Where to Grow
If you’re wondering where you’re supposed to grow your food, you have a number of options!
A common question is “what if I don’t have access to land?” Don’t worry! Many areas have community gardens, and you may be able to rent a plot there for a fee (which may be based on your income level). If you’re a college student, your institution may have gardening plots on campus for students and staff to use!
Another option is container gardening. You can grow food in containers right on your patio, balcony, windowsill, or any other area where your plants can get a good amount of sunlight. Just pick your plants based on how much sunlight you have and how deep your containers are.
One challenge with container gardening is that plant roots can get overheated in containers. For this reason I would avoid growing vegetables in terracotta or ceramic pots. Fabric grow bags/pots are one of the best options for container gardening because they drain properly and keep roots cooler. They're made out of a special fabric that collapses for storage. Plastic pots or large storage bins are another option - just make sure to drill holes in the bottom for drainage!
Garlic growing in fabric grow bags. You can grow up to 10 lbs of potatoes from a single plant in one 15 gallon grow bag!
If you own or rent a house and/or have access to a yard, you have the possibility of planting your garden in the ground. There are a lot of options for these types of gardens, but the two most common ones are in-ground beds and raised beds.
In-ground beds are created by simply planting in the ground. Raised beds are usually made by piling up dirt or constructing a frame of some sort, such as out of wood planks or concrete blocks, and then filling the inside of the frame with soil and compost.
In-ground bed. Image by National Park Service.
Raised beds. Image by Local Food Initiative (unmodified).
There are pros and cons to each type of bed. In-ground beds require less materials to start with. Raised beds require less bending over when weeding or harvesting, which will be easier on your back. They also don’t necessarily require any digging (see below). Your area might even have an organization or business that will install raised beds for you (like in Milwaukee – see the Resources page for more info!)
One thing to consider when deciding which type of bed to use is the quality of your soil. If you live in an urban area, especially one which has historically been dominated by heavy industry (lookin’ at you, Rust Belt cities), there is a good chance your soil may be contaminated to some degree. Some of the most common soil contaminants in urban areas are lead flakes from old houses, heavy metals or chemicals from industries, or weed killers and pesticides previously used on lawns (avoid these once you plant!)
Soil contamination sounds scarier than it actually is. A recent study by Kansas State University found that food grown in contaminated soils is generally safe to consume as long as it is properly washed before eating. The researchers also recommended that gardeners take precautions to avoid breathing in contaminated soil or accidentally getting it in their mouths. The study found higher levels of lead in root vegetables, but in such miniscule amounts that it is unlikely to harm people.
If you are concerned about soil contamination, I recommend installing a raised bed with a barrier between the bed and the ground, such as a sheet of thick plastic. The raised bed does not have to be super high – most vegetable roots do not grow very deep, according to this chart. Fill the raised bed with clean soil from another source. Or dig an in-ground bed and only plant vegetables that grow above ground. You can grow your root vegetables in clean soil in containers! Whichever type of bed you choose, it's best to position it in the part of your yard that gets the most sunlight.
You might dread the idea of having to dig up grass to create a bed. Fear not! There is an easy way to prepare the ground for an in-ground or raised bed! All you need to do is cover the area you plan to plant with 5-10 layers of newspaper. Weigh them down with something heavy, or pile mulch on top. Then use a hose to get the area wet. The lack of light and oxygen will help to kill the grass underneath (grass is annoyingly tough, so it may not all die, but it’s a good start). It’s best to start this in the fall and let it sit over the winter, but you can also do this in the spring and let it sit for several weeks. Then either remove the paper and dig an in-ground bed, or leave the paper and pile a thick layer of soil and compost directly on top of it to create a raised bed. The paper will biodegrade. This approach is called no-dig gardening.
Covering grass with newspapers to prepare a gardening bed. Image by Local Food Initiative (unmodified).
Remember that your garden doesn’t have to be big. There are ways to maximize your growing space which we will discuss later. If you want to keep most of your lawn, you could prepare a long bed along one edge of the yard. Just leave enough room to walk around it on all sides.
If you’re a renter, make sure to get your landlord’s permission before doing anything to the land. If your landlord is hesitant, remind them that the garden could always be converted to a flower bed later.
Next we’ll discuss when to plant your garden.
If you have any questions or tips to share, please comment below!
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