Growing vegetables in your yard means you have instant access to the freshest possible produce. Most homes in the downtown area of Philadelphia don’t have a lot of outdoor space. But, with a few strategically placed containers, you can still grow tasty vegetables at home. As long as you give the plants what they want and don’t neglect them, you can have a successful, urban backyard garden.
The location of your vegetable garden matters. Some yards in Philly aren’t ideal for growing vegetables, as they are in shade and don’t receive at least six hours of sunlight a day. A yard that faces south is perfect, as are west or east-facing yards. If your backyard area is too shaded, you can try growing plants out in the front of your house. Having a spigot outside so that you can water the vegetables with ease is also ideal.
Even if you have soil in your yard, using containers is a better way to grow vegetables in the city. Some city soil is contaminated with lead and other pollutants. Using containers means you’ll use safe potting soil. Never use garden soil in a container, as it will clump up and choke the plant’s roots.
The style of container you use doesn’t matter, as long as it has drainage holes in the bottom and is durable. Plastic containers are very durable while terra-cotta or ceramic ones can shatter. Wood containers will rot over time if you’re not careful.
Choose the size of the pot based on the vegetables you’ll be growing. Lettuce, herbs such as basil, and spinach can grow in smaller containers that are around 6 inches deep. Bigger plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers need bigger pots, such as 5-gallon buckets.
Some vegetable varieties are better suited to life in Philadelphia and in a small yard than others. If you want to grow cucumbers or zucchini, choose a bush variety, which will take up less space than varieties that produce vines. Tomatoes can be determinate or indeterminate. You can grow either type in a small space, but keep in mind that indeterminate varieties can grow to heights of around 9 or 10 feet. Staking the tomatoes will keep them tidy and prevent them from taking over your yard.
If you have a very small space, stick to the little vegetables. You can plant a few narrow window boxes with leaf lettuce, arugula, basil, and even carrots. “Atlas” carrots are small and round and great for a small urban vegetable garden. “Tom Thumb” pea plants are a dwarf variety that grow to about 8 inches tall and don’t need to be trellised.
Planting and Care
The gardening season gets into full swing in Philly around early to mid-May. You can plant some vegetables, such as peas and carrots, earlier, as they do well in cool temperatures. For the longest growing season, it’s a good idea to get everything planted by the end of May.
Your vegetables will need a regular supply of water, especially when summer heats up. Containers dry out more quickly than in-ground gardens, so check on the pots every day and water when the first inch of soil is dry. During heat waves, you might need to water twice a day. Fertilize the plants every month or so to help them produce more. You can use synthetic fertilizer if you wish or an organic option, such as compost. The city offers residents up to 30 gallons of free compost from the Fairmount Park Organic Recycling Center.