This farm girl has found herself smack in the middle of a big city. I love everything about New Orleans, and yet I still long for the therapy of growing my own food, canning my own jams, and getting my hands dirty. Growing vegetables and fruit is one of the most satisfying activities anyone can do, but doing so in the middle of a city presents some particular challenges. If you’ve got an inner country girl just dying to get out, or you just want a fun activity to teach your kids where food comes from, here are a few things I’ve learned about city gardening along the way:
Apartments and balconies can be home to container gardens with a few simple pots and bags of dirt. Raised beds work really well in the city even if your yard space is small. Without the ability or desire to till up the soil in my backyard, I found them to be an easy and attractive solution. Almost all of the sunny space in my backyard is taken up by raised beds. I’ve ordered kits online and also picked them up from the local Home Depot. I recommend cedar raised bed kits for their ease of assembly and resistance to rot. While I did have my kids help and it made a great family project, I could have easily assembled my raised beds all on my own. Because the places I’ve lived in New Orleans have had yards of mostly clay, the raised bed gives me an option to start with soil I know will be nutrient-rich and as pest-free as possible. I keep it simple, lining the bottom of the raised bed with newspaper or cardboard to kill the grass and just letting nature take its course. So once I had my beds built, the next question was where to get the dirt!
My first raised bed was filled with bagged topsoil from a big box store. It worked ok, but I knew there had to be a better and more affordable solution. New Orleans may be an urban area, but we are not without our resources for farm supply. I found Schmelly’s Dirt Farm is an awesome local spot to pick up soil. They even deliver! Pound for pound, the price of soil here is much more affordable than buying in bags at a big box store. Schmelly’s has a great composting program, and also offers mulch, logs, and more. For my subsequent beds, I’ve picked up from Schmelly’s and been thrilled with the results.
Over last spring and summer, I took the LSU Ag Center’s home gardener’s course. Due to COVID, they offered it at no cost, but the wealth of information and support would have been worth paying for! Although I grew up on a family farm, my home state of Florida has vastly different conditions for soil and, needless to say, no one ever dug up Mardi Gras beads in our field! The LSU Ag Center offered the information I needed to learn about what crops grow best in our area, what I can do to amend my soil if needed, and how to fight the particular pests and critters that call New Orleans home.
As we move closer to spring, it’s a great time to start taking some action on a vegetable garden. Check out this Almanac resource for a decent planting guide for our area, and don’t forget the LSU Ag Center for advice and suggestions on what to plant and when. It may seem obvious, but the main advice I have for choosing what to grow is to grow what your family will eat. My youngest son loves tomatoes so much that whole bushes of cherry tomatoes have grown in my yard without any tomatoes entering the house because he will eat them first! It’s easy to get caught up in the challenge or to just choose something because it’s in season, but it’s best to start out with family favorites. Growing what your family likes to eat will make the project more fun, useful, and delicious.
This year, before a forecasted freeze, I harvested the remainder of my cold weather crops: mustard greens, lettuce, cauliflower, and broccoli. Standing over my sink washing greens, I couldn’t stop smiling at the satisfaction I find in seeing the harvest all over my kitchen counters. We enjoyed some of our harvest and had enough to share with friends. The text I received a few days later, “Those greens were delicious!”, has me ready for spring and planting time. With New Orleans’ climate, we only have a few weeks during which it isn’t advisable to have something growing in your yard, which means I don’t have long to wait. Even if it’s one small container, city living doesn’t mean you can’t get growing!