A short guide to starting your first urban garden. This guide includes links to where to buy all of the needed ingredients, online resources and tips. My own balcony garden in San Francisco, California is now 3 years old.
Table of Contents
- Soil and Fertilizer
- When and How to Plant
- Plants I like
- Drip Irrigation
I have a balcony in the city of San Francisco, but a backyard is even better. I am in Bayview neighborhood, which gets a lot of sun, but also a lot of wind. Do check with a compass (your iPhone has it) if your location is South/South-West facing; those two are the best. In my case, the sun is traveling from left to right, and I get plenty of it. The key here is to pick a spot with plenty of sun.
At first, my sister gave me a couple of German-made, self-watering Lechuza planters. They are great, but kind of expensive. So while I still have them, my current preference is Keter Easy Grow 32-gallon Raised Bed Planter. I bought mine for $80/each pre-Covid. Since Covid-19, the prices went up, and they are in very high demand, so if you get one for under $100 (with free S/H), it's a good deal. I have seen the prices go up as high as $240/each.
Keter Easy Grow 31.7 Gallon Raised Garden Bed with Self Watering Planter Box and Drainage Plug
At first, I bought one, then the second one and now I have four of them.
Why I like them:
- They are well constructed with soft and durable plastic.
- They are big with a lot of surface area and, even more importantly, depth.
- They are inexpensive; you get a lot for $80.
- They have double-bottom for self-watering capabilities, so they maintain a more stable moisture level in the box (never seen it dry out).
- I like their height, easy to work with
- UPDATE Jan 2021: I am still happy with these planters. They feel like small raised beds and I have been growing massive tomato plants (3 in each) along with other veggies.
I also have a couple of Lechuza planters, and while I think they look great indoors, for outdoors, they did not work for me as well as Keter, probably because they are just too small.
Here is what my current layout looks like. The key features I see for planters are:
Self-watering is really effective, i.e., a water reservoir to store excess water when it rains and provide water when the weather is dry.
Volume, the more, the better. More volume, more soil, more nutrients. In smaller volume planters, the soil gets too hot or too cold. In smaller containers, roots do not have enough space to grow.
My balcony, March 2020 after a rain
For soil I use Kellogg Garden Organics Patio Plus Organic Potting Mix:
Kellogg Patio Plus, Outdoor Potting Mix
Why I like it:
- Good, light soil with a lot of organic content (wood chips, I think).
- Inexpensive and easily available from Home Depot.
- It is not loaded with fertilizer like some others.
- UPDATE Jul 2020: based on my recent experience, their organic content will only be enough for a few months to fertilize your plants. Don’t forget to fertilize in 2-3 months, or your plants will suffer.
- UPDATE Jan 2021: I think this soil alone can get too heavy and compressed over time. This year, I am adding peat moss, perlite and a bit of compost to it.
For fertilizer, I decided to stick with the same brand for now with their Organic Plus, Tomato, Vegetable and Herb Fertilizer.
Organic fertilizer from Kellogg
When I fill the planters, I mix the fertilizer with the soil according to instructions. I also add a few other things like eggshells or banana peels. And I am experimenting with other fertilizers (like Epsom salt), but try not to add too much of it.
UPDATE Jul 2020: one issue with the fertilizer above is that it is not water-soluble, so it is harder to apply later in the season. So I am also using two water-soluble Miracle Grow fertilizers.
First, 24-8-16 is high in Nitrogen and good for leafy greens and overall plant growth. Remember to add this monthly to your garden. Your organic, non-water-soluble fertilizer will last for 2-3 months and then will run out. So after 2-3 months, start monthly watering with Miracle Grow or other soluble fertilizer (organic options are also available).
Miracle-Gro All Purpose Plant Food
And the second one for Tomatoes specifically, more balanced (18-18-21), less Nitrogen and more P/K for better roots and blooming:
Miracle-Gro All Purpose Plant Food
UPDATE Jan 2021: One additional soil fertilizer/additive I am introducing in 2021 is lime. Lime is meant to balance pH in the soil. For example, peat moss and compost will make it more acidic, so lime which is alkaline, will bring the pH back. Add lime to your soil mix early on, or sprinkle it on top of the soil.
Garden Lime for pH
I do not have a preferred supplier of seeds at this point. I get them from multiple sources:
- Sprouts Farmers Market seed rack (usually by the entrance), Botanical Interests brand. Good experience so far, can’t complain.
MIGardener.com (the owner has a petty cool YouTube Channel that I watch a lot). They have issues with inventory and are often sold out.
- Home Depot (I do not like them for some reason, probably the packets are too bright), Burpee?
