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Container Gardening for the Urban Farmer

Growing up I spent many a summer on my grandparent’s organic farm. They had acres of fertile fields to romp and play in. By the end of a day pulling weeds, digging carrots, mulching pathways and turning the compost pile over with a pitch fork, I was happy, hungry and covered from head to toe with the rich, black soil that characterized their garden. After washing up, we would gather ’round the table for supper. This was my favorite part of the day as we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labor. I was continually amazed at the colorful assortment of fruits and vegetables we had harvested fresh from the garden that very day. It gave me a deep sense of satisfaction and fulfillment to have participated in growing my own food. Food just never tasted so good.

As I grew into an adult, I always thought I would have a farm just like my grandparents. But down through the years, wanderlust and an active sense of adventure kept me rolling like a stone. I just never felt like putting down roots in any one place. As a result, I’ve lived primarily in apartments with no yard, or rental properties where I didn’t have the option to dig up the landscaping. Eventually, I found sprouting and growing microgreens—two awesome ways to grow your own food indoors. Still, I longed to dig my hands deeper into the soil and putter about in the garden out-of-doors. A couple of years ago I began experimenting with container gardening on my patio. I planted some tomatoes, herbs, kale, peppers and more. I was pleasantly surprised by the results and expanded the following year. Well, apparently I am not the only urban dweller who wanted to free their inner farmer, because I soon learned that micro-farming in urban areas (using containers and some other interesting methods) has become quite the trend these days. Suddenly, organic farming doesn’t require land ownership or even a lot of space. Just about anyone can grow a decent amount of delicious, nutritious organic food practically anywhere.

Even if you are not as eager to dig in the dirt as I am, there are some very good reasons why you might want to consider becoming a micro-farmer yourself. Here are just a few to think over.

Improves food security
Here in Madison, we enjoy abundant access to local organic produce via farmers’ markets, CSAs and of course, our own Willy Street Co-op. Still, industrialized farming and urbanization continues to disconnect the majority of the population from their own food production. Just 100 years ago over 50 percent of Americans lived on farms or in small rural communities where they fed themselves with locally grown foods. According to current U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the number of people living in urban areas in the U.S. has grown to more than 80 percent! As our urban population grows, so does the complexity of how to feed so many people who are so far removed from the actual production of food. The amount of food that must be transported daily into a city to supply residents is staggering. Urban dwellers give little thought to their total dependence on the external systems of which they have little control.

By growing a portion of our own food, we reduce our dependence on the industrialized food system and participate in a more independent, sustainable way of food production. Urban agriculture, in its many expressions, gives new meaning to the words “locally grown” (it doesn’t get any more local than your own yard) and helps secure our food supply in urban areas.

Saves Money
Fruits and vegetables from distant states and countries can spend as many as seven to fourteen days in transit before arriving at the supermarket. Almost 50 percent of the food transported is lost to spoilage, the end cost of which is passed on to the consumer. By growing your own vegetables, you can greatly save on household food expenditures, especially when growing relatively expensive vegetables, such as herbs. You may be surprised how much can be grown on a patio or in a backyard plot. Intensive methods can maximize efficiency, making it possible to provide a large portion of your household’s yearly vegetable needs and nutritional requirements from your own efforts.

Helps Mom (Mother Earth, that is!)
The environmental cost of industrial agriculture and associated delivery system includes air pollution, surface and groundwater contamination, soil erosion, and the loss of bio-diversity. By growing your own food, you reduce the carbon footprint of obtaining fruits and vegetables for your family.

Provides Nutrition
Fruits and vegetables sold in the supermarket typically travel between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to plate. Varieties are chosen for their ability to withstand industrial harvesting equipment and extended travel, not for their taste or nutritional quality. Furthermore, these fruits and vegetables are harvested well before the peak of ripeness. They have to be hard and green to reduce spoilage in transport.

When you grow your own food, farm to table is only minutes away. You can harvest at the peak of freshness and allow the rest to continue growing. Grown organically and allowed to ripen fully before harvesting makes for the most nutritious and satisfying food.

Fun and Rewarding
In the age of “virtual reality,” there is something primal and deeply gratifying about growing your own food. Not only do homegrown veggies taste better, exercising control over your own food production is tremendously empowering!

Container Gardening… one space-saving option for would be urban farmers
If you have access to a rooftop, windowsill, patio or even just a doorstep, you can grow vegetables in containers.
Container gardening offers these advantages:

  • Does not require a yard or garden plot.

  • Container gardening requires little space.

  • There is no need to dig out roots or clear rocks usually associatedwith traditional gardens.

  • You have more control over the quality of your soil.

