Guest Post | Urban Gardening in Small Spaces

By: Jolien Carter

Our first tomatoes have tiny fruit on them. The promise of great reward for patience and tender care. This is when we really start seeing the “fruits of our labour”.

When Megan asked me to write, my automatic thought is, “Where do I start?” But maybe that’s a part of it. When you enter into gardening, you enter into this rhythm, this cycle. For us this means each season brings its own joys and its own trials. This year’s cycle really begins last year, with carefully harvesting and preserving seeds from our tomatoes, marigolds, peppers and more (though to be fair we waited too long for our peppers and they were hit with an early frost, so we had to buy seeds/plants this year).

At the end of summer/early autumn we usually remember it’s time to collect seeds (though really you could do it earlier). For tomatoes, we set them aside in separate little containers while making sauce. Each one carefully labeled so we remember which plant it come from. We let them sit out until they mould over and then rinse & repeat until the liquid is clear. At that point we carefully dry them on a rag or paper towel, being very sure there’s no chance of a breeze sending all our organization into chaos.

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Over the winter we clean tools, rest, and plan for next year’s garden. By the time the new year comes we are just itching to get back into the soil. We temper ourselves and hold off until late February/early March. This year we hauled our bin of seed starting mixture into the living room on February 22nd. We’re in a smaller home and have to be creative about how we use our space. This year, instead of having the living room full of seed trays over the radiator like last year (they were too leggy and we ran out of space) we’ve set up a corner in our unfinished basement with grow lights and a heating mat (a Christmas gift to ourselves). We started our tomatoes, some peppers that we managed to save before the frost, onions, mustard, thyme and cilantro, as well as a few flowers. Copious amounts of basil were planted at a later date.

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Already by the 26th of February we saw wee sprouts push through and by the 1st of March we had little seedlings for each variety we planted. Running down to check on “our babies” first thing in the morning and after work was a daily occurrence. I cannot begin to describe the sheer joy one gets out of tiny flecks of green during mid-winter dreariness! One of the things we’ve discovered with this method of seed-saving is our germination rate is remarkable. We always seed way too many and end up thinning and giving seedlings away. We put water into the tray instead of watering from above, letting the seedling soak it up from below (underwatering). This makes for deeper roots and helps prevent damping off disease. We also set a fan to run, blowing them gently overnight to help prevent damping off and to promote strong stems. It may sound like a lot, but it is fairly easy and low maintenance at this point!

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After a couple of weeks, the seedlings develop their “true leaves”. The first leaves you see are actually embryonic leaves or cotyledon. True leaves are the first set that resemble what the leaves look like on a grown up plant. This means they’re ready to transplant! By this point our basement is a bit warmer, so we do the messy bit downstairs. Grasping the little seedling gently by the true leaves (never the stem!), we loosen the soil below with a fork or popsicle stick. They each get their own pot and we label each with popsicle sticks. Because we give many away, we do this right away instead of just labeling a tray. This makes it easy for when people come to pick up their plants! This year, we ended up having double the seedlings we needed for ourselves and others. These extras we gave to a friend, who was delighted to have 72 bonus tomato plants, as well as peppers and herbs! Did I mention we always plant too much?

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The seedlings grow downstairs and we continue with the watering and breeze, adding in some fertilizer on a bi-weekly basis. I am always amazed at how much they grow during this time! This year we had to move the lights up twice to accommodate their growth!

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The next stage is the one I find the most challenging and anxiety inducing. When weather begins to be warm enough, it is time to harden off our babies, which means exposing them to the real world. We carry them upstairs and place them in the shade for increasing periods of time, and then after a while we move them into the sun for increasing periods of time. Much like us after a long winter, the hot sun will burn them if you don’t let them get a base tan first. We lost two plants this year in the process, the exposure to the elements was too great for them. 

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At the end of May we were finally able to pant them into the beds, one of the most exciting days of the year! Our plants responded very well to this and within days were stronger and more green. Within days we even noticed them beginning to bud. And now, after a couple weeks, each one has flowers and we’re beginning to see the fruit form! The first day you pop a fresh heirloom tomato, ripened on the vine and warmed by the sun, into your mouth… now that has to be one of the best days of the year! Pasta sauce, tomato sandwiches, pepper parties and more. We can’t wait to enjoy all the things we were able to grow ourselves. We’ll try to remember not to eat them all this year before saving some seeds for next year! 

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I really encourage you to give seed starting a try! We do it out of our small home in the city and the back corner of our yard, but really you can do it anywhere – from large country plots to a pot on the balcony or windowsill. Being able to grow your own food and share from what you’ve grown is powerful. I could go on for days about all the benefits we’ve discovered through it, but why don’t you give it a try and find out for yourself!

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