Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Gardening Without a Yard

Yesterday, I blogged about our first planting session of this year's growing season. Gardening with children is a wonderful way to get them (and you) outside. Along the way, they'll learn about life cycles of plants, connections between plants and animals (such as the insects that pollinate the plants), and the food chain. For all of you homeschoolers and classroom teachers who need to meet state standards, there are many science standards to be learned through gardening. So put away those worksheets and start digging! Plus, another great benefit is that kids who grow their own food tend to want to eat it. What a great way to get your children or students to eat more vegetables.

To get started, look around your apartment building or school building and think creatively about possible gardening space. Be certain to ask permission from your landlord/Principal before proceeding.

Some examples:

  1. I have one sister who lives in an apartment in Cambridge, MA. She has a small section of yard that was filled with random debris when she and her husband moved in. They cleaned the area out, brought in some compost, and started planting.

  2. My other sister lives in San Francisco, CA. Along the side of the entry to her apartment, there's a narrow patch of land (maybe 3 feet wide) that was filled with weeds and other scrubby plants. After securing permission from her building management company, she cleared the weeds and planted a vegetable garden.

  3. When I lived in an apartment in Newport, RI, I had no land available at all. But, I had access to a flat rooftop, so I planted herbs and lettuces in pots on the roof. I also had window boxes outside my windows. At the time, I filled them with flowers. Now, I'd mix lettuce and herbs in with the flowers instead.

  4. Along the lines of my pots on the roof- perhaps you could plant in large pots or planters somewhere outside your building.

  5. As a grade four teacher, I worked alongside my students to plant a small garden right outside our classroom windows. We planted all early vegetables such as those mentioned in my last post. Then, we'd enjoy a salad together before school let out for the summer (sometimes, when school got out very early in June, we'd fill out the salad by purchasing some extra greens. We always had enough radishes and small carrots by then).

  6. Find someone like me who is willing to share their yard, rooftop, or community plot (see below) with you. Mikias and Jemberu don't have a garden at home but I'm happy to include them in my garden.

Ok, let's say, none of these options are viable for you. Now what?

  1. If you're really motivated, you might look for a vacant lot in your neighborhood and organize a community garden. But that requires LOTS of work to even get started. (Be sure to research the legal and health steps you 'll need to take before venturing into this. Oftentimes, city soil is contaminated, and topsoil needs to be removed before growing food, so be careful. On the other hand, many cities can provide excellent composted soil from city compost facilities once the contaminated soil is removed).

  2. Look for public garden plots that you can rent for a modest fee. You plant and work your plot and take home the food you grow. To find one, try googling "garden plots" plus the name of your city and state.

If you've read this far, but none of the above ideas appeal or can work for you and you still want to try your hand at gardening, try growing herbs and lettuces in your apartment or classroom. All you'll need is a sunny south-facing window and some pots filled with potting soil. These are available at your local garden center, which is also a great place to get advice about the plants, pots and soil that are best for your needs. Some of my favorite herbs to grow inside are basil, thyme, and rosemary.

For more information about vegetable gardening or gardening with children, try these resources:

  1. The Vegetable Gardener's Bible by Edward C. Smith. This is my go-to book, even after all these years. It's great for the novice and experienced gardener alike. Smith recommends planting in raised beds. I use this system now, but it is not necessary to have a garden. Don't wait until you have the perfect raised beds to get started.
  2. Roots, Shoots, Buckets, and Boots: Gardening Together with Children by Sharon Lovejoy. Directions are included for planting theme gardens such as a pizza patch (grow the fixin's to make your own pizza) a sunflower house, and container gardening.

  3. Wildlife Gardening: How to Bring Birds and Bugs to Your Backyard by Martin Cox. This new DK book has wonderful photographs, background science information, and three different kinds of suggested activities: "Grow it," "Make it," and "Watch it." Directions included range from planting a tree ("Grow it") to making frog and toad homes or moth catchers ("Make it").

A few great read-alouds for younger children:

  1. Planting a Rainbow by Lois Ehlert (Also available in Spanish)

  2. Eating the Alphabet: Fruits and Vegetables from A-Z by Lois Ehlert (Also in Spanish)

  3. Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert (Available in Spanish)

  4. How Groundhog's Garden Grew by Lynne Cherry

  5. A Seed is Sleepy by Diana Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long

  6. The Reason for a Flower by Ruth Heller. Rhymes and bold, colorful illustrations explain pollination in flowers. Be careful of one innacuracy in the book- scientists no longer classify fungi (mushroms) as plants as is indicated at the end of the book (They're now in their own category so that there are plants, animals, fungi, and two others called monera and protista). As a teacher I always made this a point of discussion in my class and pulled more recent books and resources to share more current information.


  1. Great ideas Michelle. I think some readers would be interested in Green City Growers, a company that operates in the Boston area: http://growmycitygreen.com/

    As the web site says: they build, design, and maintain raised bed, year-round produce farms built specifically for your yard, rooftop, driveway, or deck. They also offer institution and business-sized farms, educational programs, restaurant farms, and consulting services.

    I am personally aware of a project they did for Harvard Pilgrim Health Care that included employee managed raised beds outside the office buildings.

  2. Thanks for telling me about this, Rick.