I rent a place in a really, really old house that has been separated into 5 apartments. It's small, but has a lot going for it, and it's perfect for me at this point in my life. The only downside is that I don't have any real outdoor space. I painfully miss having a backyard or balcony - some daily outdoor time in these warmer months is pretty much essential for me, otherwise I start to lose my mind a little (remember - kind of a hippie). Even excluding that, it's pretty hard to garden in these circumstances. We do have a spacious backyard, but there is no garden hose, and my landlord is unlikely to support me digging up the grass or adding a raised bed when my residence is temporary.
So, what is a hippie to do if she wants garden fresh tomatoes??
Well, there is a sketchy roof terrace, that I can only access by climbing through a window in the shared hallway. I have to take the screen out and replace it every time, so it's a bit of a nuisance. But seriously, have you tasted a ripe tomato straight off the vine? It's worth it.
There is some shared space on the front porch as well, so I also tried that this week - for a split second. I bought one of those garden boxes that sits over the railing, but it didn't work for me, it just fell right off crushing some of my poor plant babies because my railing is a weird shape and size. Although, it may work for some of you out there, who have less weird railings.
I guess we are back to crawling in and out of windows. It's sort of in the vein of 'Guerrilla Gardening' though, right? - so it works.
With a small, odd rooftop space, I have been relegated to container gardening, which is also great for balconies and small backyards that are 80% deck, 20% grass. Or, even if you are new to gardening and you just aren't ready to commit to permanent yard space. Certainly though, if you can dig into to the ground or do a raised bed, all the power to you. I just can't pretend to be an expert on regular ol' gardening -- yet!
With container gardening there are a few important things to mention:
Containers - You'll want to choose as large of a container as possible for your space and for your wallet. The smaller containers will not allow for large root systems and will result in less productive plants, not to mention you will have to water twice as much. Make sure they are cleaned out if they've been sitting around for a while, as you wouldn't want any thing that was harbouring mold, pests or disease - and you wouldn't know this fact until it was too late.
Drainage - Holes in the bottom of your containers are essential, plants do not like to sit in stale water. It's kind of like if you took a shower in your shoes and socks every single day, and let water slosh around in them - what a nightmare. I bought some cheap, plastic, 5-gallon containers and cut half a dozen holes into the bottom (the big terra cotta pots are crazy expensive).
Watering - Since your pots need to drain well, that means they also need to be watered often, so keep an eye out for dry soil, especially in hot, sunny weather where you may have to water twice in one day.
The sun will change quite a bit as the season progresses, but even now, assess the spots you're thinking of and determine how many hours of sun you might get there, or when during the day you will get it (morning, afternoon, evening). Most vegetables are sun lovers, they are going to need good solid sun - about 6-8 hours per day. If you have a lot of trees or buildings around throwing shade, and you have no idea where to start, you could set up a camera on a sunny day and take a picture every 1-3 hours, to track where the sun is the most prominent. This strategy is more important for permanent ground level gardening - as the great thing about containers is that they can be moved around throughout the season to capture the sunny spots if you notice they aren't in the right place. Another more general strategy, is to aim for south facing areas as they are likely to get a good amount of sun.
Most people who claim they don't have a "green thumb" are usually just victims of improper sunlight rather than anything else - so don't beat yourself up, we can't move the sun. It's a pretty unchangeable feature and I have been sufficiently depressed by this fact in previous homes. If this is the case for you, and you really want to get your hands dirty - community gardens are a really good secondary option.
Choosing your plants
When you're choosing your plants, consider what will grow well in your area, what the space requirements are and what you like, but don't forget to consider what is worth the effort (i.e. can your local farmers do it better).
This year, I chose:
Two tomato varieties - large beefsteak tomatoes and small cherry tomatoes. Southern Ontario's climate is perfect for tomatoes. I'm sure you can tell by now that I like them.
Herbs: two basil plants, thyme, rosemary, dill, mint, chives, cilantro. I bought starter plants for most of these, except I had some cilantro seeds I stuck haphazardly into the soil, and the chives were split from my Uncle's plant that grows like a weed.
Snap peas: I just really enjoy them, the plants aren't super productive, but they are distinctly better than store bought. I have some small bamboo trellis' that allows for vertical growth.
Historical failures for me:
Carrots - they were tiny and bitter. Probably my fault - who knows. I may try again next year. But since I get very good carrots in my CSA, I decided against them this year.
Lettuce - the plants actually grew very well, so I shouldn't call these a failure. I just found that the lettuce was ready to eat when I wasn't ready to eat it, and I would get tons of plants ready all at once. These would be great to have in a planting rotation if you are heavy into salads. But for me personally and the way I plan my meals, the taste difference wasn't significant enough for the effort. However, they are so easy to grow in containers that I would still recommend you try this at least once for yourself.
Strawberries - the birds ate a good chunk, and they were diseased. But I won't give up, I just had a super late start this year, re: longest winter ever.
This article is a bit dry, but if you scroll down there is a great list of all the best plants for container gardening, both edible and decorative.
Soil health = Human health
Choose good quality soil, intended for vegetable gardening, and add good quality organic fertilizer or compost, if possible. If your soil sucks, your crops will suck, and then you did all this work for nothing. If available to you, you might consider purchasing soil meant for vegetables AND container gardening, which will mean that it is a soil that will drain well and has a high level of nutrients.
Water regularly, but don't drown the plants. Frequency will depend on your container, and the weather - you just have to watch the soil. Most plants will show signs of dehydration like wilting, but try not to let that happen.
Protect your plants from pests. I naively thought being on the roof would keep me safely away from garden pests. But I forgot about squirrels. They will still dig around and mess up seedings and they are basically little parkour experts, so the roof is no problem of them. So, if your containers have a lot of bare space, or you are on ground level where bunnies or other critters might munch on your food, try covering your containers with some netting from the dollar store. Or, if you have a really specific critter problem, a simple Google search would be your best bet.
Feed your plants Organic compost is the best bet, but if you want to you could also check your garden store for a natural fertilizer meant for vegetables. If you have miracle grow around from flowers, don't use that, as it is full of chemicals that is not meant for veggies or for people. The soil I bought has quite a high amount of compost in it, and I didn't add anything to it last year. This year I bought a tomato fertilizer made from hen manure and seaweed and I will report back if it was worthwhile
And finally - eat your crops, it is good for them. Especially the herbs, they do well with regular pruning. Also, pluck off any flowers that form on your herbs, as it will promote fuller growth and prevent bolting.
I hope this was helpful! If you have any questions or you happen to be an expert, feel free to comment below :)