Growing in Small Spaces
Just because you live in an apartment doesn't mean you can't grow your own food. Chris Bond has some out-of-the box, tight space gardening ideas.
A common complaint heard amongst people living in small spaces such as apartments, condominiums, row houses, mobile homes or even small city lots, is that they cannot grow their own food for want of acres of land. But a lack of space need not discourage someone from growing their own food. With some creativity and the use of unconventional spaces, almost anyone can produce some amount of home-grown food.
Interior Garden Spaces
Enclosed porches, solariums or balconies are relatively easy spaces to make use of. In the majority of cases, the type of food grown will have to be adjusted to the time of year and exposure. Lettuce and root crops can be grown during cooler months with less sunlight and warm weather crops such as peppers and eggplants can be grown during summer months.
Those who do not have spaces that easily lend themselves to growing plants have to be a bit more creative. Kitchen counter space can be used to grow herbs or strawberries for much of the year, so long as there is ample light. There are also appliances on the market specifically designed for these spaces. Aeroponic systems can be crafted or bought ready-made. Many different crops can be grown year-round in these novel set-ups.
Don’t discount wall space as a suitable growing location, especially a south-facing wall. Living walls offer many benefits. In addition to producing food, these systems can improve the quality of indoor air by adding oxygen and humidity. The potential aesthetic value of an entire wall devoted to food plants is incalculable.
Living walls can be a do-it-yourself project, or ready-made systems can be installed. If planning to tackle the project yourself, take the time to make sure that the wall is able to handle the weight of the containers, media and plants as well as the water weight. Ensure there is a proper drainage system in place, as you do not want the moisture to be absorbed by the drywall or plaster in your walls.
If a large living wall project is out of the question for either budgetary or logistical reasons, wall space can still be used for food production. Many common and disposable household items can be re-purposed as growing containers. Coffee cans and other metal cans can be mounted to the wall to serve as growing pots. Pop bottles and milk jugs can be mounted horizontally. A section of plastic can be cut out and the bottles and jugs can be filled with potting soil or other media to receive seeds or transplants.
Furniture is an often overlooked area for growing food. Using the same principle as a terrarium, coffee tables, stools, chairs and dining tables can be visually interesting and functional when used to grow food.
Basements and cellars, an often underused part of the home, can be a perfect environment for some food crops due to the increased humidity and moisture often found in these areas, so long as there is ample light. Plants can be grown in containers on the floor, on a raised platform or hung up to create a living wall.
Another possible way to make use of interior space to grow food is the mobile growroom, which can be placed anywhere there is available floor space. These are usually self-contained growing chambers that zip up to make them fully enclosed. The interiors are often a reflective silver material to magnify the effect of the lighting inside, with a dark canvas for the exterior. The insides of these rooms can be customized depending upon what crop is grown. They can be purchased with or modified to include grow lights, irrigation and shelves.
Finally, food plants can be grown in pots and placed around the home. They make a great centerpiece on the kitchen table and their bounty can be a great addition to an infinite number of meal options.
Exterior Garden Spaces
Like the traditional places for plants indoors, food plants can be grown in all of the usual and creative outdoor spaces where annuals and flowers are generally placed. A pot of brightly colored Swiss chard or a trellis of nasturtium can be an easy, colorful and edible decoration on porches and windowsills. Decks and patios are also great garden venues. If your climate is a bit cooler, consider kale, which is cold-tolerant and comes in a wide range of colors for year-round use.
Foundation plantings, which are often the perfunctory contribution of a builder, landlord or previous owner, can be converted easily to viable food growing space. As landscape plants age and die, they can be replaced with perennial food crops such as berries, asparagus, horseradish, rhubarb, grapes or any number of other permanent food crops.
Take advantage of the micro-climates that exist around a typical house—grow cool-weather, low-light crops on the north side or areas that get heavy shade in the summer and choose berries or other crops that do best in full sun for the southern exposure.
Outdoor furniture lends itself better to food growing than indoor furniture and a much wider array of unusual materials can be used. Old tires can be makeshift chairs and raised garden beds all at the same time. Large spools make great tables and the hollow centers can easily be filled with soil. Even a basic lounge chair can usually accommodate the weight of a few pots attached to the back or arms.
Use all of the vertical space your site affords. Exterior walls of the house and fences are like blank canvases waiting to be adorned with food. As with indoor wall considerations, know what the weight tolerance is as the container, soil, plant and water will add strain to these structures. If using fencing, additional bracing may be required.
Once the appropriate safeguards are in place, gutters or window boxes can be attached to create a vertical garden. Greens and radishes lend themselves well to this type of growing. If taller or deeper rooted plants such as tomatoes, carrots or parsnips are desired, leave adequate space between containers and select ones with appropriate depth.
An additional benefit of this system is that containers can be installed on slight, opposing angles so that the excess water from the top one can drain into the next one down. The structure’s existing gutter and downspout can be redirected to provide rainwater to these garden systems, although you do not want all of the water to be diverted to the food crops, as the force and volume may easily dislodge the plants and seedlings during a heavy rainfall.
A rain barrel mounted higher than the level of the top garden gutter or window box can be installed as a source of water for your vertical garden, allowing excess water to be diverted.
Living walls are an opportunity to make use of recycled household items such as cans and bottles otherwise destined for the recycling bucket or landfill. Vertical growing can reduce instances of browsing by animals and weeding and harvesting is also more ergonomic.
An additional benefit of the exterior living wall is that when properly installed, it can help reduce the indoor temperature in the home in the warmer months and act as an extra layer of insulation in the winter. The wall can also trap air pollutants and absorb noise. But, the larger the area to be planted, the greater the need to seek the assistance of a professional installer.
Rooftop gardening is often the last place to be considered. Some structures clearly are unsuitable for this endeavor, but other sites lend themselves to this practice by virtue of easy access and a flat, patio-like area. Another option is installing a green roof.
This type of plant-growing system should be contracted out or at least designed by a qualified company or individual with experience in this area. The type of structure and roof materials need to be carefully weighed against and matched with the type of living roof system to be installed. It is especially important to consider the growing habits of the types of food crops you wish to grow.
Tubers and root crops will require more depth than leaf and herb crops, which means more media and more weight on the existing structure. When properly installed, a green roof’s benefits can include increasing the roof’s useful life, as the rooftop materials are not being exposed to UV radiation and other climatic factors.
Like living walls, a green roof can help reduce heating and cooling costs. The plants on the roof help to convert heat and moisture into humidity, creating evaporative cooling in the warm months, and the media the plants are growing in help to prevent heat loss from the structure in cooler months. In certain municipalities, there may be tax incentives for installing such a system.
There is no reason for anyone who wants to grow more of their own food to let their limited space prevent them from doing so. Any place you can survive, you can grow some sort of food crop as well. Consult with a nearby gardening shop if you are unsure about what plants are suitable for your region. Happy growing!