As food costs rise and more people become concerned about food security, a viable solution can be found in urban agriculture and backyard farming. From small homesteads in the suburbs, container gardening on apartment balconies, rooftop growing, community garden plots, and more - an increasing amount of people are turning toward self-sufficiency no matter how much or how little space they may have. If you are an aspiring urban grower, keep reading to find out more about the benefits of growing your own crops and to get some innovative backyard farming ideas that will help you start doing just that.
Aside from having homegrown produce free of chemical inputs and pesticides, urban farming and backyard growing have many other benefits. On an individual level, growing in any capacity allows you to learn a new skill, expanding your horizons and life experience. You can feel a sense of pride and fulfillment in knowing you are consuming healthier food, saving money, and producing less waste. If you approach urban farming with a plan, you can generate an income from your produce, creating the potential for a small side business or a more significant full-time venture. In addition, with strategic planning and proper execution, building a garden or farm in your backyard can increase your property value.
Going a bit deeper, gardening has also been proven to have positive effects on mental and physical wellness. Getting out in the sun and fresh air, soaking up vitamin D, and being exposed to various microbes and bacteria in the garden all contribute to a healthy immune system. Grounding in the Earth can help to balance our mood and hormone levels, and gardening is a beneficial physical activity that can strengthen our muscles and improve flexibility.
“Research shows that working with plants—and putting our hands in the dirt—provides outdoor physical activity, induces relaxation, and reduces stress, anxiety, blood pressure, and muscle tension” (1).
If you are looking for benefits beyond your physical, mental, and financial health - urban farming is also an excellent way to build connections within your community. Growing your food in an urban setting can inspire others to do the same - you may even be able to set up a bartering system with neighbors to further bring the community together. Additionally, you are positively contributing to the environment by helping filter city air and reduce pollution, cooling down the atmosphere, providing habitats for bees and other pollinators, and increasing the biodiversity of your local area (2).
What exactly is Urban Farming?
Urban Farming is any type of growing, harvesting, and selling produce or other agricultural products in a city, urban or suburban community. This would include suburban homesteads, backyard farming, community gardens, rooftop gardens, vertical hydroponic or aeroponic growing and more. The definition is broad and can look quite different depending on where the urban grower is located and what their goals and motivations are for their cultivation project. The good news is that because the definition is so broad, there is no “right way” to be an urban farmer; even if you only have a small space to work with, there are ways to succeed in your venture.
The first thing to think about is your reason for starting an urban farming project - consider what you wish to accomplish: Will this be a relaxed hobby to produce some food for you and your family or a more serious side business to bring in additional income? Do you already have gardening experience and wish to create a space in the community for others to learn more about growing? Are you trying to become self-sufficient and sustainable, reduce your carbon footprint, and reliance on the commercial food system?
Whatever your motivations are for starting, it is advisable to start small and build up as you go - keeping in mind that cultivation is a learned practice that takes time and patience.
Making the best use of the space you have
While you may not need a lot of space to grow crops, you should plan to maximize the space you have to use it as efficiently as possible. For the sake of making things simple, we will divide up our backyard farming ideas into 3 categories: City Grower (minimal growing space like a balcony, small rooftop or community allotment), Urban Grower (A dedicated space in the form of a small backyard, small front lawn or shared space with a neighbor), Suburban Grower (Large backyard or front yard, with room for a shed or greenhouse).
If you are working with a very small space, like a balcony or community allotment, start with growing only items that you regularly consume. You want to be able to get the most out of what you grow, and so we recommend focusing on items that are high in nutritional value, offer larger yields and can be used for multiple purposes. You will also need to consider which of these items are best to grow in containers, as that will likely be your only option in this situation. If you do not have much square footage on the ground, consider your vertical limitations: tiered planters and vertical garden walls offer a convenient way to use vertical space to grow more efficiently.
Vertical gardening can be done easily with the GardenSoxx® system by placing the GardenSoxx® one above the other on steps or shelving. They can also be placed directly on concrete or a balcony where you do not have access to the actual ground soil. Because the mesh has barely any weight, and the compost filling is lighter than soil, this system works well if you have weight limitations on your balcony or rooftop. Drip irrigation ensures your plants get watered as needed without excess runoff.
Crops that do well in containers include tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, beans, and cucumbers (with a trellis for them to climb). Another crop that grows surprisingly well in a container, such as a barrel or a bucket is potatoes. As long as your container has good height and adequate drainage, potatoes are relatively easy to grow and can provide you with an abundant harvest of a staple food that has a wide range of culinary uses.
If all you have room for is a few small containers, an herb garden is a great money-saver when using your harvest for flavouring home-cooked dishes and drying for tea. As an added benefit, choose herbs that have medicinal properties to save on pricey medicine and supplements. Peppermint, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and lemon balm are excellent choices for container-growing and are easily preserved by drying to be used throughout the year.
