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Why You Should Start an Urban Garden

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The weather’s warming up. There are pansies everywhere and perennials are starting to show their colors. All this has you thinking that you should start a garden, but what would you plant and where would you put it? These are the questions my friends and customers ask, and as an urban farmer, I can tell you that even in small spaces or rowhouse yards, there are infinite possibilities for growing.

Sharing a meal with friends and family with food you’ve grown, seeing people taste a homegrown tomato or unwrap ground cherries from their husks like kids with candy wrappers–are some of the most rewarding moments.

Now is the time to start planting your summer crops. Many gardeners use Mother’s Day as a clue for planting after the last frost. The first thing to do is to designate a space–the sunniest spot is preferable for edible crops. If growing in pots, make sure you start with a good potting soil. If growing in the ground, be sure to mix in compost. When picking plants, a mix of favorites and new varieties is always a recipe for success. You’ll have crops you’ll love to use and new ones to experiment with. For example, try tomatoes and peppers, plus Malabar spinach or sorrel–two greens that can handle the D.C. heat.

One of my first recommendations for any new gardener is to plant herbs. They’re perennials that can handle part shade and don’t need a lot of space. Herbs may have very different watering requirements, so try planting “woody herbs” such as sage, rosemary, and lavender in one pot and others like basil, cilantro, and parsley in another. “Woody herbs” hate having “wet feet” so water them every couple of days while giving the soil a chance to almost dry out. For other herbs, keep the soil consistently moist but not soaked. If you have more room, I highly recommend perennial fruiting plants such as strawberries, black raspberries, and fig trees. Enjoy your annual crops now and take the time to plan a fall planting of fruiting perennials.

If you don’t have any outdoor space or want an indoor garden, try foraging in the city. We’re quickly approaching mulberry and serviceberry season. Mulberries will come first. They’re known for painting D.C. sidewalks purple and are usually viewed as a nuisance but mulberries are highly nutritious and available all throughout the city. Serviceberries, which look like blueberries on trees but taste different, will be ready in June. The darkest serviceberries are the sweetest and the brighter fruits are more tart. Click here to find serviceberry trees near you. I always gather a huge amount of both berries for pies, freezing for smoothies, or simply enjoying fresh. In late summer, be sure to keep your eyes open for paw paws and small persimmons.

If gardening and foraging still sound intimidating to you, learn more at the DC Parks & Recreation Urban Garden Series. It’s a series of one-time free classes available throughout the D.C. area. I highly recommend Acorn Flour, Food Justice in the City, and Propagation. The National Arboretum and Botanic Garden also have monthly classes available to the public.