Urban gardening and sustainable food production

Why bother growing your own miniscule amount of food?

Let’s talk about urban gardening today! I’m going to be using it as a prop to discuss sustainable food production, so get ready. ๐Ÿ™‚ Urban gardening is a modern term that separates traditional gardening and small scale farming from home gardens in cities and urban environment. Essentially, it covers small house or rented plot gardens, balcony and terrace gardens in apartment buildings and all other tiny gardens people use to grow a bit of food at home.

The importance of green spaces

Urban gardening is a bit of a contradicting phenomenon – traditionally people grew food on the large scale to be as self-sufficient as possible and reduce the cost of their food. Now, unless you actually rent a plot of land outside the city or are lucky enough that your house comes with a proper garden that is almost farmable land and usually in the suburbs, you are likely hard pressed to grow enough food to even being to talk about reducing your food costs. However, a lot of people, including me, still do it, and personally I think most of us should if we can. All the photos in this post are from my 2020 terrace garden.

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Strawberries and radishes.

The mental health benefits of having access to green spaces are quite well known at this point, which is why cities have parks and people like to go for nature walks. This year in particular, various coronavirus lockdowns around the world have shown us the importance of having enough living space and preferably a park nearby, as some people were confined inside their tiny apartments with no breathing space for months. If you had a balcony or a garden, you were fine, but what about people stuck in concrete neighbourhoods in the middle of the city?

The amount of urbanized land is steadily increasing due to overpopulation and the ever-increasing need for housing, service facilities, work spaces etc., which means there is les and less land available for food production and general greenery. Here’s is a great science-based post about it and the importance of urban gardening with UK statistics as an example. At the same time, we as a global consumerist society are more spoiled than ever and we demand more and more from the shops and suppliers: more fresh produce, more availability no matter the season and more diversity. Everything, no matter how exotic or out of season must be available always and in unlimited quantities, because if I want an avocado or a strawberry in winter, I want it now.

Sustainable food production and seasonality

Although I’m not one to subscribe to the romantic ideology of “returning to nature” and “synchronising with our natural cycles”, I do feel that we have completely lost touch with the passing of the seasons and the enormity of the process that is food production, which is both unsustainable and unhealthy in the long run. If we focus just on fruit and vegetables for now, most of us are already completely disconnected from the very idea that fruits and vegetables take time to grow and that they don’t just grow at any time, let alone that milk comes from a cow. Having fruit and vegetables available out of season necessarily means that their growth had to be helped along with fertilizers and artificial maturation, which ultimately shows in both taste and poorer quality of the produce. Tomatoes in winter are a perfect example, they just never taste quite right and have a rather metallic smell…

While I am lucky enough that I get to buy my greens directly from the farmers in Slovenia, almost everything I ate while I lived in Sweden was imported, grown in greenhouses and matured in warehouse units. Even though I eat everything and my body naturally craves seasonal produce in the right season, it can be hard to resist those tempting bright red strawberries on the shelf in winter, which are also super expensive, because it takes an unnatural amount of effort and energy to grow them. Or perhaps they were grown in a country with a more suitable climate and then had to be transported halfway around the world, harvested half-ripe to survive the journey. Both production and transport require additional energy and resources that we usually don’t even think about, and the strawberries can potentially end up as food waste, because they are just that expensive and not even very tasty. It’s bad enough for the environment that some food must necessarily be imported in plenty of countries where the climate and soil are just not right to grow enough of it, but we escalate it further by demanding everything, all the time.

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First cherry tomato of 2020.

But what does all this have to do with urban gardening, you may ask?

Well, while you will likely never grow enough food in your urban garden to be self-sufficient, urban gardening is the perfect way for city people to get more in touch with food production and the sustainability aspects of it. There’s a certain undeniable satisfaction in planting something, watching it grow and ultimately getting to eat it, which can be almost meditative and is apparently supposed to have a positive effect on your mental health. It will definitely test your patience, reminding you that every piece of food you are buying took its time to grow. There’s also an undeniable difference between homegrown food and that bought in the supermarket in terms of quality and availability, reminding you that seasonality is important and hopefully influencing your demand, inspiring you to purchase more seasonal produce and pay attention to it.

Plants as carbon sinks

Beyond that however, there are other benefits: every single plant, no matter how small, is a carbon sink. Plants use CO2 during photosynthesis and produce oxygen, which is a much needed thing these days. If all roofs were covered in grass, which is an incredibly efficient carbon sink, we’d be a small step closer to mitigating the climate change problem. Now, you might say I’m exaggerating, but check this out: most of the food in the world is currently grown with traditional farming practices, which includes ploughing, i.e. overturning of the soil. Although the invention of the plough is considered the start of an agricultural revolution, it is increasingly clear that it was actually an environmental disaster. Ploughing both harms biodiversity and releases all the accumulated CO2 back into the atmosphere when it disrupts the upper layers of the soil and the plant and fungal systems inside them. Here’s an article with more specifics, but the significant thing about ploughing and the environment is this: within the EU, half of the agricultural greenhouse gas emissions come from agricultural soil (source). Soil, not animals! That part about carbon sinks doesn’t seem so useless now, right? If we don’t reduce our emissions it won’t make a difference in the long run, but every bit is better than nothing.