In a small community allotment, consider crops that regrow quickly and can provide you with multiple harvests per season, such as kale, lettuce, cabbage, or broccoli. Plant seeds with a short seed-to-harvest time so that you can succession plant a new crop once you harvest the first. Radish, carrots, spinach, and beets are all great options with high nutritional value. You can also consider crops that can be used in various ways - garlic is a go-to for most cooked meals, can be preserved by pickling or freezing, and can be used medicinally as tinctures or infused in oil. The early shoots that emerge (called garlic scapes) can be harvested before they flower and used in pesto or grilled as a tasty side dish.
If you do not have any outdoor space at all, some excellent vertical hydroponic or aeroponic systems on the market work well for indoor growing in a sunny window or under a grow light setup. You can use these for fresh herbs all year long or to have a constant supply of high-nutrition greens like spinach and bok choy.
If you live in the city, but outside of the downtown core - perhaps a townhouse or duplex where you have access to a small lawn - your options for growing are already significantly increased. While some things may still need to be grown in containers, having space for planting in the ground can give you more flexibility. You may also have more space indoors for seed-starting and processing crops once they are harvested, increasing your options even more.
If you do not want to dedicate your whole space to growing food, consider adding native perennial flowering plants to your landscaping - this will attract pollinators to your area, contribute to local biodiversity, and to the success of whatever crops you are growing for consumption.
The GardenSoxx® growing system would also work well for city growers. The mesh tubing comes in 3 widths, allowing it to be used for a variety of crops. GardenSoxx® is incredibly easy to set up and removes the need for weeding - fill the mesh will quality compost and use it directly on concrete or any other surface to maximize your growing space. You can grow virtually anything using this system - and lay it out in whatever configuration works best for your space.
You can also consider using raised beds for urban growing, as they keep your crops contained, give you more control over the growing medium and provide a convenient way to harvest that is less physically straining. Companion planting and succession planting are ideal concepts to familiarize yourself with when growing with space limitations - knowing which crops can support one another and always having something to harvest will help you to maximize the space and be as efficient in your efforts as possible.
Getting to know your neighbors can be a valuable part of urban farming that may come with multiple benefits. If your neighbors are also interested in trying their hand at gardening, sharing and trading your harvests is a great way to reduce your need to grow a ton of variety on your small plot of land. Instead, you can focus on two to three crops you feel confident growing and use your excess harvest to trade with your neighbors.
You can also find potential customers to buy your excess goods by getting to know the neighbours that prefer not to use their land for growing. Access to an urban farm can contribute to “a stronger sense of community and connection between growers and eaters by making it possible for residents to see where their food is grown” (3).
While this type of backyard farming may offer you the most flexibility, growers with a larger land area can still benefit from strategic planning to maximize their use of space and their harvested yields. While raised beds and the GardenSoxx® system can be highly effective for larger spaces, you can also consider turning your entire backyard into a market garden concept by creating permanent raised beds in a block system for convenience and efficiency.
These beds can be made by piling earth up to around 4 to 6 inches high and leaving alleyways free between beds for circulation during garden work. Ideally, the beds should be uniform and not exceed 30 inches wide with a footpath of 18 inches or so (4). You can arm yourself with a variety of helpful garden tools like a broad fork, dibber, shovel, and wheelbarrow to get started; having the right tools for your needs will make gardening chores much easier and less time-consuming, especially if growing is not going to be a full-time commitment for you.
With a larger space, you can also afford extra conveniences to improve your efficiency: a greenhouse for seed starting and cold-season growing, a shed to store tools and equipment, and an outdoor washing station to clean produce before bringing it inside. Adding some extra sustainable features can also enhance your backyard farming experience - set up some barrels to collect rainwater, dedicate a corner to composting - check your city bylaws to see if you can own a few chickens. You may find that one small step toward sustainability can create a positive domino effect in setting you on a path of true self-sufficiency.
Having a large backyard will allow you to grow not only the crops that you regularly consume but gives you the added benefit of experimenting with different crops and trying your hand at something new. While you may want to focus most of your space on high-nutrition, productive items, you can set aside a small plot for something different every year, and add your successes into the regular rotation once you know they work.
Get creative with your planning - backyard farming does not have to be restricted to garden rows of vegetables. Find a spot to plant an apple or pear tree, and line your property with berry bushes and other edible or medicinal perennials. Fill the front yard with an array of native wildflowers to attract pollinators and provide you with fresh bouquets for your kitchen table. Ensuring that every plant has a purpose is the optimal way of maximizing your space and using it to its full potential.
Growing together toward a greener future
Now is a perfect time to consider becoming an urban grower, regardless of the space or experience you may have. The ideas presented above are just suggested starting points; getting involved in your local community can be a great way to begin. Visit your local garden center and ask about possible community events or educational seminars - you may be surprised to find out that there are already urban farms around you that you can visit for inspiration. Some cities may even offer free native flower seedlings, compost, or other items at the beginning of the growing season to encourage city-dwellers to start their own growing projects.
Whatever your reason may be, urban farming has so many benefits that you are sure to discover more reasons for doing it once you get started. The Soil For Humanity blog and our other social media channels are excellent resources for those starting out, and for more seasoned growers alike - providing a space for learning, sharing and growing together.