Urban Gardening: Getting Started

Working Hard on the Garden

Urban Gardening Mistakes

I do not have a green thumb. I don’t live with a dog or cat, partly because my toddler is enough of a mess to take care of, but mostly because I wouldn’t be a very good pet owner. I’ve always thought I should try and keep plants alive before taking on the responsibility of a dog.

Despite my terrible sense of responsibility, I had a strong urge to learn how to garden, and when my family and I moved into a house with a yard last summer, I decided to risk taking (botanical) life into my hands. I was motivated by seeing friends and coworkers show off their bountiful produce (the size of one coworker’s zucchini was astounding).

I’m a little bit of a scifi nerd, and some post-apocalyptic stories seem more likely than others. And if the grocery stores are all empty, I want to at least know how to grow my own vegetables. Ideally, I’d have a few goats, chickens, bees, and alpacas as well, but I thought I’d start with a veggie garden.

Urban Gardening—Choosing the Plot

I am the epitome of a novice, so this gardening series is not meant to be tutorial, but more “try not to cringe at all Brian’s mistakes.” Perhaps you can learn a little from what I’ve screwed up.

Spring was arriving in Portland, and I was ready to get started. I’d done a little research into how to convert a grass lawn into a vegetable garden. There were different options, like covering the plot with newspaper, letting the darkness kill the grass for a month, and mulching in the newspaper. I had two problems with that option: I didn’t have any newspaper (who doesn’t read their news online? Sorry, print journalists), and I didn’t have a month’s worth of patience. I decided to go with the other option I’d read about – flipping the turf.

We moved to this house from an apartment, so the only tools we had for outdoor work were left behind by the last tenants. I had a sturdy, if dull, shovel, and that was enough for this task. Some people rent a back-hoe for this – I witnessed a neighbor actually tearing up his yard with one – but I’m not that gung-ho, or that full of money. Besides, gardening should be done as much by hand as possible, don’t you think? (I changed my mind later!)

Beginning a Garden Plot

Working Hard on the Garden

Working Hard for the Garden

Finished Plot

As you can see, my brother and I dug a rectangle, about 8 by 10 square feet. No real planning went into the dimensions or the location. It just looked to be the right size, and maybe we got a little worn out. Flipping sod is not for city folk, with flabby city muscles.

My first mistake was choosing the plot location. I didn’t put hardly any thought into the most important element: where sunlight fell in my yard. What a rookie mistake. All I needed to do was spend one day occasionally eyeballing my yard, and marking the extent of sunlight and shadow. The plot I chose is about 40% shady (that’s my very scientific measurement). Shade is okay for some plants, like lettuce, so it wasn’t the worst mistake I could have made. But now I know what I would do differently next time.

In the next post I will tell you about how my laziness and impatience lead to my next mistake. It’s not all bad news – we have successfully harvested spinach, lettuce, and basil, so far, and there is a fat cucumber getting fatter everyday.

Do you garden? If so, what were your mistakes in the beginning?

(Come on… make me feel better!)

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Brian Bost
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  1. Reply

    I’m so glad I wasn’t the only one with the haphazard rookie approach! My biggest rookie mistake was not using any soil ammendments. I was like “whatever, those things cost money and seem hard to figure out and it’s all just dirt anyway, so I am just going to throw some plants in the ground and they will grow” Then when my garden was sad and tiny compared to everyone elses, I kind of got the clue and I’ve been working on perfecting the soil and learning all about plant needs since then & it’s been SO much more successful.
    Have you tried container gardening? I have been so impressed with what I can grow in a container (tomato, cucumber, zucchini, herbs, pepper, eggplant, ect!) and I like that I can move them around so that I can get them at the exact right place for the sunlight.
    I’m glad you are getting some things out of your shady space! I bet kale will really like it there in the fall and garlic and onions too!

    1. Brian Bost

      Thanks for the comments, Sarah. I also should have added better soil. I had the same train of thought – I didn’t want to spend the money, and it couldn’t be that important, right? Pretty sure I was wrong. Have you read “Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades”? He talks a lot about the science behind soil (and everything else, too), that would probably make me a better gardener, if I could get my lazy butt to read it.
      I will be trying kale, garlic, and onions, thanks! And happy gardening.

  2. Reply

    i think i’ll start with potted herbs before i start tearing up my nonexistent yard in my apartment !

    1. Jenni

      hahaha… yeah, I would have preferred container gardening. I was gone to Texas and received the photos above via iPhone. There was some sighing going on. Thankfully, we had the permission of the home-owner.

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