Tips for beginners: Urban gardening

Sunday, April 25, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — You can have a garden no matter where you live.

Urban gardeners find plenty of ways to make the best of living in the city. Whether you’re using containers or flat rooftops, as long as you’ve got some good dirt and enough sun, plants will grow.

Columbia gardener Mira Stoddart said gardening means knowing where your food comes from and eating healthier.

Bill McKelvey, who works at MU Extension, recommends having a garden in the ground if you can, but container gardening works just fine. If you don’t have a backyard, you still have plenty of options:

  • Five-gallon buckets: put them on your porch or patio where your plants can feel the sun.
  • Terra cotta pots: they’re heavier and more durable, and they won’t break down in the sunlight.
  • Windowsills: you’ll see them every day and give them plenty of attention.
  • A community: get your own plot and go crazy gardening.
  • A demonstration garden: a group of people volunteer to help out on one garden and share the benefits.
  • Find a friend who has space and share: two heads of cabbage are better than one.
  • A flat rooftop: get some good soil from the store or your own composting and make a plot. You’ll never have to worry about the plants not getting enough sun.

Gardening is a straightforward process, but there’s a lot to know. Here are some tips for beginners:

  • “Think small,” said Leigh Lockhart, who owns Main Squeeze and her own backyard garden. “Consider the types of things you can really use that are easiest to grow.” Lockhart said one or two tomato plants is enough for a whole family.
  • Once you know what you want to grow, do some research of your own so you know what you’re getting into. Stoddart said it is important to know the appropriate time to plant and what your plants’ individual needs are. “Get a good book or a good friend who can help you garden,” Stoddart said.
  • Herbs do well in containers, Stoddart said, as do strawberries, salad greens and tomatoes. She said plants like corn, green beans and potatoes are more difficult in a container.
  • If you have a backyard, make a raised bed of fresh dirt. Lockhart said backyards are often filled with clay and young plants will not grow without good soil.
  • Which brings us to composting. “It’s crazy how much dirt costs,” Lockhart said. “You can make your own.” To compost, throw food scraps into a container. Then, throw something organic, such as leaves, mulch, woodchips, newspapers and/or cotton, in with it. She said composting can either be done in a covered container or in a blocked-off section of your backyard. Adding in red wiggler worms also helps make it into good soil, she said.
  • If you’re gardening in the ground, spend time beforehand getting the soil ready and pulling weeds, McKelvey said.
  • Water your plants often — as much as once a day during the summer, McKelvey said. Containers hold moisture less easily than the ground. If your garden is in the ground, use good mulch to help keep moisture in the soil, he said.
  • Move containers indoors during the winter, Saunders said, and then move them back out in the spring.
  • Make sure your plants get plenty of sunlight. McKelvey said vegetables need at least six hours of direct sunlight, whether they are in the ground or in containers.
  • “Don’t get discouraged if you try and grow something and it doesn’t work out for you,” Stoddart said. Conditions can be more difficult for growing from one season to the next, depending on rain, bugs and other factors.
  • Have fun.

The Community Garden Coalition helps people with gardening needs, especially if they don’t have the experience, space or equipment or if they have a disability.

In addition, the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture hosts workshops all season long to help with gardening, raising chickens, composting and more. MU Extension’s master gardener program also offers support for gardeners of all levels of experience.

“We’re all kind of locked in going to the grocery store. It’s easy and convenient and works with our busy schedules,” Stoddart said. “But I do see an increase in gardening, and I hope it grows even more.”

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