Living in New York City has amazing cultural advantages, but having outdoor garden space is extremely rare. In the 14 years we’ve lived here we’ve figured out creative hacks for growing delicious produce with limited space. Depending on what kind of space you have (i.e. balcony, fire escape, stoop, or just plain old window sill) you can definitely maximize your food production.
We buy our seeds from Hudson Valley Seed Company. They sell local varieties of heirloom vegetables, herbs, fruit, and flowers that are perfectly suited to New York’s climate. Depending on where you live, you might have a seed company that sells local and climate-appropriate varieties.
We start our seedlings indoors around February or March (but there’s still time for fast-growing crops!) We like to use biodegradable seed-starting pots from Johnny’s Seeds. Once the seedling is grown and ready to be repotted, you can just plop it into a bigger pot and it won’t suffer from transplant shock.
We upcycle all kinds of take-out containers and use them as water trays for our seedlings. Used tomato sauce cans can also make for cool pots. We have neighbors who are growing a very productive grape-vine out of a 5-gallon plastic bucket.
We ended up moving to the outer reaches of Brooklyn where we could afford to have a small balcony. Because we have railing, we grow vegetables that like to climb, like zucchini and cucumbers. We use twine to tie them to the railing as they grow and they seem to love it. We’ve been using fabric pots made from recycled plastic and we get all of our compost from NYC’s Compost Program. They schedule free compost pick-ups at certain locations throughout the spring and summer (The program has been put on pause because of COVID-19, so make sure to check back in.)
New York summers are hot and humid, so if you have some outdoor space that gets at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sun, you can definitely grow tomatoes. Come fall and winter, you can grow all kinds of kale, radishes and other cold-tolerant crops. If you don’t have that much sunlight, you can still grow tons of shade-loving herbs and leafy salad greens.
For the more hardcore urban gardeners, there’s always ‘vermicompost’ aka worm compost. Vermicompost consists of Red Wiggler Worms that eat your food scraps and turn them into compost. We know… having a bucket of worms in your apartment sounds concerning, but honestly they’ve never caused any issues. They just kind of hang out in there and work away at your food scraps (just make sure you don’t feed them any animal products nor greasy food. Just feed them vegetable and fruit waste. Coffee grinds are good too). They never smell, nor attract any insects, and they make compost in a matter of weeks. Ok, once we had a few runaways, but it was because we initially put them in a clear bucket and didn’t realize they only like dark places, so we switched to a black 5 gallon bucket. We ordered our worms from Uncle Jim’s Farm and they arrived in the mail in a neat little package. We get tips and ideas from our great friend and Brooklyn neighbor’s blog on how to keep a worm bin in the city.
By Alfie Alcántara and Deanna Urciouli
Alfie Alcántara and Deanna Urciouli are co-owners of ‘Dear Native Grapes’ a small farm winery in the Catskills. Their goal is to reclaim America’s forgotten wine grapes and make natural, biodynamic wine. They’re planting their first two-acres of vines this summer. You can follow them on Instagram @dear.native.grapes