My mom likes to tell people I have taste in my thumbs. I’ve loved cooking since I was a child, and my culinary adventures usually end in savory bliss (with the occasional cooking disaster).
So I consider it a tragedy that, despite my love for fresh ingredients, I have never been able to harvest any on my own. No plant has ever been safe for more than a few weeks in the garden of my good intentions. There may be taste in these here thumbs, but they sure ain’t green.
I’ve been remiss to give it another go, but now I’m thinking it’s the time to try again, with a new conscientious approach.
Because of California’s water crisis.
Governor Brown has officially declared a strict regulation of domestic water use in my home state. The California drought is real—it has been for some time—but for many Californians (as well as people in other states), that truth has been one step removed. It’s easy to think that the drought doesn’t affect you—it’s happening over there, in that part of the city, that part of the state—but the reality is, it’s everyone’s problem.
That’s why I contemplate a return to planting, specifically apartment-gardening. Whether you live in an apartment or condo, with access only to a patio, balcony, or windowsill, it’s heartening to know that there are still myriad ways to take part in a progressive activity that results in more nutrient-rich, tasty food without burning a hole in your wallet.
It doesn’t have to be much space to have an impact. In fact, apartment-gardening can conserve the amount of water larger-scale farms otherwise use on edible plants—if done right—and be a fruitful way to reduce the carbon footprint that our produce regularly generates.
Gardening (or at least buying local) removes the need to transport refrigerated food thousands of miles to grocery stores. You’re cutting out the middleman, making yourself the farmer and consumer.
So how can you get started with your own garden, even if you live in a city?
1. Start With What You Already Have
First off, assess your living situation and determine the amount of space you can dedicate to an apartment garden.
Do you have a rooftop balcony? A patio? A kitchen window? Think about the amount of sun exposure this area gets, and the amount of plants you have capacity to tend to.
2. Consider Not Using Soil At All
I’ve never had the best luck with potted plants in soil, so I plan to tackle the soil-free route, which includes either hydroponic or aeroponic planting.
It sounds counterintutive, I know—fighting off the drought with hydroponics (water-based planting). But experts have seen that hydroponics requires 1/10th of the water that traditional planting does—and the plants produce healthy, delicious fruits.
The cool thing about these methods is that you can build your own inexpensive apparatus at home and need not spend money on additional soil and upkeep. Plus, especially with aeroponic systems (where roots are suspended in air and regularly misted), water is recycled to continually feed the roots. All you need to do is keep the nutrient level high.
3. Grow Edible Plants
What should you grow? Plenty of professionals point out the most economical choices in terms of time and resources spent versus prices at the grocery market. Nearly all lists include tomatoes, lettuce, asparagus, and bell peppers, but you might also consider oregano, Swiss chard, thyme, broccoli. Many of these plants are hardy, too, meaning they’ll do well in drought climates.
For me, tomatoes, cilantro, and some legumes would be my first picks, since they are staples of south Asian food and in my daily diet. A small packet of beefsteak tomato seed (at Lowes for $2.48) can last more than a year, and I can grow enough tomatoes that can be harvested for cooking or made into puree, even pickled, thus used year-round.
If you’re in a desert (or other hot, dry area), think of planting edible succulents, such as aloe or dragonfruit.
4. Pick Plants You Already Love
To save the most money, focus on foods you love—foods you will actually use over and over, and that you already purchase frequently. Many analyses have shown that growing foods such as onions and lettuce reduces your cost by at least half.
When you settle on a few, consider coupling them with secondary vegetables that require the same dosage of water, same amount of light, and same temperature. That way, you can use a single system for a variety of plants, like eggplants, spinach, and peppers, or beets and kale. The Urban Farmer has an excellent breakdown of compatible and combative plants.
5. Learn How to Conserve Water
When you’re planting, think of how to better conserve water.
As for water, you need patience and dedication to learn the art of water distribution, but once you learn the ropes, you’ll be sitting pretty. Many horticulturalists and professional gardeners point out that container gardening (the space-efficient way to garden on balconies or patios) can be a water-wasting endeavor. Bay Area gardener Terry Lippert explains that in hotter climates, pots can dry out quickly or novice gardeners may over-water to “play it safe.”
But Lippert also points out many tips to avoid wasting water, from using self-watering pots to regularly maintaining the nutrient level of your soil with compost (thereby producing more food and healthier food).
You can also collect water within your house, to share with your plants: depending on the kind of soap you use, you can collect the runoff from your shower (called graywater) and use that to water your plants. You can also install cheap systems that collect rainwater, which will take some stress off your garden.
And don’t forget about the benefits of basic ground cover, such as mulch. Mulch allows your plants to better retain water during the hottest part of the day, so that watering cycles can be stretched. You can also find eco-and wallet-friendly sources for your mulch, like recycled newspapers or old coffee grounds.
As a whole, we have to learn new ways of mitigating our consumption of water. Even if the brunt of damage is done by underhanded practices of corporations and unsustainable farming demands, apartment-gardening is a beneficial and cost-effective way to adjust our approach to a quenched lifestyle. We may just end up with a healthier environment and greener, tastier thumbs.
Alya Hameed recently completed her M.A. from San Diego State University, specializing in Children’s Literature. If she isn’t poring over maps, scavenging for the next epic book series, or getting lost on a hike, you can find her on Twitter (@SimplyAlya) or on her food & literature blog, Coriander Dreams.