how does your (urban) garden grow?

Published in the West Kootenay Weekender, cover story for April 22, 2010

“Turf the turf,” quips blossoming urban gardener and successful documentary filmmaker Katherine Pettit. “Grass is a huge waste of space and energy. I tore mine up and planted vegetables.”

Official stats are non-existent, but judging from the number of blogs, books and magazines with the words ‘urban’ and ‘gardening’ in their titles, trading stagnant sod for vibrant vegetables has become a hugely popular switch among city dwellers in the past decade.

The garden was once the main source of food for a family, supplemented by cows and chickens and perhaps a pig or two. But as cities grew, available land was dwarfed and family sizes shrunk. The number of helping hands diminished and soil-tilling time was traded for an hourly job and consistent paycheck. Animal husbandry and food gardens were too time consuming when mom and dad both had jobs, and kids had school and extracurricular activities. But lately, people seem to be searching for their roots.

According to urban gardeners, vegetables are better for the soil than is grass, backyard food is more nutritious than when it’s trucked here from elsewhere, gardeners are in control of chemical use, if at all, and gardening saves money. Pettit estimates she saves up to $2000 per year growing her own food just outside her front door.

Yet Pettit knew virtually nothing about gardening when she started. “I wanted to become more self-sufficient,” reasons Pettit. “And I wanted to share this information. Growing our own food is an essential skill that has been almost lost. As a documentary filmmaker, I wanted to help others benefit from learning how to become more self-sufficient, too.”

Pettit produced the first episode of Urban Roots to describe how to begin your own garden, and Pettit’s blog (www.urbanrootsgardening.com) details the ongoing process.

Featured in Urban Roots, Christoph Martens built his home and garden from the bare clay on his Uphill lot. While his example might be an overwhelming one for the burgeoning gardener, he demonstrates some simple principles to get a beginning gardener growing this season.

“I start with tunnels. We have a cold climate and tunnels are season extenders. They trap moisture and warmth, and they’re easy to build by draping plastic over bamboo, willow or plastic piping.” Martens initially purchased his bamboo plants from a grower in Chiliwhack. Martens uses the stalks to create arches for structural support in the tunnel, over which he drapes plastic, and holds the walls down with rocks. He now grows and cultivates the bamboo for both decoration and function.

Tunnels raise temperatures to more than double the daytime temperature, and about three degrees higher than night temperature. Notes Martens, “This allows for faster germination and growth thus extending the season by about 2 months. The cover is removed about mid-May.”

Tunnels also work for warm season crops like tomatoes in which case the cover can stay on throughout the season, extending it by one month. The same principle works in fall for warm and cool season crops.

“You can plant cold tolerant seeds early, don’t worry about them freezing. They’ll come up when they’re ready.” Peas, beans lettuce and broccoli tolerate cool temperatures well.

Alongside Martens’ home is a two-by-four frame draped with plastic, called a cold frame. Inside, Martens started growing miner’s lettuce in September.

Start your seedlings and tunnels now, and you could be eating fresh greens until the next snowfall. “I’ve been drinking green smoothies all winter,” he smiles. “It’s all about timing.”

Pettit feels the time is right to involve city dwellers in urban agriculture. “The success of urban gardening in the Kootenays is due to our area’s increased consciousness of the wild around us. We consider our role in the environment. Gardening brings us back to our wild roots.”

Getting Started

Pettit knows people can be intimidated learning about pH, fertilizer, growing conditions and seasons. “The best thing you can do is pull up the grass and start planting, but don’t plant before the frost. Usually it’s best to wait until after the May long weekend.”

If you’re adverse to detailed instructions above, use peat pucks and water regularly. After all, there’s more than one way to garden.

You’ll need a tray, small containers with holes in the bottom, seeds, seed-starting mix and water.

  1. Moisten a batch of commercial seed-starting mix by adding enough water to dampen but not soak the mix. If you’re feeling a bit adventurous, try making your own seed starting mix (from http://www.yougrowgirl.com) and adding it to small containers:

1 part peat or coir (Coir is a sustainable peat substitute made from coconut husks whereas peat is mined from marshland.)

1 part perlite (popped volcanic ash)

1 part vermiculite (water absorbing material made from mica)

  1. Loosely fill each container with pre-moistened seed-starting mix and lightly press the soil to eliminate air pockets. Bury the seeds approximately as deep as they are in size.
  2. Sow a seed or two or three in each container. Sow more than one to be sure at least one germinates. You can cut extras out later.
  3. Cover the seeds with a layer of seed-starting mix
  4. Place your containers on a tray and water into the tray rather than the container. Remove any excess water still after 15 minutes.
  5. Place your tray in a warm spot, or use a heating mat.
  6. Label each container. You will not remember what you’ve started in which container.
  7. Keep the soil damp like a sponge that has been wrung out but not soaking wet.
  8. Once plants have grown the second set of leaves, known as ‘true leaves,’ water with fertilizer. Sea-kelp mix is a good choice.

10.  After growing true leaves, ‘harden off’ the seedlings by putting them outside in the sun for a little longer each day for about a week. Then plant outside.

What’s so Great about Gardening?

Gardening, and specifically urban gardening, conserves small pieces of wilderness and natural areas that have been lost between paved strips of road and concrete buildings. According to theurbanfarmer.ca, a website dedicated to fostering sustainable urban agriculture, the benefits are beyond reduced costs like fossil fuel, water and pesticide use. It also seems to nurture physical, emotional and spiritual health.

  • Physical activity involved in regular gardening activities contributes to general health
  • Pride and satisfaction comes from harvesting one’s own produce
  • Gardening can foster a fundamental connection to the earth
  • Gardening is creative. You can make a diverse landscape of vegetables, trees, shrubs and flowers with different colours, smells, tastes and textures that attract birds, bugs and even animals


Human Fertilizer: Qualities of a Good Gardener

1. Experience: Practice makes almost perfect. Gardening makes you a better gardener. Every season is a fresh start; a time to redo what you did right and do over what went wrong.

2. Consistency and persistence: Like kids, plants need consistent attention. Being in your garden regularly helps you notice what’s going on and catch problems before it’s too late.

3. Observe and adapt: Look around. Enjoy life as it unfolds. Change heat, water, fertilizer, and surroundings as you see fit.

4. Failure: A dead plant does not mean you’re a bad gardener. Learn from your mistakes, use community resources and celebrate the plants you eat.

2 thoughts on “how does your (urban) garden grow?

  1. awesome to see a story about urban gardening. we’re in edmonton and gradually doing away with our lawn. along with veggies, we’re planting lots of native grasses and perennials that provide shelter as well as food for birds, squirrels and other wildlife. it’s an amazing feeling eating food you’ve grown yourself and it certainly has given me an appreciate for farmers. wow, do we ever take a lot for granted. edmonton has also undertaken a pilot project: urban chickens!

  2. Great post which got me extra motivated to expand my vegie garden I have never tried the tunnels but I’m going to give it a go this winter. One thing about grass, I do believe it does have some benefits. Firstly, as a mother of 2 boys, our grass gets a lot of running around on and secondly, grass is a great additive for our hot compost, which ends up feeding our vegetables.

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