Vegetable gardens, even in small apartments

15-09-2020    08:54   |    Daily Maverick

As we’ve all been spending a fair amount of time at home, the thought of growing your own vegetables, even in a small flat, has been top of mind. But how practical is it? Here is what you need to know.

“Space need not really be a major factor if you’re for gardening subsistence purposes; in other words, if you’re growing for a family of four or six. You can find innovative ways of growing vegetables in a vertical platform for example,” says Thendo Ratshitanga, founder of Simeka Harvest, a company that constructs and installs greenhouses, hydroponics and aquaponics farms, as well as operates Kazi Farm, situated in the Cradle of Humankind.

Ratshitanga highlights both the economic and health benefits of growing your own garden. “Growing your own food can also give you the peace of mind to know that your food is healthy because you know what goes into it. And because there’s less food transported, that also reduces one’s carbon footprint.”

Beyond subsistence, there are other benefits of gardening to consider.  According to a research paper titled Vacant Lots to Vibrant Plots: A Review of the Benefits and Limitations of Urban Agriculture, by a team from the Johns Hopkins Centre for a Liveable Future: “Gardening/farming supports public health efforts by providing physical activity to its participants, especially helpful for older people. Gardening can support mental health and well-be­ing through reducing stress, providing purpose­ful activity, improving self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment, aiding physical and emotional healing, and strengthening people’s relationships with nature.”

The past decade has seen an increase in the interest in urban gardens, be they gardens in private homes and flats or communal gardens. While proponents of urban gardening like Ratshitanga are adamant that this is something any of us can do, it can also be intimidating for the novice gardener; in addition, one might have to manage their expectation in terms of what they can grow, how quickly it can grow, and how much time it takes to nurture.

If you’re only getting started, much like anything else, it is important to consider gardening as a journey of continuous learning as the garden grows; be it learning about soil, the right sun conditions, the right amount of water, what plants grow next to which plants, what plants can practically grow in your space.

Getting started

First, identify where you want to start your garden. If you have a yard with an existing garden, or a space that can be turned into a garden, this might determine what kind of garden you will embark on.

“If you have an outside garden, a space of six by six meters is a great size to start with. It can feed two people sufficiently,” says Mpho Sekati, an urban landscaper based in Johannesburg’s East Rand. That is not to say you couldn’t start a smaller garden if you didn’t need it to satisfy most of your vegetable grocery needs. Perhaps you want to start an herb garden, or focus on a specific leafy vegetable. This could be done in a smaller space.

Alternatively, you can also grow a vertical garden, be it up a fence or a wall, or a balcony. “Vegetables grow. They’re not very complicated. They’re accustomed to growing and acclimatising to a number of developments. For vertical gardens, these can be supported by a hydroponic system or an aquaponic system. The hydroponic system being a water based growing system where you feed the plants with water and chemical fertiliser that mimic the environment. It could be chemicals that mimic what you find in the soil and compost,” says Ratshitanga.

Aquaponics is similar to hydroponics, the most recognisable difference is the presence of fish in the growing system. The waste of the fish helps complete a cycle of nutrient production in the system and will lead to higher quality crop output and healthier plants.

“A lot of people also just use recycled water bottles, like two litre bottles. You can use both the top and the bottom half of the bottle to grow vegetables using compost soil. You can have as many as you want hung up on walls or balconies with a string or a wire, or if you’re a DIY kind of person, you can make wooden platforms or shelves to put them at different heights on a wall or on a balcony.”

Size matters

The size of the plants you choose to grow will be particularly relevant if you are considering growing plants on a balcony or a vertical garden against a wall.

“Generally speaking, a smaller plant will be easier to grow. One reason for this is that as a plant grows in size, providing lighting with even distribution becomes more of a challenge. Another reason is that the growing cycle of a larger plant is longer, meaning it will take more time to grow typically. [For] example, lettuce is a popular urban farming crop. However, different kinds of lettuce grow to different sizes; Iceberg lettuce is typically a larger lettuce plant, whereas loose leaf lettuces like oak leaf, salad bowl, or butter crunch lettuce will be easier to grow. [There are also] pollination requirements. Fruiting plants that require pollination will be more difficult to cultivate. Examples of these types of plants include strawberries, tomatoes, and cucumbers,” writes urban farming website, Patrick Flynn in his e-book, 9 Core Lessons for urban farming beginners.

Non-fruiting plants are likely to take less space, like herbs, cauliflowers, broccoli, carrots, parsnips, beetroots, cabbages and turnips.  The size will be particularly important if you are considering growing plants on a balcony or a vertical garden against a wall.

Look at light

Light is an important consideration especially if you’re working with a balcony garden. Before you decide what kinds of plants to begin with, study the light in the area where you plan to grow. How many hours of light does it get in a day?

“The full-sun plants are those that need at least six hours of sunlight every day. These are fruit-bearing plants like tomatoes, chilies, peppers, and beans. The part-sun plants are those satisfied with four to six hours of sunlight every day. These could be greens like lettuce, spinach, coriander. The shade-loving plants are those that grow well in shade and don’t do well in too much sun. They need less than four hours of sunlight every day. These include plants like carrots and leafy vegetables,” writes founder who goes by first name, Kevin. 

Not all soil is created equal

The quality of soil you use will go a long towards determining the success of your gardening effort. Good soil for planting is a combination of minerals, organic matter, air and water. If you are planting indoors, you’re most likely going to use potting soil, which you can buy at a nursery and some hardware stores.

However, even if planting outside, there is no guarantee that your soil is in its optimum condition to support the growth of your vegetables. Two tools that Flynn recommended are a pH testing kit, and an NPK test: “pH in your growing medium determines the ability of the plant to uptake minerals and nutrients. Out of sync pH will sink your urban farming project. [A] cheap way to measure pH [is to] take your soil, mix with deionised water in a water bottle and then stick pH paper in it, which can be bought at local hardware stores for close to no cost…There are [also] pH meters for both soil and water based growing mediums,” writes Flynn. “NPK Soil Test Kit: NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium) are some of the most crucial elements needed for plant growth. Proper balance in NPK will help promote hearty plant growth and will reduce risk of pest infestation.”

Soil can also be too sandy, or have too much clay in it. Says Ratshitanga: “Try and squeeze the soil in your hand, if it’s very clay type soil it will be sticky, which would mean it doesn’t have good drainage. If it’s sandy, it might have good drainage, but may not necessarily hold too much water, so you have to water it frequently.” To counter that, Ratshitanga recommends investing in compost. “Compost really contains pretty much most of the nutrients that plants require. I think that starting off, even if you think of soil as healthy and good, just add some compost, and you will not go wrong.”

There’s an app for that

Lastly, there is a wealth of YouTube videos, online articles and gardening apps to help you through your gardening journey, from garden layout planning apps, to apps that will help inform what vegetables are best suited to your regional weather through to apps that will remind you when to water and prune your plants. Below is Maverick Life’s pick, the one app we would absolutely recommend to get you started, Gardenate. It’s not the best looking one and if a pleasant design is what you’re looking for, we recommend you also look at the Garden Organiser appGardenate was founded by an Australian app developer, and populated by his garden-loving mother; it now has growing details on over 90 popular vegetables. The app has a planting calendar that will recommend the best vegetables to plant based on your region and the time of the year. Depending on your planting dates, the app will also give you projected harvesting dates. For each vegetable you choose to plant, the app will provide you with information for the best soil temperature, germination period, the growing distance between plants, plants to grow and rotate it with, as well as when and how often you harvest. DM/ML

Source: Daily Maverick

Photo by Sanni Sahil on Unsplash

Comments (0)

No comments found!

Write new comment

More news