  • Fewer weeds = less weeding.

  • Containers can be moved to take advantage of the moving sun.

  • The soil heats up faster so heat-loving plants grow really well.

  • Containers of plants can be decorative as well as functional.

Container gardening also has a few disadvantages to keep in mind too:

  • Containers dry out quickly, so they need daily watering. You can’t go out of town unless you have a super dependable friend come by and water your garden!

  • Containers can be expensive. To reduce cost, be creative. Look for recycled items, such as buckets, barrels, old flower pots and garbage cans. Choose containers that are large enough to support a full size plant and will provide plenty of room for roots to grow. Most crops need at least eight inches of soil to grow well. Drill or punch with a screwdriver three to eight holes in the bottom for drainage.

  • Cost of soil mixture. It will be tempting to dig dirt for free right from the ground to fill your pots, but this is often too heavy and can compact in the container sabotaging your results. A good soil will have a combination of peat moss, organic material, sand, perlite or vermiculite. Your soil needs to be porous enough for the vegetable roots to get air, water and nutrients. The Co-op offers excellent organic potting soil in large bags for economy, or you can save money and mix up your own. Either way, the initial investment will pay big dividends in the way of increased vegetable production and the soil can be recycled and reused again and again over years.

While there are many soil recipes out there for different purposes, this basic mix starts with two main ingredients: peat moss and vermiculite. Both of these can be obtained from Paradigm Gardens at 4539 Helgesen Drive in Madison (Willy Street Co-op gets our supplies from them) or another nursery or gardening center.
1 cubic foot peat moss
1 cubic foot vermiculite
6 ounce lime
6 ounce bone meal
1 ounce blood meal
1 ounce sulpomag (This is a mixture of sulfur, potassium and magnesium)
Other additions can be added to super-charge your soil, such as worm castings and decomposed compost. These are available at the Co-op for your convenience.

Starting Your Plants
Just about anything you can grow in a garden bed you can grow in a container. You can either start seeds indoors, moving them out as the weather permits, or you can buy plant starts already several weeks old. Sprouting seeds indoors can save you quite a bit of money over buying plants, but requires attention earlier in the season and the plants will have to be hardened off for best results. Nursery plants are usually hardened off already and can be planted directly outdoors. If you decide to start your seeds indoors, Willy Street Co-op offers a wide variety of heirloom seeds from the Seed Saver Exchange, a non-profit organization dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. These seeds produce plants that will bear their own seed in fall, which can be scooped out and saved for planting next year or shared with friends for their gardens.

If you miss out on starting your seeds at home, or just prefer starting with small plants, you will be able to find seedlings available for purchase at the Co-op beginning in April or May. These come from two excellent local organic farms: Voss Organics and West Star. Both are small, family-run businesses who pride themselves on providing high quality, healthy plants to the community in which they live.

Plant Varieties
Here is just a partial list of vegetables that I have found work well in containers:

  • Beans: Beans happily are some of the easiest vegetables to grow and particularly suited to a beginning gardener. Seeds can be planted directly into containers as they germinate quickly and grow vigorously. Beans are a warm season crop and supply a good harvest in a small space. They include string, snap, and dried varieties and grow either as a bush or a pole plant. Some varieties need to be staked for proper growth, so check growing instructions for the variety you are growing on your seed pack.

  • Beets: Beets have a long harvest, long storage life and produce a lot in a small space. Once the leaves are about three inches they can be cut at the stem and are a delicious addition to salads or smoothies. Once they get a bit larger they are lovely steamed. The roots can be pulled at any size starting when they are the size of a golf ball. Beets can stay in the soil until there is a heavy frost. They can be started from transplants, but are usually seeded directly; just remember they do best if thinned to about three inches between each plant. Beets do well with succession planting so you can harvest all fall.

  • Broccoli: Broccoli prefers cool weather to grow. Plant in the early spring for summer or early fall harvest and early summer for late fall harvesting. Small heads called side shoots will form on the stem after the large head is harvested. These can be cut and used to extend your harvest. Broccoli is best grown from transplants to allow plenty of growing time before the heat of summer.

  • Carrots: Carrots are one of the most popular vegetables to grow and eat. Biting into a fresh picked baby carrot is a marvelous way to take a break from vegetable gardening. Thin by pulling and eating the baby vegetable making room for the rest to grow larger. They can be harvested as soon as they are finger size and continue to grow for two to four more months. Don’t waste the tops. They are high in nutrition and small amounts can be incorporated into a green smoothie.

