Growing food in the city: Getting started

Just because I’ve managed to grow food from my superfund site  backyard  doesn’t mean I’m an authority on gardening, but I’ll do what I can to help my friends in the blog world get started with their first little food patch. I should add that this post is way overdue and might not even be useful at this point. Oh well, I tried. 

Early August. The tomatoes had to be cut back by mid Aug.

So, starting a garden seem easy, right? Drop a few seeds into the ground, give them a little water and a few weeks later, eat the fruits of your labors. And sometimes, if you’re lucky (and not me) that will work.  A lot of gardening books and websites insist that gardening is “fun” and “easy” and they do a fabulous job of selling you on the romance of having a  lush garden of organic veggies tended by happy little bees and butterflies.

There might be some truth to it if  you’re doing a  small garden with greens, herbs, tomatoes, and definitely some worry-free zucchini.

But now I’m gonna give it to you straight–having a decent sized garden full of different varieties of food to feed your family is hard work. It’s dirty, back-breaking, hot, sweaty, stinky, gooey work and it requires a lot of attention. If you don’t like being outside or creepy crawly things then gardening might not be for you. Also,  if  you  like to take summer vacations I suggest you reconsider your food growing agenda or learn to like camping in the fall.

BUT… it is in my opinion, some of the most satisfying work one can do and worth every ounce of blood, sweat and tears you will offer up to the soil gods.

And on that note I

‘ll share my number one piece of advice for those of you looking to start your first garden.


But before you start small you’ll have to think of the spot where want to plant. Got it in your head? Perfect. Does this site face south,west, east or north? Is there a tree, garage or awning that will shade it during the growing season? In short, does it receive full sun all day? You can find full sun on the south/south-west facing areas of your property* (6-8 hour a day with more than 8 being ideal for better yeilds, imo).

This is the very first and most critical question to ask before starting a home garden because without full sun, you will not get tomatoes, peppers, corn, melons or any warm season crop.

Once you’ve determined t

hat you get enough sun you’re ready to get to work.

Starting small means one or two 3′x6-” raised beds. If, after you’ve planted the bed(s) and you feel like it…add one more.

I know, I know, it’s not

much. But in the real world, back/side/front yards do not come with anything close to fluffy, loamy, nutrient dense soil and they’ll usually have grass or some other kind of ground cover on them. That means physical labor to remove the sod/groundcover and more labor to amend the soil.

If you’re thinking that you want more space then consider this first:  If you  plant two raised beds, that’s 36 sf (6×3=18 x2)  of digging to about 1′ to 1.5′ (min) deep–just to aerate and amend the soil with compost. That’s a lot of volume to work, and it doesn’t include the time and energy spent removing groundcover and weeds, building the boxes/frames, painting the frames,  leveling the ground, and setting the frames in place.

Are you ready for it? Ok. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Maybe you can find an extra pair of hands to help you I didn’t and maybe that’s why I’m so cranky about it.

Once you’ve done all that, let the soil rest. Let the worms and soil organisms make a home in it (if it’s later in the season, you’ll

have to plant the next day).

During this time, your babies (that’s the term I give my seedlings) should be either under grow lights or outside hardening off (something that comes after you remove them from under the grow lights).  Or you can go to a nursery and buy starts.

When you’re ready to plant your babies or seeds, keep in mind that tall plants shade short plants. So, plant your corn behind the eggplant (in my garden I plant the corn on the north side). Seems like common sense but it’s often overlooked by the new gardener.

A question you might ask is, “why would I go to the trouble of building a raised bed when I can plant directly into the ground?” Well, raised beds do a couple of things:

First. the give your growing area a well-defined space and keep the soil you spent hours amending in place.
Second, they help the soil warm up faster in places with cold winters. That means you can plant a bit earlier.
Third, the size of the beds is ea

sy to work and weed (some of my earlier beds are 2×8 and not nearly as efficient as the bigger beds)
And Fourth, they look nice. You can paint them a color of your choice or arrange them into a geometric patterns like   have done.

The downside to raised beds is that they dry out faster especially if you live in the arid west like I do. There’s two ways to minimize water loss: 1. Set the bed frames a few inches into the ground and 2. Use mulch. A  lot of mulch. I use leaves that I’ve collected from the neighborhood leaf disposal the year before. For some bags of leaves, I let them decompose for 2-3 y

ears and I get magical stuff called leaf mould. Amending the soil with leaf mould, in addition to compost, helps aera

te the soil and retain water.

