Small herb and flower garden built on terrace

Maximizing Your Urban Space

I’ve been an apartment-dweller most of my life, and I used to think that growing food was always going to be a distant dream. I felt like my lack of ground soil and minimal surface area could never support more than a few herbs in containers, and that city life was holding me back.

Many of us lack the luxury of abundant land, but still want to grow and nurture plants for food and pollination. There are many ways to maximize your urban space to grow vegetables, herbs, and even trees. With creativity and dedication, you can make your small space thrive.

Think Vertical
Urban living typically means limited land and overall space. The solution: go vertical! Consider trailing and vining varietals, and remember that fruits and vegetables like cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, and beans are more than happy to grow upward with appropriate soil depth and staking. Leafy vegetables tend to do well in partial shade.

Beautiful vertical garden in city around office building

Use trellises window boxes, hanging baskets, and shelves to create multiple layers of plants; make sure to water hanging plants more frequently, as they tend to dry quickly. I have pots on most of the steps leading to my apartment door. Fern Richardson reported success converting heat-treated pallets into vertical growing space.

Containers
Containers offer a lot of flexibility in terms of size and shape, allowing you to choose or create containers to best suit your space. Make effective use of your containers by planting compatible plants together. Consult this companion planting chart to determine the most efficient combinations for your garden.

Flowering plants can be planted in layers within pots, summer bulbs as the lowest layer, perennials in the middle, and annuals on the top, for flowers year-round. Many fruits, and some fruit trees, can be grown in containers. Marie Viljoen was able to sustain 66 square feet of edible rooftop garden almost exclusively in containers. Fruit trees are also a possibility; consider dwarf varieties.

Rooftops
Rooftops offer an abundance of sunlight and a large amount of surface area. If you have a rooftop available to you, try any combination of vertical planting, arbors, trellises, and containers to build your garden.

A young trendy chef harvests fresh herbs from the rooftop garden of his urban restaurant, promoting healthy eating, nutrition and "going green".  City skyline in the background.

Rooftops can also be a great location for bees; be cautious of tar-covered rooftops, as they produce more heat, which might prove too much for your bees. If you’re able, consider putting down a fabric filter and gravel to allow plants to self-sow.

Water
If you have space (and you probably have more than you think), consider acquiring or making a rain barrel. Your plants will need a lot of water, and plants in containers can dry out quickly, especially in hot weather. Make sure your rain barrel has a screen or other preventative measure against water-born insects like mosquitos.

Compost
You don’t have to have a large amount of space to have an effective composting system. The traditional cold compost bin system takes time to break down, and can lead to smells – less desirable in small spaces for you and your neighbors.

Tumblers can easily be made from repurposed materials, and periodic turning encourages aeration and a faster composting time. If you’re interested in more of the science of composting, check out the Urban Garden Center’s guide to small batch composting. Worm bins are a fantastic option for indoor composting, and with proper care and diet will have no odor issue.

Beekeeping
It’s not just for large yards. Many urban homesteaders have had success with backyard beekeeping. Bees can be very happy on rooftops or balconies, and can thrive in a row house or townhouse backyard. Beekeeping is legal in many major metropolitan areas, but not all, so be sure to check your local ordinances before building your hive.

Honey bees before the hive

Make sure you have fences at least 6 feet high; bees generally fly in straight lines, and a higher fence line will force the bees to fly above human headspace. Make sure you also provide a water source (possibly in the form of a water garden), which will deter bees from finding another water source, say, in a neighbor’s yard. Check out Hilary Kearney’s site for tips on urban treatment-free beekeeping.

Fowl
Poultry require a little more space than some other garden ventures, but it is possible to have a successful small flock in a city. Again, you’ll have to check your local ordinances before you get started. Where I live, owning hens is legal, but owning a rooster would violate city noise ordinances.

City Girl Chickens outlines some of the baseline space and feeding needs. If you plan on using your flock to contribute to compost, poultry manure needs to cure for a few months to kill any potentially harmful pathogens.

Neighbors
One inescapable aspect of urban living is the close proximity of our neighbors. Some of your backyard goals may not necessarily line up with those of your neighbors, so it’s important to remain considerate. Make sure you communicate well, and remember, a jar of honey or an offering of produce can go a long way in extending a friendly hand.

Living in a city and living in proximity to nature and food does not have to be mutually exclusive. I highly recommend checking out Alex Mitchell’s The Edible Balcony for inspiration. With some research, dedication, and creativity you can start living off of the “land.”

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