Gardening Adventures: Urban farming explores recycled materials

I had the privilege of being able to design a container garden for Anne, a friend who had entered her patio garden into the Mill Hill Garden Tour of Trenton. The theme for this year’s garden tour was urban farming. I was excited about the theme, and wanted to incorporate recycling concepts into the overall design by using objects that would eventually end up in a landfill.

My idea of urban farming is people who live in an urban environment growing their own produce. With a limited amount of space to work with, urban farmers need to be creative in using every inch of growing space and finding objects that can be recycled and turned into something useful.

Anne’s patio was 8 feet by 40 feet, a very long and narrow outdoor space enclosed by a 6-foot high black metal fence on one side and her studio apartment on the other. Looking through the fence, you could see a parking lot. Aesthetically, the view was unpleasant.

To help screen the view and soften the fence, we planted black-eyed Susan vines in some wooden narrow planters that had been on the patio for a number of years. Black-eyed Susan vine is a tender annual that has a yellow-orange flower with a black-eyed center. The vine twines around the fence and helps provide privacy.

My neighbor had placed his white plastic kitty litter buckets out for trash pickup one day. I seized the opportunity and grabbed them, thinking that the containers would be great for growing plants in them. I cleaned the containers and drilled holes in the bottoms for drainage. I had some pink spray paint left over from a previous project, and painted the containers for a more refined look. Since we had very limited space, we decided to hang the containers on the fence at various heights with para cord and plant them with sugar snap peas, cucumbers and string beans.

This made for an interesting vertical vegetable garden, and in the process, softened the visual harness of the fence and helped with screening of the undesirable views. A soilless mix was used to fill the containers, keeping the weight down. Soilless mixes are potting soils that remain loose, drain well, will stay moist and are able to hold nutrients for proper plant growth. They usually consist of peat moss, vermiculite and or perlite.

I also had some milk crates that I had used in college that were sitting in the garage for a number of years. The crates were lined with weed fabric, filled with a soilless mix and planted with Swiss chard, basil, chives, thyme, lettuce, spinach and arugula. These crates were ideal in size; they were narrow and deep, allowing for good root growth, plus as an added bonus, they didn’t take up much room on the patio.

An old pair of leather work boots was being thrown away, so I drilled holes in the soles for drainage, then filled them with potting soil and planted red geraniums. Placing the planted boots by the back door adds a whimsical touch to the garden.

A few points to consider when choosing recycled containers to use for planting: Are they big enough to support your plants when they are fully grown? They should hold soil without spilling over. The containers must have adequate drainage and never have held products that would be toxic to plants or people. Some recycled items that would make great containers would be half barrels, window boxes, buckets, trash cans, milk jugs, olive oil cans or even a rice bag filled with potting soil laid flat and planted with a tomato plant. The possibilities are endless.

If you provide your vegetables with the few basic requirements of a suitable container, the proper growing medium, water, nutrients and sunlight—stand back and watch them grow. A dull patio can be transformed into a visually pleasing container garden that will provide fresh produce and enjoyment through out the growing season.

“To get the best results, you must talk to your vegetables.” —Prince Charles, The Observer, 1986

Craig Dupée is a garden-design consultant. He lives in Ewing with his wife and daughters. Send him your email questions at hort1014u@aol.com.

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