There’s a lot I’m lea

ving out of this post. Like making and using compost (and the vast amounts of chicken poop I save for making it).  Watering, growing babies, interplanting, companion plantingdiversity and the use of flowers, and crop rotation. And why bother growing food in the first place (that’s a whole post on its own)

I’m hoping you’ll ask me about the details in the comments. I’m happy to help.

For all you gardening pros, I want to hear from yo, too. What are you doing that’s better than what I suggest here? There’s more than one way to do things and I’d like to learn from you.

Happy spring and happy planting.
*If you’re not sure if  your site gets full sun, go out at various times of the day and take notes.

**You can get by

with less sun but you wont get the same productivity. For example, I grow huge tomatoes and bell peppers and it’s because (imo) I get more than 8 hours of full sun. Some vegetables can get by with less than full sun. See here:


23 responses to “Growing food in the city: Getting started

  1. Ardis May 4, 2011 at 10:51 am

    I read this like some people read travel brochures — with fairy-tale longing but no realistic hope of ever being there.

    Perhaps in another post you could give some pointers for those of us whose city farms are limited to porches and window boxes. I’ve managed a couple of tomatoes every year, but nothing else has been very successful.

    In the meantime, I’ll go on fantasizing about raised beds and earth worms and leaf mould.

  2. zaissa May 4, 2011 at 10:53 am

    Do you have recommendations for a novice to start with in raised beds (about 3′ X 4′ each, and I do have a little chicken wire fence thing going up two of them if needed)?

    Also, supposed I were going to get started this or next weekend, what has the best shot of survival and prosperity going into the ground right now?

  3. mfranti May 4, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Ardis, I’ll get on that. Until then, you’re welcome to anything in my garden. We’re neighbors.

    Zaissa, just plant in the frames you have. Mother’s Day is (in Utah) the safe day to plant warm season crops.

  4. mfranti May 4, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Chicken wire for what? I’m not following.

  5. zaissa May 4, 2011 at 11:44 am

    I don’t know if chicken wire is the right term. But the previous owner had put a little (like 3 feet tall) wire fence up so that I guess climbing things can climb?

  6. Nicole May 4, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    As someone who does quite a bit of gardening, I have to concur that you are likely better off in the first season or two with a raised bed. It will be better soil, easier to get started (if I bit more expensive), and a good trial of your commitment and skills.

    I hesitate to suggest what to plant. I think it is important when giving and asking for help to identify where you are located. If I’ve learned one thing in my years of gardening, it is you must consider your climate. This isn’t just for planting dates. This is also for keeping from getting discouraged.

    For instance, attempting to grow a sun loving tomato plant in San Francisco is like banging your head against a wall. Only try if you are an experienced gardener and willing to take your chances. Attempting to grow a tomato plant in Portland or Seattle is possible, but again, difficult requiring an extra long time in seedling mode, the right varieties, etc. Planting a tomato plant in SLC, relatively easy. Knowing when to water a tomato plant in Las Vegas or Phoenix is a pretty advanced skill.

  7. Alliegator May 4, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    Chicken wire for growing pole beans up? If it’s what I’m thinking, you could plant a trench of pole beans (I don’t space mine, I just spread a line of seeds in the trench) below the chicken wire and they’d grow up it.

  8. mfranti May 4, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Nicole, great comments.

    I happen to know Zaissa lives in the area so my answer is tailored to her.

  9. zaissa May 4, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    So tomatoes are plausible here then? That would be one thing that I would really like to try but I am told they are not the easiest plant to keep alive. Last year I gave it a shot in a planter box as “starters” from seeds that I was going to move later but they didn’t come up at all.

    I will look in to Pole Beans Alligator…I figure I should take advantage of the fence since I have it, right?

  10. mfranti May 4, 2011 at 2:09 pm


    Look at the picture. Everything growing on the trellises are tomatoes. All kinds of tomatoes.

    Off to the far left is another patch of roma tomatoes.
    oh baby can you grow maters here!

    and huge bell peppers.

  11. Jeremy May 4, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Best thing we did was put in raised beds for our garden. We have four 4x4s and I love two things that made it totally worth it. You’re not on your hands and knees while you’re weeding, and if you think you’re going to be to busy for the full garden, you can just cover a couple of boxes with a tarp or something and not worry about weeds in that area for the summer.

