By Asha Kreiling
Starting a garden can be exciting and fun, but also daunting if it’s your first time. You need soil, planters, seeds, fertilizer and tools. You also need space. About two years ago, I moved into my San Diego apartment, where I have been experimenting with the awkward space of the “backyard” outside my room. The narrow area is less than 5 feet wide but over 30 feet long. Knowing t
hat I’m not going to live here forever but having the desire to grow plants, I have done my best to create a garden that is eco- and wallet-friendly.
I live with a roommate who shares my interest in gardening and empathizes with my aversion to spending money, so we work together generating ideas to create an affordable garden in a small space. We have faced a variety of challenges trying to grow plants in an urban space not meant for nurturing vegetables and herbs. Our yard is slathered with concrete, fenced off from the sun, and void of starting material to work with; but we pressed on to produce nature in an unnatural space.
Our first steps were obtaining pots, planters, and soil.
Pots and Planters
Much of what we’ve used for our garden has been salvaged from the alleys of central San Diego. Finding discarded pieces of wood, furniture, and buckets on short walks was effortless. My roommate and I have realized that practically anything can be turned into a pot to grow plants by simply drilling holes in the bottom. Rigid plastic buckets that some municipalities do not take for recycling have worked great for small trees. We have constructed larger makeshift planters with discarded bookcases and scrap wood. Nurseries tend to have an abundance of empty plastic plant pots and are sometimes willing to give them to you for free. For seedlings, we have used plastic clamshell containers, such as the ones berries come in at the store. I have picked up thrown-out tables from the curb and placed seedlings on them so they aren’t on the ground.
Soil can be one of the most expensive elements of starting a garden, especially if you are starting from scratch. The cost of good quality, organic potting soil adds up, so I tried to find more affordable or free alternatives. Homemade compost has been a fundamental part of our garden. In the past we used large plastic storage bins with holes drilled in them for making compost, but now we primarily work with a compost pile that is placed on a large piece of salvaged wood and covered with a shower curtain. Craigslist is also a useful resource for free fill dirt or compost, especially if you live a reasonable distance from properties with farm animals. The San Diego municipal landfill also offers residents compost and mulch free for pick up, though the quality of the compost is subpar and useful only as fill dirt.
The next steps were obtaining seeds and creating a system for watering.
Many of the seeds I have planted have come from produce I buy at the store. Bell peppers, tomatoes, and avocados are examples of produce with seeds that can be saved easily or planted directly. Buying a few packets of seeds is relatively inexpensive and if you have gardener friends, exchanging seeds can be a great way to generate variety in your garden.
While my roommate and I cannot install greywater plumbing in our rented apartment, we can recycle kitchen water and make use of the freezing cold shower water that precedes the warm water. We both have buckets in our shower tubs to collect water for our watering cans. Also, when I wash dishes or soak crusty pans with water, I pour the excess water into a bucket. (The soap must be non-toxic and biodegradable!) I also do this when I rinse rice or beans.
It can be stressful when my plants don’t get enough sun because the fence blocks the majority of the daylight, or when salvaged pots become too small or shallow for the expanding roots of my plants, or when I can’t just stick a shovel into the ground as I could with a normal garden. But, in an urban setting, with limited space and money, I have managed to grow plants that have become key parts of my diet — plants such as chard, kale, tomatoes, rosemary, and basil. Best of all, I can look outside at the green life I planted instead of at the cold concrete ground, and know that it’s all — from the planters and the soil, to the seeds and the water — created with recycled or re-used materials.
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