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Gardening in the city

Urban gardeners have many opportunities to grow vegetables and flowers, even if they live in apartments.

By Janis Kieft / June 16, 2008

COMMUNITY GARDEN: Chelsea Clinton works with volunteers at Woodlawn Elementary School planting tomatoes in Portland, Ore. Ms. Clinton joined with her father, Bill, to assist in a service project assisting volunteers building a community garden.

Steve Slocum/AP


Cucumbers are cool and peppers are hot, as many people are showing renewed interest in growing their own vegetables. Today’s vegetable gardens come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and styles, and can be found in backyards, on patios, even on rooftops.

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A national survey from the Garden Writers Association Foundation found that vegetable or fruit plants are second on the list of plants gardeners plan to purchase this spring – up from fourth place just a year ago.

There may be several reasons for this increased interest in vegetable gardening. Skyrocketing gas prices and increasing food costs at the grocery store are pinching our wallets. Safety issues cause us to want to know where our food comes from. Concern about the environment is forcing us to look at how best to use our natural resources.

Vicki Nowicki of Downers Grove, Ill., a gardener for more than 25 years, loves to grow her own vegetables because “I can just walk outside my door and pick my vegetables.” Vicki says she doesn’t have to use gasoline or pollute the air driving to the store and the vegetables are ready to eat at their peak of freshness.

Better variety and flavor are other reasons. “I can grow what I want to grow and not be limited to the few “tastes” you find in a grocery store.” She finds homegrown food to be fresher, higher in nutrition, and feels it simply tastes better than store-bought produce.

While many of her vegetables are planted in the ground, others – including herbs, lettuce and peppers – are growing in containers to keep rabbits from eating the plants.

Containers give Vicki greater flexibility too. She moves them to take advantage of the changing sunlight throughout the seasons and finds they are great for filling in the empty garden spaces after a crop has been harvested.

In addition to tending her own garden, Vicki supports a national movement to create Liberty Gardens as a way to grow delicious, organic food that nourishes both the family and the land.

This may be one of the answers to today’s economic uncertainty, just as the World War II Victory Gardens were 65 years ago when fuel rationing made it difficult to harvest fruits and vegetables and transport them from the farms to the city.

Back during that time, almost 20 million people grew a Victory Garden. It is estimated these gardens produced an amazing 8 million tons of food representing 40 percent of all the vegetables that were consumed.

Gayla Trail of Toronto is an adventurous city gardener with three different urban gardens. The rooftop of her apartment building has containers of all shapes and sizes filled with a bountiful selection of herbs, vegetables, fruit plants, and edible flowers.

Heirloom tomatoes, lettuce and other greens, hot peppers, and a variety of basils along with raspberries, strawberries, violas, and nasturtiums provide a harvest of delicious food from spring through fall.

In a nearby vacant lot, Gayla’s “guerilla garden” has sprung from the dead, contaminated soil of the inner city. It is filled with drought-tolerant perennials that can withstand the lack of water and threats of growing in an urban area.

While many of her neighbors have come to appreciate the beauty of the garden, there are others who take the flowers and damage the plants. Despite setbacks, Gayla continues to care for and replenish the garden as her personal contribution to creating green space in an area where there isn’t much to look at.

Gayla’s third garden is in a community garden, which gives her the opportunity to grow vegetables in the ground and to enjoy the interaction with other gardeners.