Gardening and the City
Take a cue from the First Lady and plant a garden with your little ones
Most people I meet assume that my deep devotion to eco-living means I live on a farm in Vermont. Nope. I live in New York City. Despite this geographical challenge I think it is important to grow things with my daughter, and I work to make it happen. Helping kids—especially city kids—appreciate the wonders of nature and understand what it takes to grow food, seems to be the key to instilling them with so many virtues. Not only will you instill a child with a desire to protect the environment, a lucky bonus is satiating a picky eater. To paraphrase the chef and author Alice Waters, kids who grow (and hopefully help cook) food will taste and eat that food. And kids who taste will (eventually) taste again.
There are days I wish I had real land to devote to this practice. But for now I do not. Thankfully no one needs a big garden to grow herbs or cherry tomatoes, all you do need is the willingness to get dirty hands and the excitement, joy, and education from planting entails. There are many ways to approach this project; here are some small container-gardening-centric ideas. Just make sure all planters are food-safe. Though there are plastics that are considered safe, I prefer hardwood and lead-free ceramics. Avoid the urge to plant in a tire, even though you’re reusing something that might otherwise wind up in landfill. These can contain lead and other toxins you don’t want in your food. Finally, using organic soil is preferable, especially as your children are helping you plant, grow, and eat. Pound for pound they’re more vulnerable than adults when exposed to chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
1. If all you have is a sunny windowsill, you can grow herbs. You might even manage to produce a strawberry or two in a pot.
2. If you have a small yard or even just a terrace, you can have a more extensive container garden. I just noticed a beautiful one that was planted in window boxes on my urban block. It had one of each of the following plants: tomato, basil and assorted herbs, kale, Swiss chard, lettuces, and even a tiny blueberry bush. A mini urban farm!
3. If you have access to outdoor space—inside or outside of a city—you can devote a small plot or raised bed to the cause.
4. If you have a house you visit often—a grandparent’s, an aunt’s, a close friend’s—and the owner is willing— a container garden or a raised bed can work there too.
I’ve done the windowsill approach, but we don’t seem to get enough sun to harvest much of anything. Last year my mother agreed to let us use a sunny spot in her garden. I went into her basement to find containers and wound up with a few terracotta pots and several old hardwood wine crates, which I had stacked to make a bedside table in college. We filled them with a mix of organic soil and compost and then planted organic/local seeds from The Hudson Valley Seed Library. Seeds can be tricky to grow into a full plant, especially if you’re not around to tend to the shoots and then transfer them, so we also planted a few plants. The process was everything I had hoped. The results were pretty good, too. A rabbit got most of our shoots and did break one small heart when it ate the only cornichon-sized cucumber we grew. We managed to salvage a few tomato plants that put out delicious sun gold cherries until October. A few ground cherries grew—seeds we forgot we planted— and popped up in September. Harvesting was a joy. And it was fun to get updates from my mother on weekends when we weren’t visiting.
This year we didn’t get to the seeds in time, so we are going straight to the plants. When we went to weed the containers in preparation, we found several gifts had already grown since last season: 4 miniscule dill shoots and 3 fledgling tomato plants. We’re taking bets now on if and when the rabbits will get them.
What’s your bet? —Alexandra Zissu