one income, the frugality of having an urban garden was very enticing. We spend about $150 a year on seeds, organic fertilizer, and transplants. We estimate that the produce we harvest would cost us at least $2000 a year. There is simply no way we could afford the kind of produce we eat if we didn’t grow it ourselves. Our salads are made from lettuce that was connected to the ground 10 minutes before we gobble it up. That's about as fresh as it gets! Last summer our son ate his weight in tomatoes many times over. It's a good thing they were growing in the front yard because there's no way we could have paid hundreds of dollars to keep the child supplied with an unending supply from the grocery store! 


Eat Seasonally 

Another benefit to eating produce from your own garden is that it forces you to eat seasonally. For example, we’ve been eating salads with delicious fresh lettuce all spring, while we haven’t eaten tomatoes in months. At the grocery store, both lettuce and tomatoes are available all year long; however, if you buy tomatoes in December, they have to be shipped in from far away and can’t compare to the taste of a tomato grown locally in July. Eating seasonally also makes eating each vegetable more exciting as we wait in expectation as seeds become seedlings, flower, and bear fruit.We're currently dying to bite into the tomatoes that are just beginning to turn red (although we've already concocted some tasty fried green tomatoes!). Until we started growing our own food I had no idea which vegetables were  in season! Now, we can enjoy the anticipation of waiting for our favorite veggies to grow (winter squash is my favorite) and then enjoy fresh produce just when it's in season locally. 


Teach Your Kids 

We love that our kids grow up knowing where their food comes from. Our 3-year-old is a part of every step of the process: planting seeds, watering seedlings, harvesting produce, and even cooking it. He knows more about plants and gardening than most adults. At age two he could distinguish between squash seedlings and tomato seedlings (before they have any fruit) something I have just learned to do in the past 3 or 4 years! He can tell intuitively when veggies are ripe and ready to be harvested because he’s so familiar with the plants in our garden. Sure beats diagrams of the water cycle or the life of a seed! 


You Just Can't Buy This Stuff 

The variety of produce available at the supermarket is startlingly small compared to the amazing variety of fruits and vegetables that farmers and gardeners have developed over the centuries. For instance, most stores only have 4 or 5 varieties of tomatoes. You might find one each of slicers, beefsteak, cherry, grape, and Roma. But there are thousands of kinds of tomatoes grown all over the world. There is a wealth of color, texture, shape, taste, and history that is out of reach unless you grow things yourself. This year, our tomato crop will include Atkins, Homestead, Early Girl, Orange Banana, Floridade, Tigerella, Morning Sun, Black Cherry, and Hazelfield. It’s very exciting to anticipate what all of these plants will produce! It is also exciting to be a part of a long gardening history. For instance, this year we are growing a kind of Italian heirloom squash called Trombocino. This variety has been passed down for generations and has traveled all the way from Italy to our front yard. That history adds an element to eating that can’t be found at the grocery store. On Easter Sunday we made a big salad out of the nine kinds of lettuce growing in the garden. Splendid variety! 


Our Setup  
We started with three raised beds and grew from there (sorry for the pun). Now we have 10 raised beds that are each 8’ x 4’. We also have 5 rows that are about 3’ x 10’. Originally, we got some dirt from a garden supply center to fill the beds. But, we began producing a lot of compost so we are now able to do without an outside source of soil.  And, really, there is no shortcut to good dirt. It takes a long time to build up a rich and healthy soil full of nutrients and good plant matter. It also takes a long time to learn how to garden well in your area. There are plenty of books and web sites on the subject of gardening, but every place is different. A book written by a gardener in Maine is really not going to do us a whole lot of good in Florida. Local knowledge is essential. Experienced gardeners in your area and truly local gardening supply stores can be a huge help.  

You Can Do It 
If this sounds like something you might be interested in, don't get overwhelmed or intimidated. Urban gardening is truly something anybody can do without extensive experience or a huge time commitment. Start small. I recommend beginning with an herb garden. Nothing is better than stepping out the door to grab some fresh basil to put on a pizza or fresh cilantro to add to tacos. Not to mention how economical it is since fresh herbs at the store cost an arm and a leg. Simple Bites has a great tutorial on making raised beds if you'd like to give them a shot. Try your luck with herbs and then expand from there. Food will never be the same for you! 

Bio: Haley is a Catholic wife and mother to two little ones in Tallahassee, FL. Ballet teacher, blogger, coffee-drinker, and lover of all things Jane Austen, Haley muses about books, motherhood, faith, and her undying love for bacon at Carrots for Michaelmas. You can contact her at 

Note: All photos property of Haley Stewart.   

Jen Starks, Owner 574.275.1235


Holly said...

Awesome post! Thanks so much for all this rich info, Haley!

Greenhousegirl said...

Great post. It is so important that our children know where food actually comes from!