Get into Urban Gardening

Angela Charlton R.D.-N.'s picture
By Angela Charlton... on May 13, 2020

If you’ve ever enjoyed a sun-warmed tomato taken right from the vine in your own or a friend’s garden, or spent an afternoon filling a bushel basket with blueberries at a “u-pick” fruit farm, then you don’t need to be sold on the flavor benefits of local produce.

On top of their unmatched deliciousness (and higher nutrient content), locally grown fruits and vegetables also benefit the environment and our communities.

And “local” farming is not limited to those who live in rural areas. Urban farming is a growing movement both nationwide and right here in Southwest Virginia, too.

If you haven’t explored it much yet, this summer is the perfect time to start!

Growing Food in the City
Agriculture doesn’t have to mean acres and acres of crops in neat rows. Urban farmers have come up with some pretty creative methods to maximize productivity in small, non-traditional growing spaces.

Empty city lots and rooftops can be converted into growing spaces, and containers can take the place of fields. When space is limited horizontally, vertical gardening can make use of towers or ladders to grow vine plants.

Some urban farmers use hydroponic setups to grow plants in water instead of soil, a method that saves space and labor and allows produce to be grown indoors.

Home gardeners who live in cities often use many of the same methods as commercial urban growers, just on a smaller scale.

The end results—sustainable, in-season produce—are the same!  

Salad greens grown in wood pallets.
No-dig pallet gardens are perfect for urban farming!

How Urban Farming Benefits Us All
When we buy produce from nearby urban farms—by shopping at farmers' markets, eating at farm-to-table restaurants or joining a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program—we strengthen our community by:

  • Supporting local farmers
  • Boosting the local economy
  • Helping to build sustainable, resilient local food systems

When we do our own urban farming—whether in a small plot, a collection of containers or a community garden—it benefits our physical, mental and social health.

When we eat homegrown or locally grown produce, we help decrease the environmental impact of long-distance shipping.

And the more gardening that goes on around us—whether it’s done by ourselves, our neighbors or our local urban farms—the greener our cities become, with more green spaces for everyone to enjoy.

How You Can Start Urban Farming—No Matter Where You Live
If farming means raising food, then we all can farm no matter where we live.

For some of us, farming might mean a tomato and basil plant or two on an apartment patio, while for others it might mean a small pallet garden in the front yard. Those of us who get really into it might even try a home hydroponic setup!

Of course, the type of space that you have available in your urban home will set some limits on what you can realistically grow.

Perhaps even more important to consider is lighting—direct sunlight can be rare in an urban environment, thanks to buildings that can get in the way.

But all it takes is a patio, balcony or even just a windowsill with several hours of sun each day to grow something you can eat.

Tomatoes grown in containers on a furnished patio.
Container gardens are perfect for a patio or balcony.

Space-saving urban garden setups to learn more about include:

  • Container gardens. You can grow many vegetables in containers, and one major benefit is the ability to move your plants around to make sure they're getting the right type of light. There's no need to buy expensive pots (unless you want to!); your plants will be just as happy in any upcycled container that provides drainage. 
  • Pallet gardens. Using a recycled wood pallet—one made of untreated wood—is a budget and space-conscious method ideal for growing dwarf and bush vegetables, or compact fruits like strawberries. Pallet gardens can be placed on a deck, in a small yard or set up vertically on a wall or fence.  
  • Raised bed gardens. These no-digging-required gardens can be made out of anything from hay bales to repurposed dresser drawers, or if you have the budget you can buy or build fancier raised bed planters. 
  • Vertical gardens. These can be as simple as growing any climbing fruit or vegetable—think tomatoes, pole beans, cucumbers or grapes—up a trellis, fence or repurposed ladder. 
  • Community gardens. A community garden is a shared piece of land, usually located in an urban area, where individuals plant and garden together. Some gardens give each member their own small plot to tend to; in others, everyone collectively tends and harvests the plants. The Local Environmental Agriculture Project (LEAP) program manages community gardens in Roanoke City.   

Some good plants to try for an urban farm include:

  • Herbs like basil, chives and parsley
  • Salad greens
  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes
  • Pole Beans
  • Strawberries

Whatever you choose, there are two main guidelines to follow. First, plant what you and your family would actually like to eat. Second, start small and grow as you go!

Check Out Morningside Urban Farm
Carilion Clinic's Community Health and Outreach team believes so strongly in the benefits of gardening that they built an urban farm and community garden in Roanoke's Morningside Park, a food desert.

Morningside Urban Farm offers learning opportunities on topics like gardening as well as nutrition, sustainability and more. As you begin your urban farming adventure, their classes and workshops might be a great place to start!  
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Angela Charlton, R.D.-N., leads our Community Health and Outreach nutrition team and is a regular contributor to Carilion Living. Join her online for Wellness Wednesdays, a series of free, 30-minute webinars on eating well during uncertain times.

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