Living in a city has many perks and conveniences, but the one thing it will always lack is vegetation. Nature lovers have to just grin and bear it when living in urban areas because what constitutes as a "park" in cities, more often than not, is more comparable to a highway median. Much of the urban population is made up of transplants from rural areas and many have brought agricultural practices into the city, with modern twists. This is not to say that urban farming is solely the product of out-of-towners. The self-sufficiency wave that has swept urban culture in the last century has seen the rise of "DIY" and gardening is a facet of that.

photo by raeky / CC BY-SA

Urban farming is the culmination of efforts from urbanites, humanitarians, the health-conscious, hobbyists, restaurants, and simply people who just want to grow their own produce and save money. Urban farming is increasingly more approachable, even to people who live in apartments or high-rises with no yard space. Communities everywhere are developing (un-developing?) green spaces to accommodate seasoned and budding gardeners alike. This December, Detroit unveiled its plan for an "agrihood", an expansive public garden that is integrated into the community and provides produce for citizens and community organizations like churches and food pantries. Not since perhaps the city’s initial founding has agriculture been conducted on this scale.

There are plenty of farming methods that can be utilized with a limited space and it all comes down to what you want as an individual. One thing that can be found in almost any urban garden is the raised box method. Plot space in cities are often temporary, rented or leased, which means they can be bought or change ownership at any point so nothing is really expected to last. Much of urban gardening isn't striving for permanence but a response to impermanence. As a result, raised boxes are used very frequently as it doesn't require tilling the land itself. Another reason for using raised boxes is to avoid the potentially compromised soil in cities. Carbon emissions, cigarette butts, and general random dumping is a common occurrence in cities and, given the age of major cities, who knows what happened in any given space over time?

photo by South Beach Community Garden / CC BY-SA

Raised box gardens are a great way to garden in general as you have more control over the variables involved and it is very space efficient, which is a key factor in urban farming. After 14 years of being a professional landscaper and 20 years of gardening, I have found that the Iroquois have one of the best methods of getting more with less space. It is a process commonly referred to as "The Three Sisters" and it is by far one of the cleverest agricultural practices out there. The "sisters" are corn, beans, and squash, which are grown amongst each other. The corn is planted in rows, as it usually is, but instead of beans and squash occupying their own separate plots, they are grown on the corn. The bean vines grow up along the corn, which means you don’t need trellises or other support structures. The bean vines fortify the cornstalks against strong winds. But the best part is what the roots do. Beans put nitrate into the soil as part of their development process and corn removes nitrates. It's a perfect symbiosis. This is why farmers rotate their crops (or should, but ethanol tax incentives often overturn a farmers better judgment). The squash grows along the bottom, and their broad leaves stymie weed growth with shade. The shade also keeps the soil moist so less watering is necessary.

If space is really an issue, then herb gardens are always an option. They are extremely low maintenance and can be kept in almost any window. This is particularly convenient for kitchen windows. No windows? No problem, there's an ever expanding market of self-sustained mini grow light gardens that can grow lettuce, tomatoes, and others in addition to herbs. Another perfect small scale project is reuse. One of my all time favorite tricks for reuse is green onion bulbs in a shot glass. I use green onions quite frequently in my cooking so having them around is super handy. The next time you use them, try leaving an inch of growth above the bulb and placing it in a shot glass with a little bit of water, then put it in a window. You should see new growth as soon as the next day and can get a few reuses out of it before it's ready for the compost pile. This also works with celery, lettuce, basil, carrots, garlic, and more, with varying degrees.

photo by Phillip Ferrato / CC BY

Urban farming is more than just agriculture. It extends to animal husbandry as well. Of course no one's raising cattle in their yards, but poultry is a viable option. It varies among states and cities but many allow for individuals to have a certain number of chickens on their property. Egg laying hens are a great asset to any farmer, urban or otherwise. Egg layers can produce an average of an egg a day. In my experience they typically lay them overnight so they can be collected in the morning for the freshest breakfast attainable. Not to mention fresh chicken when they reach a certain age. If you're a vegetarian/vegan or put off by eating so close to the source, chickens can be great fertilizer producers and great pets, but I wouldn't recommend having them for just those purposes.

Regardless of your level of ambition, if you have any interest in an urban garden, the best way to start is by exploring urban growth efforts near you. They've already done most of the hard work and if you sign up early enough, you can reserve your own plot (be aware of costs should a fee be required). Being mindful of sunlight requirements, rainfall, and growth rates are key. Even though winter is just starting, planning now will ensure that you get a timely start and know what will work best for the space you have.