by Cheryl Nechamen
So what’s it like to grow vegetables on a small city lot? You might think that space is the big challenge, but that’s not the case. If I could plant my entire back yard, I would have a substantial garden, about 600 square feet.
The real issue is finding space that gets enough sun. There are quite a few flowers that can get by on limited amounts of direct sun or even partial shade, but a decent yield of vegetables requires at least 6 hours of direct sun every day.
My first gardening effort consisted of a few tomato and bell pepper plants alongside the stockade fence. I can already see the experienced gardeners reading this blog smirking because they know that I planted the tomatoes and peppers in that narrow strip of ground permanently shaded by the fence. We ended up with nice plants but no vegetables.
You can be sure that I paid a lot more attention to where the sunny spaces were in my yard for my next gardening attempt. After ruling out areas shaded by an almost 3-story house, a detached garage, the 6-foot stockade fence, small trees in my yard and several immense silver maples in neighboring yards, there is exactly 125 square feet in the middle of my back yard and another 20 square feet with a southern exposure along the fence, reserved for a raspberry patch, that get 6 hours of direct sun.
I’ve extended my vegetable garden to the front yard which gets much more sun than the back yard. Even though there are a lot of kids walking past my house (there is an elementary, a middle and a high school within 3 blocks of my house), I’ve never had any problems. Whether that is because the kids respect a carefully tended garden or don’t recognize (or don’t care) that there are vegetables growing there, I don’t know. I try to use a little common sense- I reserve the tomatoes for the back yard where the kids won’t be tempted to use them for target practice against the house.
Since my space is so limited, I tend to go for vegetables that yield multiple harvests throughout the summer, e.g. tomatoes and swiss chard rather than one harvest of garlic and carrots. I also garden vertically whenever possible- pole beans rather than bush beans. Since I get plenty of potatoes and garlic in my CSA share, I focus on the other vegetables that I don’t usually get in my weekly share. I also like to grow vegetables that I can freeze or can to enjoy after the growing season is over.
One last note- before starting a vegetable garden, I sent a soil sample to Cooperative Extension to be tested for lead and other heavy metals. You never know what a piece of land was used for in the past. This applies to rural and suburban areas as well. The town where I grew up is an affluent suburb now so the newcomers in town may not realize that there used to be a chemical company in town with stacks of drums littering the property.
Cheryl Nechamen is a retired molecular biologist and full-time fan of local food. She coordinated the 100 Mile Diet Challenge in 2006 and 2007 and was one of the organizers of the Schenectady Greenmarket. Cheryl also enjoys growing vegetables in her small yard in Schenectady and in the garden at Congregation Gates of Heaven.