    Stuff we’ve never had problems with in Utah include tomatoes (use black plastic around them ,they love the heat), lots of herbs, pumpkins and peppers of all sorts.

    The two things we stopped trying are corn and potatoes. With corn we never seemed to get enough to make it worth the space and it was always buggy. With potatoes we just couldn’t seem to do anything right. Bugs, no growth, losing them, etc.

    Luckily corn is really cheap at the farmer’s markets around here.

  12. Jeremy May 4, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    Yeah, tomatoes grow like weeds, at least in my area. It seems like I only put in a couple of plants, but by the end of the season I’m supplying all my neighbors.

    As long as you pay attention to signs of too much water it’s usually pretty easy.

  13. mfranti May 4, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    Googal three sisters planting, J.
    and potatoes can be grown in big black plastic sacks. I’ve done it for the baby potatoes. yuuuuummmooo

  14. reader Rachel May 4, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    Looking at the picture of your garden just makes me happy. We just put two more raised beds into the ground. Our back yard used to be a parking lot, so we have to dig out the asphalt chunks and replace the soil so that something other than goat heads will grow. We have lettuce, spinach and onions growing in our bed from last year, and we’ll plant in the new ones on Saturday. Around the house we have mints, sage, thyme, oregano, and lavender that we established last year. And we’ve been eating our dandelion greens for two months now.

  15. Jeremy May 4, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    I tried something similar with potatoes in five gallon buckets, but the yield was very small. Maybe it’s time to give it a shot.

    Where are you Rachel? I hadn’t even thought of spinach and lettuce, is that possible in Utah?

  16. TopHat May 4, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    We’re moving to a place where we can have a small garden: right now we have basil in a cup. I’m hoping to expand my gardening into guerilla gardening sometime this year, because I’m sure our landlord doesn’t have unlimited space. 🙂

  17. Corktree May 6, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    We currently have a garden box with strawberries spilling out of it and onions, carrots, lettuce, and beets in the middle. But I’m longing for more land so I can do rows and rows of my favorites. I did try to do some potatoes in mounds outside the box this year, but not sure if they’ll work yet. Do you think it’s wise to do a tomato plant in a barrel or pot? They always take over wherever they are and the clean up drives me crazy.

    Another idea that I have local friends doing is columnar apple trees. They seem great for limited space, but I’m not sure yet if anyone is getting anything out of them. We have 4 fruit trees, but the maintenance and disease management is killing me!

  18. nat kelly May 8, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    Mel, this post depresses me a bit. My feeble attempts at growing tomatoes seem so pathetic.

    I have one tomato plant in a bucket. My apartment doesn’t get any direct sunlight. How do I know if I’m putting it under the right kind of light?

    I want to transfer it to my roof, but it still seems too dang cold here in the Northwest. If the daily high is averaging about 55, is that too cold for a new baby seedling? At what point do I take it out of the light and put it in the sun? And can it rain too much for the plant? Can it drown?

    I originally planted 3 seeds in my bucket, and only one sprouted. And then my cats ate it. 😦

    I’m thinking the only thing I might be able to salvage out of this first gardening attempt is good lessons for next year.

  19. margie May 8, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    “I’m thinking the only thing I might be able to salvage out of this first gardening attempt is good lessons for next year.”

    Never underestimate that as having immense value.

  20. Jeremy May 8, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    Nat, it’s not too late for tomatoes. They love warmth, so starting them a little later in your area can’t hurt. They’re going to want 10-12 hours of sun if you can find it at a window, or maybe her a grow light? There are special light bulbs at Home Depot that mimic the sun until you can transfer it to the roof. You probably don’t want to take them outside if there is even a slight chance of it freezing overnight.

  21. Winterbuzz May 14, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    this is very timely! Thanks! Tomatoes I can grow, but peppers and cucumbers I suck at (I’m in Utah). Your garden shot is my new goal for someday. Right now I just have two boxes and am hoping to make it three. BTW, this site is wonderful.

  22. mfranti May 14, 2011 at 8:32 pm


    Peppers and cucumbers grow here–I promise.
    I have a garden just so I can grow my own red peppers and roma tomatoes.

  23. Alliegator May 16, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    My best gardening tip is to set up soaker hoses or something similar with an automatic timer hooked to your hose (or just automatic sprinkling system). My garden gets watered whether I remember it or not. Since I’ve started doing that, tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, peppers, squash… have all been pretty successful. (with corn, plant one per square foot, in at least 4×4 sections, then shake them to help polinate them)

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