Mike Lieberman lived in New York. His organic apples were from Chile. While at the store one day it dawned on him that organic food transported 5000 miles, although perhaps better for his health in the short term, was an environmental catastrophe in the long run. Suddenly, Mike’s tiny New York City fire escape became interesting. He started to use this little urban space to grow the food he wanted. As his terrace garden grew, so did the number of people he helped to do the same. Since 2009 Mike has helped 1000s of people grow food in their own tiny urban spaces.
Here is a bit of his story and know how.
When you are deciding to grow your own food what is the most important thing to consider?
I think the two most important things to ensure success are to understand how much space and sunlight you have. People want to grow tomatoes. People are fascinated with tomatoes, but with urban apartment scenarios it is more difficult because you do not have a lot of sunlight. Tomatoes need six to eight hours of sunlight.
What is the minimum amount of sunlight you need?
Certain things can grow in shade. When I was growing things in New York I got three or four hours of sunlight. Most leafy vegetables such as spinaches, lettuces and chards will do well with about two hours of sunlight.
What are some of the things grow well for someone who is an absolute beginner in urban gardening?
Lettuces, greens, chard, kale and spinaches. I say that because we all know what to do with them, we could all eat more of them and they require a little less time and attention than tomatoes or cucumbers that have to flower and pollinate.
What are some of the things that are more difficult to grow?
Tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes, eggplant. They need the right nutrients and sunlight. They require more of your attention and time.
When should people start?
Now. No matter when they are reading this – start now. There is no perfect time. The perfect time is now.
If you have an actual garden and are not growing things in containers or pots, is there a better time of year to start?
A good rule of thumb is once the temperatures are consistently over 50 degrees at night then it is good to have things outside. For the most part of the United States that is May.
What about sprouting? Is that necessary? When should you do it?
In terms of starting your own seeds, if someone is just beginning I always recommend they buy plants that have already started from a local nursery or farmers market. There is the satisfaction of taking something from seed and growing it, but it definitely requires a little more time and attention to start from seeds. If you do want to grow from seed determine the last frost date by looking at the seed package and then determine how long it takes for the seeds to germinate. If it takes six weeks to germinate and the last frost date is middle of May then you know to plant the seeds in the beginning of April.
How do you make sure you do not buy GMO seeds?
Technically GMO seeds are not available to consumers. We cannot buy GMO seeds. But what happens is Monsanto, the biggest company that produces GMO seeds, has bought up a lot of mom and pop seed companies so if you buy seeds from one of these companies the money is still going to Monsanto or other chemical companies who produce GMO seeds..
Do you have any recommendations for any seed companies that aren’t affiliated with Monsanto or other GMO manufacturers?
I work with seedsnow.com. They are a small family owned company. What I like about them is they have seed kits. I don’t know if you have ever seen a seed catalog, but they can be overwhelming. Pages and pages of tomatoes. Pages and pages of lettuce. Most people are like, ‘I just want to grow tomatoes,’ and don’t care about the 15 varieties of cherry tomatoes. Seedsnow.com gives you kits which make the decision making process a lot easier. If you know the specific kind of seed you want another company I recommend is Botanical Interest. They have signed the Safe Seed Pledge. Other companies are Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and The Seed Savers Exchange. Those are four reputable companies to start with.
Explain the concept of self-watering. Is it literally self-watering?
It is not literally self-watering. If you think about the way plants get water in nature, the roots suck up the water from the ground below. This is the same way that self-watering containers work. When you put water on top of the soil a lot of the water evaporates and does not get to the roots. With self-watering you put a reservoir on the bottom of your container and the roots suck up the water by itself. It is not necessarily watering itself, but you do have to water less frequently.
How frequently do you need to add water to this self-watering system?
I have been growing a lot of greens and lettuces that do not get a lot of sunlight and I will change the water out once a week. I have gone away for three or four weeks and they have been fine.
Before garbage collection what did they do? Dug a hole and buried the stuff. Now what do you do? You put it in a bag and take it out to the curb and the garbage collection takes it to this place where it just magically disappears. When you compost you are bringing everything full circle. If you are creating your own compost you are creating the nutrients for the food you are growing and eating and then you use the remains of this food you have grown as nutrients for what you are currently growing. The cycle just keeps going. It is a way to reduce food waste. If we have the ability to do so, why don’t we do it to reduce our impact on the environment while also growing a better garden.
How do you know when the compost is done?
It looks just like soil or dirt again. It looks completely different from what you put in it.
What do you do with compost once it is done?
You can dig it into the soil. If you are dealing with a container and you want it mixed in there more efficiently you can make compost tea which is a liquid form of compost and a more efficient way to give container gardens nutrients.
Is compost the only nutrients you need to give to plants?
At a very high level, yes. People who have been doing this for years would debate that and would more than likely be correct in what they are saying, but using compost should be more than enough when you are starting out.
Do you have any suggestions for non-plastic growing containers?
That is a challenge. I use the five gallon plastic containers because they are affordable. The terra cotta containers are much more expensive. It is a struggle to find the balance of being practical and budget friendly while looking at it from a health standpoint. I have done research on this. The five gallon containers are number two and number five plastics and these plastics are not known to leech plastics. I haven’t found anything else that works just as well that is also affordable.
Could you give me the total beginners guide to growing something easy, like lettuce?
Find your location a sunny window sill, a deck or a terrace. Note how much sunlight you have in these places during one day. There are certain types of soil you can get such as Fox Farm’s Ocean Forest. Put that in your container and plant the seed. If you are planting something that has already sprouted separate the roots a little bit, put it in the container with the soil and every few days water it and it will grow. It is over simplifying it, but it really is that simple and if something goes wrong give it another try.
How much space do you need to grow lettuce?
You can do it in a small eight inch pot.
How long will it be before you are eating lettuce?
Four to six weeks.
Anything else you would like to add?
Keep it easy. Keep it simple and just get started.