- My mom (she gets hers from all sorts of places, including making her own)
Small part of my seed collection
Seeds rack at Sprouts Farmers Market in Daly City, CA
Some plants you'd need to plant indoors first, grow seedlings, then replant them outside. Below, I’ll refer to the online resource, which will tell you which would need to be started indoors. In those cases, I found this old Russian method to work quite well: egg cartons!
You take an empty egg carton, fill it with seed starting mix (link below), find a tray for it (like an aluminum baking tray), plant seed and water once a day. Water the tray itself for best results. Because it's a paper carton, it acts as a sponge and keeps the soil nice and moist. As an additional benefit, it's fully biodegradable, so you can plant this carton right in. I usually cut out individual casings (12 total) and plant them as-is to not disturb the roots.
Egg cartons and aluminum baking tray
Egg carton with seedlings
Note that you want to use the special Seed Starting Mix, not regular soil for this, like this one from Home Depot. No fertilizer is needed.
In the beginning, seeds usually have enough nutrients to get started on their own, so the seed starting mix doesn’t have to have nutrients. What it does need is a clean substrate free of other (weed) seeds and fungal/other diseases. You can also make your own mix from a) peat moss, b) perlite, c) vermiculite.
Jiffy Seed Starting mix
Different veggies and herbs like different weather, different watering, and different neighbors. The best online resource I found is the following website:
The first step here is to figure out which USDA Hardiness Zone you live in. Basically, are you in Alaska climate, Minnesota or Florida? Interestingly though, in San Francisco Bay Area, we have a lot of different climate zones.
Follow this link to determine your hardiness zone from your zip code (mine is 10b, for example, in southeast SF):
USDA Hardiness Zones
Remember the zone for your zip code and pick it in the dropdown on Gardinate.com
For every major vegetable, Gardinate.com will tell you:
- What months are best for planting (e.g Mar, Apr)
- Should it be started in seed trays or outside
- How to plant it
- What neighbors does it prefer and which it doesn’t (e.g., cucumbers don’t like tomatoes)
Gardinate.com guide for 10b zone for cucumber
Alright, now you’re dangerous
The next steps are seed planting and watering daily. Then, watching the plants grow and eating them, of course!
You probably have a good idea of what you want to plant. A general rule of thumb: Plant what you like to eat.
In three years of gardening, I developed a second rule of thumb: I’d rather eat a little bit every day than a lot during the summer harvest. So it means I like to plant a lot of greens, herbs, radishes, chives, Swiss chard, plants with a short planting-to-harvesting cycle.
My favorites are...
Leafy Greens for Salads:
Kale. It is hardy (survives droughts or over-watering). It grows fast. It is nutritious. It grows to relatively large plants. For salads, go for Red Russian Kale and Dinosaur varieties.
Swiss Chard. It has a better texture than kale in salads and just as nutritious. Plus, it’s super colorful AND it grows all season long. I now prefer it to kale
Arugula. It grows fast. It tastes great. It’s nutritious.
Lettuce. It grows fast. It produces a lot of volume.
Mustard Greens. It is similar to kale but better tasting. Big plants, fast growing.
Spinach. Nutritious, grows fast, medium volume though.
Herbs for taste and flavor:
Dill. Tastes great and grows surprisingly fast under the right conditions, produces a lot of volume for an herb. Plant it in the winter.
Cilantro. Tastes great, grows fast, not as much volume as dill, but still
Parsley. You have to be patient with it, it takes a while to get going, but once it does, you’ll be adding parsley to all your dishes.
Mint. I love black tea with mint, and mint grows super fast and produces a lot of volume. Remember to plant it in a separate container, otherwise, it will take over and will force other plants out.
Radishes. Grow in 4-6 weeks, can seed close to each other, so produces a lot per row.
Tomatoes. This is the first one that I have to wait for the harvest for a long time (4 months?), but its usually worth the wait. Usually, a hardy plant that grows very fast and indeterminate type varieties can be harvested for 5-6 months.
Snap peas: mixed success so far, will update later in the year
Cucumbers: bad luck so far with inconsistent watering (which they hate), so this year, I am putting a more consistent watering system in place. I will update you later in the year.
Beets: trying them out this year for the first time.
Flowers for decoration and pollinators:
Nasturtium. Grows very well and quickly in my climate, great germination rates and doesn't need much care. I like it both for cute green and abundant leaves and for pretty yellow, orange, red flowers.
Petunia. Esp. Laura Bush variety. Love for the color and that they blossom all season long, hardy, don't need much care (except deadheading once in a while)
California Poppies. Native flowers and our State Flower. In my experience, not as hardy as the other two, especially in the first few months. Need to be watered properly and have enough space around them
Johny Jump-up Viola. Super cute family of flowers, smaller and tender that fit in tight spots and self-seed. Mine died several times but like Phoenix their self-seeding brings them back
Red Salvia. Hummingbirds love them, and I love watching hummingbirds
Typical daily harvest