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Red lettuce and summer savory.

Accountability

Next up: homegrown food is always accountable and grown in controlled circumstances. If you used a fertilizer, you know exactly what you used, where you bought the seeds and how much child labour was exploited in the process (urban gardening is a great way to teach your kids about patience and where food comes from). Even if you buy supermarket food with the sustainable/organic/local labels on it, it can often be grown in foreign countries, where the environmental and fair trade regulations may not be the same and there is unfortunately no real, foolproof way to hold the entire supply chain accountable. It is better than nothing though, and by shopping food with labels like fair trade, you are indirectly investing into the possibility of creating and one day sustaining a system where all the workers are paid fairly, because consumer demand allows organisations that regulate these things to grow and increase the number and efficiency of accountability checks. In a perfect world, of course…

Overflowing chard.

However, there’s a fair argument that local and organic labels aren’t worth a damn, if we don’t change the way we farm and produce food on the mass scale. Most of our food is still produced from intensive monoculture farming, which relies heavily on ploughing and fertilisers and is known for thoroughly exhausting and depleting the soil. All of it is of course still classified as eco, organic and local, if it doesn’t use harmful chemicals and practices, because we are a long way from officially embracing regenerative farming (which happens to involve grazing animals, so vegans are not always right about their sustainable diet) and no-till soil preparation. Here is a great opinion article about it.

But, back to urban gardening!

As you can see, sustainable food production and facilitating it by influencing consumer demand with our shopping habits often ends up being a catch 22, much like many other environmental issues. However, there are also purely practical reasons to start an urban garden.

Money savings

We’ve covered the model sustainability impacts and the mental health benefits of it, so now we can talk about how urban gardening saves you money. Now, obviously unless you rent a plot of land or have a decently-sized garden, you won’t be saving that much on your fruits and vegetables, but it is entirely possible to be practically self-sustainable with herbs, even in a tiny apartment. Most herbs will grow on your windowsill, even in a tiny cup, with limited light and during winter. During the summer, your herbs will grow like crazy and, if you prune and harvest them regularly, you can amass quite a lot and dry them for later use. I don’t know about your country, but most herbs are about 1-3 euros per 5 – 30 g packages in mine. If you actually use them to cook and season your food, that is not an insignificant cost on a yearly basis, particularly when you consider that a package of seeds will cost you about the same as one package of herbs and will last for multiple seasons. Just saying.

Self-sufficiency

Additionally, every single piece of food is a tiny step towards being self-sufficient and a piece of food that didn’t need to be transported anywhere. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, food supply chains across the world were disrupted, and governments everywhere began to be painfully aware just how self-sufficient they are (not). Slovenia for example, is 100%+ covered when it comes to meat needs, but only about 30-50% self-sufficient when it comes to grains and greens. In the recent years, farmers all across Slovenia turned from fields to livestock, because the produce prices were at an all time low, the government refused to significantly subsidize it and all that effort was just not worth it anymore. Raising livestock requires significantly less physical work than working the land and an animal doesn’t care if the season is unusually dry or too wet, or there’s hail or a bad freeze. I suppose we’ll all just eat burgers and die of scurvy?

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Harvest time!

One of the more memorable official pandemic statements was, that “citizens should be encouraged to practice urban gardening and grow as much food as possible”. Because yes, me planting some radishes during my lockdown will magically make the country’s demand for food less dire, right? However, despite the ridiculousness and the timing of that statement, I can’t help but agree. We all know that it ultimately takes official legislation and encouragement for people to move and change, so if even just one more person started their garden or took advantage of a local subsidized garden plot, then that’s a good thing.

How to start your urban garden

And this brings us to how to start your own urban garden. First and foremost, start small and use the space you have efficiently. Most things that grow in pots require very little effort: you plant them, water them and they grow. You can maximise your growing space by taking advantage of companion planting, i.e. planting together those plants that are considered good neighbours and require compatible soil nutrients and water levels. I find that herbs grow great in just about anything and they don’t need much space if you prune them regularly, while larger vegetables require larger pots and proper planting soil.

Besides herbs such as rosemary, sage, savoury, basil, mint, dill, parsley, oregano, chives etc., plants that work well for small urban gardens in individual pots or balcony trays are cherry tomatoes, lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens, kale and chard, strawberries, raspberries, chillies etc. Radishes are also great, because they grow fast and large, as well as carrots, but you need a large pot to get them to grow to a decent size. If you want to start a proper garden on a larger plot of land, there are tons of options and advice on the Internet, but for that you need to commit a bit more, because it requires a bit more wok.

If you want minimal effort gardening, however, grow sprouts. Radish or watercress sprouts will be edible within a week and can literally grow in a cup of water. Speaking of, lots of herbs will also grow in hydroponics, i.e. water, so there’s no soil involved at all.

There’s really no excuse not to have an urban garden now, right? And after you’ve harvested your first herbs, you can check out my post about storing and preserving them for as long as possible. Or, if you’re not starting a garden, maybe at least consider where your food comes from and what could be done better… ๐Ÿ™‚

How about you, do you grow anything at home?

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7 thoughts on “Urban gardening and sustainable food production

      1. Well, I guess you are right, depending on the frame of reference. He does have his own home on a decent-sized lot and works hard.

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