Seeds, Fertilizer, Varieties
Roses are classic flowers that symbolize love and romance. Daffodils, which bloom in spring, symbolize rebirth and new beginnings.
Summer- and fall-blooming annuals such as zinnia, vinca and marigold make great plants for borders and containers. Alstroemeria is a versatile flower that comes in many colors and shades.
As the summer growing season winds down, Kathleen Stull is enjoying an abundance of herbs and vegetables from her Bella Vista rowhouse garden.
She first tried gardening when she moved there in 2018, but the soil was filled with glass and debris, critters nibbled on whatever she and her roommates planted, and the weeds were unrelenting.
Two summers ago, Stull and her boyfriend, Chris Pickwell, decided to give it another try.
“I found it really fulfilling, going to buy the plants, planting them, and then seeing they didn’t die,” said Stull, event and communications manager at the Wardrobe. “I thought I could really do this.”
Though they replaced much of the soil in their four-foot-square raised bed, they still find bits of glass. Determined squirrels continue to nibble, and the weeds seem never-ending, but this summer their garden thrived. Herbs and vegetables, including basil, thyme, tomatoes, and kale, provided lots of produce. Flowering perennials and annuals in pots and hanging baskets added splashes of color throughout the season.
The pair is now readying their garden for fall, planting mums to add color now and grape hyacinths to bloom in early spring. They will dry some of the leftover herbs to use as teas or share with friends but leave the old flower heads as a winter treat for the birds.
More than half of American households have a garden, according to the Bigger Garden blog. But creating a garden in the backyard or on the roof deck of a city rowhouse can be challenging. Space is typically limited, and the soil may be filled with debris, or worse, contain lead or other hazardous materials. Access to light and water may also be difficult.
Don’t be discouraged, insisted Sally McCabe, associate director of community education at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
“There is no situation in which you can grow nothing,” McCabe said. “You just need to figure out the best things you can grow given the hand you’ve been dealt.”
How to get started
The most important things to consider are space, light, soil, and water. If space is limited, you can grow herbs in a pot, and raised garden beds are now available in many shapes and sizes. While six hours of sunlight is ideal, plenty of plants will grow with less.
A soil test will let you know what additional nutrients you may need to ensure healthy plants. The Penn State Extension Laboratory offers test kits for $10. The biggest concern is lead, left from the historic use of leaded gasoline and lead paint. If there is lead in your garden, keep children away, thoroughly wash any vegetables or fruit, and remove the outer leaves of leafy vegetables.
“Raised beds give you control over what kind of soil you have,” McCabe said. “If you’re bringing in soil especially high in organic matter, that really buffers the lead issue. If you’re concerned about lead, avoid growing root vegetables or be sure to wash and peel them.”
Gardens need about an inch of rain a week, so if there isn’t enough rainfall, have a hose long enough to reach your plants. If you go on vacation, have someone water your garden while you’re away. If you aren’t sure how much water your plants are getting, a water meter can take out the guess work.
While the roof deck may be the perfect spot for your garden, its location presents additional challenges. Oftentimes it’s situated up several stories, maybe including a spiral staircase. Installing irrigation will ensure that your plants get enough water.
“We just had an installation where we had to take 2,000 pounds of soil up four and a half flights,” said Chris Carrington, owner of Bella Vista-based City Garden Guru. “And typically we have to go through the house.”
Before you get started, talk to your neighbors, especially those with bountiful gardens, for their expertise. They can share what has or hasn’t worked for them. There are also plenty of YouTube and other how-to videos and websites where you can learn about crops and plants that work best in your conditions.
Weeds are unavoidable, but there are ways to keep them in control. Weeds love when the soil is turned and exposed to light, McCabe said, so it’s important to keep the soil covered. You can do that with mulch or cover crops, by keeping plants close together to shade one another, or by being persistent in pulling out baby weeds as soon as you see them.
“Don’t be overambitious,” said McCabe, who suggested starting small. “Get some success and confidence and build from there.”
Keeping costs down
Stull spent less than $300 by taking her chances on sorry-looking plants on the clearance tables — they almost always recovered — and choosing more perennials over annuals because they grow back each year. She created much of her path from abandoned bricks she found throughout the city.
Carrington recommended starting plants from seeds or cuttings. Take advantage of sales at big-box stores at the end of summer. There are plenty of plant swap groups, such as the Philadelphia Urban Farm Network, where gardeners offer advice and often, free plants.
Though many gardeners opt for just a summer garden, there are ways to extend the season year-round. Even in the deepest winter months, you can get started by ordering seeds that you can plant in small pots under fluorescent lights. You can also be sure your garden’s infrastructure is in order, building beds or replacing any broken bricks or pots.
For Stull and Pickwell, their garden is their happy place.
“It’s so nice and peaceful to have a space in the city to go back to at the end of the day,” Stull said. “Being able to sit in the backyard among the greenery is really nice.”