GETTING ROOTED IN READING
I have lived in the city of Reading for the past 9 years and even though I don’t have my own backyard, I have discovered that I can still get my hands dirty growing plants and food in the urban environment. Here are some simple ideas that can help you get started with your own city gardening project.
You don’t need access to land to garden in the city. A porch, rooftop, sidewalk or even a sunny window can be the perfect place to sow some seeds - all you need is a container. While flowerpots are most commonly used for container gardening, anything from a milk jug to a baby pool can be transformed into a productive growing space. Other ideas for containers include:
Milk crates lined with cardboard or fabric
Old soda bottles
Ice cream containers
Used car tires
A wicker wash basket
55 gallon drum cut in half
Just about anything that can hold soil can be used to create a container garden, but be sure to consider proper drainage. Add holes or stones to the bottom of your container to avoid drowning your plants. Of course, you don’t have to be too creative if you don’t want to be! You can find plenty of products such as elevated raised bed planters, EarthBox containers, SmartPots, and custom window boxes, at your local garden center or online.
In addition to considering the size of the space that you have available, choose a container that fits the needs of the plants that you would like to grow. Some plants, like lettuce or cilantro, have shallow roots and can grow in as little as 3-4 inches of soil. Fruiting plants, like tomatoes or peppers, have larger root structures and need deeper containers. My favorite vessels for growing tomato plants are 5-gallon buckets, which are relatively inexpensive and easy to find. I acquired a number of food grade 5-gallon buckets from a local restaurant owner - all I had to do was ask!
TIP: The larger the soil volume, the stronger and more resilient your plants will be. Also, large containers require less frequent watering than small containers.
When cultivating vegetables and other edible plants, I try to use food grade plastics. Some studies suggest that certain types of plastic can leach toxins into the soil over time. Food grade plastics are used in the food industry and are less likely to contaminate your soil.
Another way to prevent this issue is to avoid using plastic all together. Untreated wood, ceramics, waxed cardboard, and even sturdy fabrics such as felt or burlap can be used to create a productive container garden. I like to use old feedbags and burlap sacks to grow potatoes. I start by filling the bottom of the bag with a few inches of soil and plant 3-5 seed potatoes. Then, I roll the sides of the bag down to meet the top of the soil.
Once the potatoes start growing, I roll the sides of the bag up a few inches and add more soil. As new sprouts emerge, I continue to cover the plant to encourage more potato production beneath the soil. At the end of the season I don’t have to worry about digging up the potatoes, I just tip over the bags and uncover my harvest!
USING CONSTRAINTS AS OPPORTUNITIES - WATER, SUNLIGHT & OTHER CHALLENGES
Whether you are growing in a container or utilizing a small yard space, gardening in an urban environment can be challenging. Access to land, sunlight and water are often the biggest constraints, especially if you live in an apartment building or row home. However, not all challenges are insurmountable. In many cases, the obstacles of a city landscape provide great opportunities for creative innovation.
For example, narrow row home yards may not have ample square footage but fences and walls can provide the infrastructure you need to grow vertically. Squashes, pumpkins and other vining plants can be trained to grow onto fences by securing the shoots of the plant to the fence as it grows. Additionally, espalier is a horticultural technique that involves trellising fruit trees or shrubs onto a flat, vertical surface, such as a wall. Both methods are a great way to grow plants that would otherwise occupy or shade valuable gardening space.
Another way to utilize wall space is to install a vertical garden. Some designs are as simple as securing containers, such as soda bottles or small plastic pots, to an outside wall.
Other designs can be more intricate and require basic construction skills. There are also a number of commercial products available such as Woolly Pockets, My Garden Post, or Gronomics Garden Planters that will take the legwork out of building a vertical garden. Vertical gardens can also be grown indoors by installing hanging pots in a sunny window. Whichever design you choose, the concept remains the same. Vertical gardens capitalize on the constraints of our urban infrastructure by utilizing vertical space instead of limited garden real estate.
The same creative thinking can be applied to accessing water. The city is full of impermeable surfaces. Concrete roads, sidewalks, and roofs are all surfaces that water cannot penetrate. For every inch of rain that falls on these surfaces, hundreds of gallons of runoff flow into our sewer systems (.62 gallons per sq. ft.). To the city gardener, this is a great opportunity. By collecting some of this runoff, you can hydrate your plants throughout the growing season.
Rain barrels are holding tanks that collect and store rainwater for future use. You can purchase these tanks commercially or you can build your own. The most common material used for homemade rain barrels are 55 gallon drums. Once constructed, the containers are placed on a flat surface below a downspout where roof runoff can flow directly into the barrel. Many rain barrels are equipped with an overflow spout at the top as well as a distribution spout at the bottom so you can control the distribution of water from the container. Rain barrels are regulated by local government and are not permitted in every jurisdiction.
THE CITY OF READING PASSED ITS RAIN BARREL ORDINANCE IN 2012, ALLOWING RESIDENTS TO COLLECT RAIN WATER FOR NON-POTABLE PURPOSES.
If you would like to learn more about using rain barrels in the city of Reading visit: readingpa.gov/content/rain-barrel-ordinance
Another challenge to gardening in the urban environment is sunlight. City yards surrounded by building and trees have limited sun exposure. Fortunately, there are plants that can thrive in shady areas. If you have a shaded or partially sunny garden space there are a number of ornamental perennials that will flourish. However, if you want to produce food - think salad! Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, lettuce and arugula grow well in limited sunlight (scattered sun or only 2-3 hours of sun exposure). Also mint, ginger, onions, beets, garlic, broccoli and other vegetables in the broccoli family will tolerate partial shade. You can help your shade-friendly vegetables grow by painting any nearby walls white, which will help to reflect light onto your plants.
On the other hand, overexposure to sunlight and heat can harm common plants and cause your soil to dry out too quickly. Concrete and paved surfaces increase the overall temperature of the city environment by holding heat and reflecting light. If your city garden is overexposed, consider introducing shade to your space by planting taller crops or shrubs.
There are many ways to get creative about growing in the city. Another opportunity is community gardening.
There are currently eight community gardens in the city of Reading, all of which are coordinated by Berks Nature. Community gardens are shared spaces, often empty lots, which have been transformed into an area where residents can share garden supplies and cultivate their own garden beds. If you are interested in learning more about Reading’s community gardens visit: berksnature.org/urban-greening/.
Gardening in the city is possible! It just requires some creative thinking. In many cases, I have found that designing for small, limited spaces can be even more productive and fun than open rural areas.
[ Editor's Note: Opportunity House Garden
If you're looking to get your hands dirty and help your neighbors eat more fresh, local produce, you can also volunteer with Opportunity House in their garden. Some plots are designated for neighbors, who tend their own plots, and the rest are designated to supply the Opportunity House kitchen. You can drop in and lend a hand to master gardener volunteers on Mondays 10am-noon and Thursdays 5pm-7pm or email Julia VanTine: firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more. ]
Alexis Campbell is a certified permaculture designer and teacher of permaculture who focuses primarily on the regenerative living practices in the urban environment. She has over 10 years of experience in sustainable agriculture and was the founder Reading Regeneration Project, and the co-founder of Permacultivate, and Reading Roots Urban Farm. She now works for the Berks History Center. Alexis is a graduate of Muhlenberg High School and Penn State University. She moved to the city in 2010 and has loved living and working in Reading ever since.