How to Start an Urban Vegetable Garden

A guide to getting the freshest produce in the city—right from your yard.

By Stefan Milne March 26, 2019 Published in the April 2019 issue of Seattle Met

Raised beds bring visual organization to a home garden. 

You imagined yourself floating through a twilit spring garden, snipping perfect herbs and lettuces. Cut to a few months later: Half your plants haven’t sprouted, and the rest are either stunted or staging a feral coup. Farming a city yard can be both easier and trickier than many think. Here, a couple pros direct your attention toward the essentials. 

The Experts: Erin Lau, Erin Lau Design; Hilary Dahl, Seattle Urban Farm Company

Rooted in Greens

While growing heirloom tomatoes from seed sounds like a gardener’s triumph, Lau and Dahl recommend starting with crops that love the Northwest—bush beans, root vegetables, and greens like lettuce, kale, and chard. Then rotate the crops (don’t plant the same thing in the same spot repeatedly) to curb pest problems and rejuvenate the soil.

Beautifully Edible

You needn’t compromise aesthetics for utility. “I think vegetable gardens, if planned and cared for, can actually be gorgeous,” Dahl says. Lau recommends hardscaping structures like raised beds for organization and soil warmth while flowers add color and pollination. Foregrounding loveliness also has a practical application: Tucked away gardens tend to go forgotten.

Negative Space, Positive Growth

“Misplanting is one of the most common things I see when I’m walking around neighborhoods,” Dahl says. Particularly with big brassicas (kale, broccoli), she suggests 12 to 18 inches between each plant so they can get enough nourishment.

12–18 inches between plants ensures they get the nutrients they need. 

Soak Up the Sun (and Water)

When seeking the right spot to plant, Lau and Dahl note two factors. You need full sun—at least six hours a day, but eight is better, says Lau. And you need irrigation, ideally an automatic drip system, Dahl says, since it will save you watering time and you’ll lose less water to evaporation.

Well Soiled

“No amount of sun is going to make up for…poor nutrition in the soil,” Lau says. So bringing in new planting soil and mixing it with compost, either in raised beds or in less rigid gardens, is vital. Dahl says to spike the dirt with organic fertilizer throughout the season too, since vegetables feed heavily.

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