The DTE Notebook for the Urban Organic Vegetable, Herb, and Flower Gardener

Article and photos by Rob Danforth.


There are many benefits for a person who gardens within a city:  mental stimulation; outdoor physical exercise; useful activity; decrease in personal stress and “nature deficit disorder”; opportunities for social interactions; increased food security; in addition to increased knowledge, self-esteem, and satisfaction.  It can add colors, textures, fragrances, food, green views, a privacy screen and interest to an unused space!  Horticultural therapy does benefit seniors, children, prison inmates, & rehabilitation patients (researched by Amber Kayed, for SOG, 2013) –  research on the field revealed many mental, physical, and social benefits.

A person just deciding to start food and flower gardening here in the city should start small until s/he becomes confident that wishes to continue and that the growing conditions around are



It is affordable and very easy to do, but gardening also requires patience and frequent attention to details (e.g., watering, fertilizing, aerating, and plant protection). It is much like owning a pet!  However, some people get a dog without doing their homework, and then are surprised to learn that the lovable creature sheds hair indoors, can be destructive to household effects if left alone too long, needs $$ medical care, and actually has to walk and pee every day! 

Best to do a little homework about food and flower gardening before getting in too deep.  My wife and I have been food & flower gardening for over 45 years, getting deeper all the time and enjoying it!


Basic requirements for a NEW garden in the city:


  • Sunny space free of management, bylaws and easement restrictions, as well as people traffic. Consider balcony rails, fence tops and/or sunny sides, borders (along walls, walkways, fences, sidewalks, driveways, hedges, parking lots, building foundations, terraces, balconies), window ledges, rooftops, deck corners or rails, patios, porch corners and/or support posts, potions of a front yard, and sunny areas of a backyard.
  • Sun: plants need 6-8 hrs. (4 hrs. minimum). East sun is good, west sun is better, and south sun is best, but perhaps too good at times.  Sun screens may be needed on scorching dry days. Plant leaves and fruit do get sun scald/sunburn (e.g., tomatoes).
  • A container with potting mix or garden soil and compost or composted farm animal manure. Tip: the bigger the container the better for high density planting, and to reduce watering and fertilizing which is done more often in smaller containers.
  • Seeds, seedlings, or well-established plants (e.g., patio tomato); organic recommended. Note: some seeds need a head start on our growing season (e.g., tomatoes, squashes) and must be started indoors weeks ahead of planting.  If your garden is to be a modest start, consider purchasing seedlings already started for you or semi-mature plants (e.g., organic herbs or patio tomatoes) well along in growth. If you have seeds, a package of seed will give you much more seed than you will need. You can save the left-over seeds in cool, dry, and dark space, but write the year on the package as after 3 years it is best to get some new seed.
  • Water: choose rain barrel water or city tap water resting in a container to allow the chemicals in our tap water that keep us safe to dissipate or off-gas and the water to reach the surrounding air temperature. Plants do not like chlorine or fluorine.
  • 2 of the following: home composter, green bin, or yard waste bin.
  • Basic tools sized to suit the size of the container and the gardener’s reach: trowel, claw cultivator (doubles as a rake), bypass pruner, multi-purpose carry-all bin or pail, dual head (spout & shower) watering can. Note: garden tools come in 4 sizes: indoor mini tools, hand tools, extended reach tools (18” handles), and field tools (for stand-up gardening).

  1. Storage space for leftover seeds; tools; portable containers that have to be emptied, cleaned and stored – some indoors; carry-all bin; plant supports; excess garden soil, potting mix, and fertilizer; ….


Container choices for the beginning gardener: purchase a plant container (plastic, resin, ceramic, terracotta, metal, fabric, or wood), or grow right in a purchased bag of garden soil.  You can also use a recycled object of a food safe material (e.g., plastic lard, oil, pickle, fruit buckets from the food industry).  If you choose plastic, be sure it is free of the chemical BPA which is released as the container gets warm from the sun. 

Garden maintenance: 

Cover the drainage holes in the bottom of a container with 2 layers of green kitchen scratch pads (no sponge attached).  These will keep the soil in the pot, allow the container to drain well, and keep the insects and slugs out. Do not use rocks, pottery shards, Styrofoam chunks, or marbles – they are ineffective for drainage and they rob the plants of root room, forcing you to fertilize and water more often.

Plant seeds only as deep as the seed is large (seed size = depth) and transplant seedlings so the soil is at the same level on the plant as it was in the seed pot. The exception is tomato seedlings.  If possible, plant these 1/3rd deeper and remove any leaves that will be under the soil.

Water only on demand and water twice each time: the first time opens the soil and the second penetrates deeply. If possible, water from the bottom of a container (e.g., sit the pot in a bowl of water for 20 minutes). A finger check 2 inches down will tell you if the soil is moist or dry.

– Tip:  salad greens, and vine plants (e.g., tomatoes) must never dry out – soil must be constantly moist but no swamps!  Herbs benefit from cycles of wet and dry.  In dry periods, they intensify the fragrant and tasty oils we enjoy to reduce moisture loss, and help them through the dry periods.  Two herb exceptions are basil and cilantro/coriander which need moist soil. Tip: Plant Genovese basil in with your tomatoes – you will be glad you did!

Aerate the soil (loosen it) when it becomes dense or crusty (about once every 3 weeks) so air and water can get to the roots of plants.

Fertilize 2 times a season (spring & mid-summer) with compost or composted farm animal manure, or an organic liquid or granulated fertilizer (carefully follow directions for these last two). 


Good Plants for beginning gardeners:  any herb(s) you fancy, bush beans (yellow or green), radish (“French breakfast” recommended), cherry tomatoes (choice of small, 6 inch tall plants to large “Sweet 100” or “Sweet Million”), grape tomatoes (“Juliet” recommended, especially if used on BBQ skewers), patty pan squash, Lebanese cucumbers, leafy salad greens (e.g., lettuce, endive, mesclun, radicchio), bok choy, kale, and chard (for the greens, try “cut-and-come again:” harvest the older leaves first and let the younger ones grow on).  For all of these, you do not have to wait until the end of the season to begin harvesting as you would have to do for head lettuce, head broccoli, beefsteak tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, winter squash, garlic, cooking onions, etc.

Harvest as soon as the produce is ready. 

Reducing the time from harvesting to table (eliminating land/sea/air transportation and skipping your refrigerator), offers excellent taste! 

Happy Gardening in the city, hopefully not too far from your kitchen!