Urban Gardening Made Easy

Image: Patti Moreno cutting greens. Title: Urban Gardening Made Easy

Got a small patch of earth, but a big craving for fresh, organic food? Patti Moreno, a.k.a. “the Garden Girl,” wants you to know it’s easier than you think to grow that food yourself, even if you live in the city. It's called urban gardening.

Moreno is the face of and the brains behind GardenGirlTV.com and the web magazine Urban Sustainable Living, both of which offer articles, tips, and how-to videos detailing Moreno’s tried-and-true methods for creating a home garden and an organic lifestyle “designed to fit into your busy home, not take it over.”

With those impressive credentials under her belt, it’s easy to believe that Moreno has always had a magic touch with plants. Moreno has also contributed to Home and Garden Television and has cohosted the PBS show Growing a Greener World. Not so, she says. “When I first started 12 years ago, I was a serial plant killer,” she admits. “I had no background in gardening—it was just something I wanted to do. Nothing I planted grew, and I felt terrible that I couldn’t do this.”

Determined to stop “murdering plants,” she read everything she could about gardening, but what she found assumed she lived in the country with acres of space. Nothing gave her all the information she needed to make things grow in small spaces in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood.

So she started experimenting, and the rest is Garden Girl history.

Getting Started with Urban Gardening

If you’ve wanted to grow your own food but haven’t started because you think you don’t have the time, the gardening talent, or the space, Moreno encourages you to think again.

“There aren’t a lot of people in their 30s and 40s who are gardening, but anyone can do this,” she says. “What’s unique about the way I do it is that I’ve taken a lot of the work out of

Which leaves busy city-dwellers to enjoy the most pleasurable parts of gardening—eating fruits and vegetables at the peak of their freshness, getting a healthier, organic diet free from toxins, and saving money by growing your organic food yourself.

Raised Beds Are the Answer

When you talk to Moreno about how to overcome a “black thumb,” she invariably turns to the topic of raised garden beds.

Raised beds are basically extra-large planters, generally made of wood, brick, or stone. Moreno likes four-ft. by four-ft. beds, because they keep everything planted in the bed within arm’s reach. Her own urban garden is made up of 30 raised beds she constructed herself.

Raised beds have many advantages, says Moreno. You can never be sure of what’s in your soil when you live in the city, so raising the garden beds gives you more control of the dirt, ensuring that it’s healthy and free from chemicals.

Because the beds are raised up from the ground, they help prevent back strain, since you won’t have to bend down far to tend your plants. Their height also discourages garden pests. And they have excellent drainage by design, so Moreno says you can “never overwater them.”

Although you can purchase ready-made raised beds, making your own can save money—and ensure that all of the materials are as good for the planet as your garden.

Moreno makes her own beds by first spreading out 2-3 inches of gravel over the area, for drainage. Then, she constructs a 4x4 bed out of two pieces of 2x10x8 lumber, cut in half. She fastens chicken wire to the bottom to keep out pests, and the bed is complete.

“I’m five-foot-nothing,” she says. “If I can build my own beds, anyone can!

Start with the Simple Stuff

Once you’re ready to plant, Moreno suggests trying out plants with which you’re sure to succeed.

“Start with surefire plants that you’re not going to kill—those are herbs,” says Moreno. “Herbs don’t have any natural pests or viruses, so those are easy to grow, especially mint. Mint will come back year after year and will spread like crazy. It smells amazing, you’ll have success with it with little care, and you can use it in so many things.”

Fruit trees and berry bushes that grow naturally in your geographic area will also generally flourish without too much intervention from you, she says.

Once new gardeners have literally tasted that success, they’re often motivated to move on to new types of produce. The important thing, says Moreno, is to not be discouraged by mistakes.

“Realize that you’ve never grown something before, and it might not make it. There are things beyond your control that can happen,” she says. “You’re not this horrible person if you don’t succeed right away.”

Then Have Some Fun

Once you’ve gotten comfortable with growing basics, Moreno suggests giving each of your raised beds a “theme.” She groups many of her beds by cuisine, including a bed that features Asian greens.

“Asian greens are so easy to grow, and it’s one of those instant-gratification gardens,” she says. “Within three to four days, you’ll see little sprouts come up. Within a couple of weeks, you’ll be able to start picking baby greens. And in a month, you’ll have three- to four-inch leaves to make a great stir fry with.”

Moreno grows Siamese stir fry greens, Asian eggplants and hot peppers, lemongrass, Thai basil, and Vietnamese cilantro (“which tastes different than regular Italian cilantro”) in hers. Because these greens grow so quickly, she simply plants more as her family eats them, winding up with about three rotations of Asian greens during the growing season.

Another one of her favorite themed garden beds is the Native American “Three Sisters” garden, which originated with the Haudenosaunee tribe, according to the University of New Mexico.

The three sisters are squash, pole beans, and corn, grown in a symbiotic way. Gardeners put the corn in the middle of the bed, plant the beans around the corn, and plant the squash in between.

“The corn depletes the soil of nitrogen, and the beans add nitrogen,” says Moreno. “The beans will use a stalk of corn as support, and they also give the cornstalk extra rigidity to withstand high winds or rain. The squash grows close to ground, so it will cover soil and keep it moist underneath, while keeping the weeds out.”

Since the three sisters grow together so well, they’re ideal for beginning gardeners. Moreno has added a small twist—she also plants edible nasturtium flowers, which won’t disrupt the three sisters and are a nice addition to salads.

Build Community, Save the World

As her first garden grew 12 years ago, Moreno was surprised to find that her ties to her Roxbury community also grew. She was outside in her yard more, and curious neighbors often stopped by to say hello.

When she eventually grew more produce than she knew what to do with, she put out a handmade sign that read “organic garden” with an arrow pointing to her house.

That sign ended up serving as an icebreaker as she met the “interesting and diverse” group of people in her community: “I met everyone from an older man who lived here all his life and wanted heirloom tomatoes to a homeowner who had just moved in and was showing his parents around,” she says. “Families with kids would come, because I have chickens and rabbits. And local chefs would come to buy ingredients.”

In addition to helping her make friends, Moreno’s garden has inspired others to start their own—and she feels that everyone who plants a garden can be part of that positive chain reaction.

“Roughly 70 percent of world’s population in next 10-20 years is going to live in cities. And cities drain the most resources out of any place to live. Everything has to be brought to them,” she says. “I’m fighting to change that mindset by showing people how to grow their own healthy food, organically. Everyone can set that kind of example.”

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