If you are a city-dweller casting about this Memorial Day for a worthy summer project, I beg of you: turn your grill into a DIY smoker, brew your own lager or learn to sculpt cocktail ice. Do not start a vegetable garden.
I have been down the balcony garden path, and I can tell you that it is lined with nothing but heartache, squandered money… and 12 quasi-ripe cherry tomatoes covered in an unidentifiable black grit which you will eat anyway because you carted water from your bathtub to the balcony twice a day all summer long just to keep those suckers alive, and they will be thrown out over your dead body.
I can trace the roots of my urban gardening hubris to the release two years ago of Michelle Obama’s book, American Grown. The cover features a stylishly-coiffed Mrs. Obama cradling a wicker basket of vegetables – which one presumes she grew herself with absolutely no effort at all. “A garden doesn’t have to be a huge commitment, but with the right tools, a little time and easy-to-follow instructions you’ll be on your way to developing your green thumb,” the First Lady’s “Let’s Move!” website announces breezily. “Whether you choose to plant a modest window garden or a 4-acre plot, be sure to do it as a family – the benefits of growing your own foods are endless.”
City gardening is having a moment. Williams Sonoma now sells a line of “Agrarian” products, which features $1,500 chicken coops, reclaimed wood planters, dwarf kumquat trees and beekeepers’ outfits for the home enthusiast. New blog posts and newspaper features on the subject materialize almost daily, breathlessly touting city gardeners’ potential to save on food costs, reduce carbon emissions, beautify blighted urban centers, bring their communities together and make dogs get along with cats. And all with so little effort!
Blessed as I am with a 400 square foot terrace – a veritable farm plot, by Manhattan standards – it felt crazy not to grow my own food. I ruled out constructing “raised beds”, which would have requires skilled carpentry, hundreds of pounds of soil and lies on top of lies to my landlord. Instead I opted for a “container garden”, universally beloved by the blogosphere for their thrift and ease. Without a car to my name, I had to order supplies online: big pots and planters, 40 pounds of topsoil and the plants themselves. It all totalled somewhere around $500. Ouch.
I was skeptical of the ecological merits of shipping potting soil via FedEx, but I thought that surely those emissions would be counteracted by my über-local vegetable bounty. Pretty soon, I thought, I would be foregoing my regular Whole Foods runs and carting strawberries and lettuces into my kitchen by the apron-load.
Water was the first obstacle. On a hot summer day in Manhattan, a concrete balcony is like the surface of Mars, and all “irrigation”, as we farmers call it, had to be provided via watering cans toted from my bathroom sink. Shriveled lettuces and crispy basil leaves suggested that once a day wasn’t cutting it. I stepped up my watering game, hitting the terrace twice a day, three times in sweltering weather, embarking on weekends away from the city with a distinct sense of guilt and paranoia.
Supplied with plenty of water the herbs did all right (although when trimmed, they never did regenerate), but the vegetables weren’t thriving. I discovered that my plants were too crowded – apparently, a single zucchini plant basically requires its own studio apartment – and needed to be fertilized regularly. I grudgingly bought more soil and pots and, uninitiated in the dark art of fertilization, a box of neon-blue Miracle Gro. My hitherto organic plants would now be doing the botanical equivalent of doping.
Those few hearty specimens that survived into August produced nothing like their estimated crop yield. I’ve since realized that improper soil nutrient balance, poor soil pH, or insufficient root space could have been the culprit – suffice it to say, information not included in the product copy for my gorgeous, pre-distressed wooden planters.
Hard data regarding the economics of container gardening isn’t easy to come by, but for my part, I could have bought around 150 pounds of vegetables for the $500 I put into my garden. For those playing along at home, that would be better than the handful of tomatoes, odd herb clippings, and finger-sized zucchini I got instead – at one point, I think I made $200 worth of pesto for a pasta salad. From a sustainability perspective, buying all those bulky gardening supplies and having them shipped to my apartment should be classified as an ecological disaster.
Maurice Hladik, the author of Demystifying Food From Farm to Fork, penned an op-ed criticizing the grow-your-own movement along similar lines. Container gardens, he says, guzzle an unconscionable amount of potable water, and that topsoil that I wasted? “That soil does not just ‘happen’; it was once farmland that has forever been removed from productivity in its natural setting,” Hladik wrote.
Am I a terrible gardener? Yes. Am I your average New Yorker? Absolutely. I’m sure that much of my failure could have been mitigated by a skilled grower – a person well-versed in proper planting densities, nutrient management, and sunlight requirements – but I would argue that such a person almost always lives somewhere where she doesn’t need to have dirt air-mailed to her.
So just beware, garden neophytes: contrary to what Williams Sonoma would have you believe, urban gardening success requires more than procuring some stylish supplies and watching the miracle of life take hold. My cunning strategy this summer? Farmers markets.