  • Kale and Collards: These are cool season crops. Flavor improves with a frost. They can also be planted in early spring to be harvested in the summer. If you have a shady area (four hours of sun) in your garden, this plant will do well, especially in the summer months. Kale and collards are my favorites because they mature quickly, are full of nutrients and can be eaten raw or cooked. I mix them in my morning smoothie. You can cut off lower leaves as you need them, or wait and harvest the plants whole.

  • Lettuce: Lettuce and salad greens are very popular and are fast and easy to grow in containers. There are two basic types of lettuce, head and leaf varieties. Head types take longer to mature, prefer full sun and do well with a longer, cooler growing season. Leaf varieties grow more quickly allowing an early harvest. They also will tolerate some shade. If you scatter the seeds of leaf varieties they do not need thinning as you can start cutting them once they reach about three inches.

  • Peas: We all love to eat fresh picked peas. They are a cool season crop that grow and mature quickly. This vegetable is easy to grow and a joy to eat. There are two types: shelling and edible pods. The shelling variety is where you open the pod and eat the green peas from inside. The snow variety has flat edible pods and is used in salads and stir-fry recipes. The snap variety fills out like a shelling variety however unlike the shelling variety the pod is edible.

  • Peppers: Peppers are a warm season crop. They are divided into three groups: sweet, mild and hot based on their degree of hotness. This vegetable needs a lot of sun and heat to produce well. They can be seeded directly; however, they need a long growing season, so it is best to start them as transplants.

  • Radish: Radishes are the fastest growing vegetable in the garden and do especially well in containers if watered well and not allowed to dry out. They are direct seeded and germinate very quickly. You will need to thin so plants are one inch apart. They mature in approximately 30 days and do not last long once they mature so harvest them quickly. Succession planting every few weeks lets you harvest all season.

  • Spinach: Spinach is a fairly easy vegetable to grow, however you need a rich soil that contains a lot of organic matter. This vegetable grows better in cool weather, so if you plan to grow during the summer months plant it between taller growing vegetables so it will get some shade.

  • Swiss chard: Swiss chard is easy to grow and will do well during the spring and summer months. It can be direct seeded or transplanted. The more you pick off the outer leaves the more the plant will continue to grow.

  • Tomato: Some say tomatoes are difficult to grow from seed but it is possible. They just need a good soil starter mix, warmth, sunshine and a little extra attention. Choose your favorite variety in a seed pack or play it safe with plants. They all like lots of sun and should be started early for best results. I find smaller varieties such as cherry tomatoes do best in containers.

  • Herb mix: I love to make one or two containers with mixes of my favorite cooking herbs, such as basil, oregano, thyme, sage, dill, cilantro and mint. The different heights of the plants make a nice effect (Basil grows bushy and combines well with a low creeper such as thyme) and I can harvest just as much as I need with no waste. These are nice planted in skinny planter boxes or in hanging baskets on the balcony or porch.

  • Strawberries: Stick to a day-neutral or everbearing variety, as they will have fewer runners than the June bearing varieties.

spring time is here… Get to Work!
If you are already growing a garden, why not enjoy a few new plants in containers on your patio? For those of you who never imagined you could grow anything due to space limitations, I hope you now realize that it is possible. Choose one or two favorite veggies and grow them in containers. If you truly don’t have any space at all to grow plants, community gardening is another great option. There are over 50 community gardens in the Madison area with over 30 acres of garden plots. The Community Action Coalition has a website with all the information on various community gardens and how to apply for a plot. Community gardens are a wonderful opportunity to come together with diverse people with the common goal of raising quality food. And oftentimes community gardens grow so much more than food in the form of personal relationships that form, cross-cultural exchange, community development, beautification, environmental justice, crime prevention, leadership, and increased self-reliance.

Containers or Community Gardens, the important thing is for all of us to take a more active role in our own food production for all the reasons discussed. You CAN grow your own food no matter where you live.
Gardening… good grows out of it!

Recommended Resources:
I highly recommend reading the book Grow Great Grub by Gayla Trail. She also has a website at In her book and on her website, Gayla goes over every little detail you could wish to know about small-scale gardening. I found her information indispensible and think you will too.

Wow! Talk about low space/no space options… you have got to check out these “window farms”! Although this is technically indoor gardening, I wanted to mention it because I was impressed by the ingenuity of these determined urban farmers who devised their own hydroponic system by connecting recycled water bottles in front of a sunny window. They call themselves “window farmers” and the concept has just taken off. They have set up an online community to share ideas, information and support for urban hydroponic micro-farmers at

For information on specific plants forour region, refer to the Dane County Cooperative Extension online at:
To find out more about how you can participate or support a community garden near you, visit the Community Action Coalition website at

Helpful resource for information on a wide variety of organic gardening topics can be found at