5 Lessons Learned About Urban Gardening

This summer was my first attempt at gardening in the city. I was ecstatic to find our new place has a balcony and I couldn't wait to fill it with plants. I had done vegetable and herb gardens in the past in my parents yard and I naively thought growing plants in containers would be the same thing. I grew peas, green beans, lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapeƱos, strawberries, basil, chives, rosemary, and lavender. Yea, it was a lot in addition to the house plants. Here are five lessons I learned while urban gardening this summer. Keep in mind I'm a novice gardener so these tips may be obvious if you're a more seasoned gardener. 

1. Not all space is created equal 
I went crazy buying seeds and plants in the spring. Philadelphia had a tough winter, so I kept most of my plants inside on a windowsill until late May. They grew reasonably well until I took them outside. The leaves started to sag and eventually more than a few plants died. After determining it wasn't a watering issue, it dawned on me that the balcony wasn't getting enough sunlight for some vegetables to grow. Duh! Just because you have outside space doesn't mean you can grow any plant. Before buying plants, figure out how many hours of sun and shade the space gets. Most vegetables need full sun, but some varieties can do ok in partial to low sunlight. 

2. Keep it simple: Limit the variety of plants
As a novice gardener, whenever something went wrong with the plants, I spent a lot of time researching possible problems and solutions. In order to care for the plants best and yield the most veggies and herbs, it would have been better to know just a few plants intimately. 

I bought this metal mesh to support the tomato plants (and make this wreath). 

3. Grow what you can eat 
I bought way too many plants for the amount of space we have and for the amount we could eat. I grew eight heads of lettuce and they sprouted like weeds. Most of the lettuce went to waste because we couldn't it all. 

Corralled all the loose herb pots in this container after all the lettuce died
4. Even the city has pests 
Where my parents live there are deer and rabbits that like to nibble on plants. You can deter them by building a fence, trimming your garden with mums, or by spraying it with coyote pee (seriously, you can buy it at hardware stores). With deer and rabbits being noticeably absent from the city, I thought my plants were safe. Wrong. Squirrels regularly leaped onto our balcony and stole ripe strawberries :( I joke that squirrels are especially obnoxious in University City because the schools do research on them and then release them into the wild afterwards. If you've been on Penn's campus, you know what I mean. 

Strawberry plants with no strawberries. Wahhhh. 
5. Fertilizer and drainage are key
When you grow a garden in the ground, Mother Nature does most of the work to care for plants, providing nutrients and allowing for drainage. With potted plants, the work is all on you. Before potting plants, I should have made sure all the pots had enough drainage holes (or lined the bottom with gravel) and that the soil was fortified with extra nutrients via fertilizer. It's not as easy to fix these things after the plants are in their permanent containers. I bought this organic fertilizer which worked ok with topical applications, but it would have been better if I mixed it up with the soil. 

The balcony with far fewer plants than at the beginning of the summer
P.S. This screen has been great.

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