Gardening in the city

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

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

Any extra produce that she cannot use is often traded with another gardener or given away to friends and neighbors.

Gardening has changed many of Gayla’s perceptions about the environment, making her more aware of the changes that come with each season. Like many others who enjoy nature, Gayla finds gardening is good for her spirit. Where there is not a lot of greenery, her garden has created a green space where “I have the opportunity every day to step out on my roof and enjoy nature.”

A new and often extreme approach to vegetable gardening is occurring in cities across the US and Canada. Urbanites are replacing lawns, even entire front yards, with vegetable gardens.

Supporters of these “minifarms” feel growing food is a better use of land and water resources than cultivating an expanse of grass. In addition to growing vegetables for personal consumption, many of these urban farmers are generating income by selling their produce at farmers markets or to restaurants.

However, these front yard gardens are not without controversy, as neighbors and homeowner’s associations may oppose them saying the vegetable gardens detract from the general appearance of the neighborhood.

Community gardens offer many city dwellers access to land where they can grow their own productive garden. As food costs rise, families, especially those with a low or limited income, find that fresh vegetables and fruits become unaffordable for them.

Some community gardens are specifically for children to help them understand the importance of where their food comes from, ecology and to make a connection with nature; while others use the garden as a way for kids to earn money by selling the fresh vegetables they have grown.

Benefits of gardening in the city
Whether it’s a small backyard garden, containers on a rooftop, or a large community garden, urban gardens contribute to the community in many ways.

The green space adds to the quality of life in the city and can contribute to increased property values. It is estimated that green vegetation reflects as much as 25 percent of the sun’s radiation, reducing the heat island effect found in cities.

Gardens also provide areas for rain runoff, minimizing soil erosion as well as recycling water back into the environment. The open space, food and water found in a garden provide important areas for wildlife inhabiting urban areas.

For more information
Seed companies, garden centers, books, magazines, and gardening websites provide a wealth of information about garden designs, variety selection, gardening techniques, harvesting, and even recipes.

The National Garden Bureau’s website has a gardening section filled with fact sheets containing detailed information about growing a variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers.

Your local county Extension office has extensive resources about gardening specific to your area of the country. To locate an office near you, go to www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension.

Or if you are interested in community gardens including locations in your area, visit the American Community Gardening Association.

Urban areas offer as many ways to garden as there are people who live there. Start small, have fun and enjoy all the benefits of growing your own, healthy and flavorful fresh vegetables.

– From the National Garden Bureau

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