The definition of homesteading in America has changed considerably since the late 19th century, yet we still often associate the word with vast spaces and large pieces of land. The reality today is that many of us are homesteading from the hearts of our cities: from balconies, patios, small plots in community gardens, and from the tiny backyards of rental properties. From living walls to hanging gardens and hydroponics, we’re constantly learning new ways to make the most efficient use of space, so there’s no reason to let a lack of acreage keep you from growing your own veggies. As more people move into urban areas with limited room for horizontal expansion, many are looking up to make the best use of the vertical space in their gardens. This can be something as simple as incorporating a trellis, netting, or wire to give vining or trailing crops support as they grow upwards, increasing surface area and thus production. Arbors, arches, and even old ladders can give upward support while giving fruit a safe place to hang or rest on a rung above the soil.
Vertical gardens can also be created with any type of planter that you can attach, stack, hang, or arrange on a shelf. Living wall features and vertical planters can be purchased ready-to-plant, or crafted out of reusable objects. I’ve seen everything from pallets to soda bottles serve as vertical garden planters; it’s always fun to see how creative people can get with their plant and container choices.
Containerized vertical gardens can have some drawbacks, however. The type of crops you’re able to grow this way are limited by the smaller container sizes that are typically used. Smaller, shallow-rooted plants like some herbs and leafy greens are better for the types of planters that are small enough to use in vertical gardens. Veggies that have taproots or deep, hungry root systems are better in larger, deeper containers or in the ground.
Another problem sometimes encountered with containerized vertical gardens is that planters need to drain, which can cause damage to a home’s walls and foundation. One popular solution to this problem, especially in tiny gardens, is to build a hydroponic garden instead of using traditional planters against the side of a building.
Hydroponic gardens allow you to grow plants directly in water that is loaded with nutrients and continuously circulated, eliminating the need for a planting mix, like soil, to deliver nutrients to the roots. Because water stays contained within the system, it doesn’t cause damage to a home’s walls or foundations. It’s true that some hydroponic systems don’t look like big space-savers at first glance, but the yield per square foot can be much higher than that of traditional gardening methods if you maintain the system properly.
There are six types of hydroponic gardening methods, with variations of each method as diverse as the spaces they occupy. Hydroponics gives you complete control over the nutrition that your plants receive, but this growing method is somewhat less forgiving than growing in soil. One incorrect measurement, too much evaporation, or a missed water change can set you back, to say the least. Hydroponic gardening is by no means difficult, with handy gadgets and a wealth of knowledge at your fingertips. Still, like most gardens, it will require some careful attention and routine maintenance.
There are those who claim that the only way to go organic and hydroponic at the same time is to create an aquaponic garden. Aquaponics is similar to hydroponics in that the plants are suspended in water, but aquaponic gardens use fish to provide nutrients rather than chemicals. In turn, the roots of your crops filter the water that is continuously cycled through the system.
Brendan Woltman, the owner of EcoGro, located in downtown Tucson, points out that an aquaponic system uses much less water than hydroponic systems that need weekly water changes. The maintenance involved in keeping an aquaponic garden involves feeding the fish, topping-off the water, and harvesting your rewards. Aquaponic systems boast a 95 percent water savings over traditional gardening methods while veggies put on two to three times more bulk. With the exception of root crops like beets and carrots, anything can be grown this way, and it’s easy to modify existing water features like ponds or fountains to become a part of a thriving aquaponic system.
According to Woltman, tanks can be as small as three gallons, but with Tucson’s 5 percent evaporation rate, larger tanks are easier to maintain. Though the evaporation rate is less if the system is located indoors, energy costs can be higher depending on your need for artificial grow lights.
To grow root crops, Woltman says that his customers have been happy with fabric pots like the thrifty GLite series from GeoPot. These breathable, washable containers naturally air-prune roots that grow to the edges of the root ball, making it easy and inexpensive to grow some of your favorite veggies.
Whether it’s made of fabric or clay, you can grow just about anything in the right size container with the right amount of light. Most veggies do need lots of sunlight (or a grow light, if indoors), even in our hot climate, though many people also have good luck under the filtered light of a desert tree. Leafy greens and herbs are the way to go if you get less than 6 hours of sunlight a day.
Don’t forget to use companion planting to your advantage and grow different crops together to save space (visit EdibleBajaArizona.com/Good-Bedfellows for some suggestions). Remember that containerized plants need water more frequently than those in the ground. Even drought tolerant veggies like peppers will need to be checked daily when winds and temperatures are high.
If all else fails, and your garden is just too tiny or has the wrong kind of light, there are a whole lot of ways to still get your hands dirty and come home with some of the harvest. Find or start a community garden, or volunteer at a garden like Tucson’s Mission Garden and the gardens run by the Community Food Bank. Volunteering is a fantastic way to meet and learn from other passionate locals—and might inspire future gardening projects.
To learn more about aquaponic gardening and other sustainable growing methods—and to see some rare and unusual plants for sale—stop by EcoGro. This small store has knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff, and a lot of cool stuff to see. ✜
EcoGro. 657 W. St. Mary’s Road, Suite 100. EcoGro.com.
To find a community garden in Tucson, visit CommunityGardensofTucson.org.
To learn more about Mission Garden, visit TucsonsBirthplace.org.
Amy Belk is a garden writer and photographer, a certified arborist, and a certified nursery professional who has been learning from her garden for 15 years. She and her husband homestead on a little piece of the desert in the heart of Tucson.
If you live at the highest elevations of Baja Arizona, most of what you’re planting this time of year will want to be in the ground by mid-July. This is the case with beets, carrots, celery, Chinese cabbage, and collard greens. Plant chard and head lettuce in July, and begin planting leaf lettuce in August.
Those around Benson, Cochise, and Willcox can plant everything above (with the exception of beets). You can also continue planting beans, broccoli, corn, mustard greens, and summer squash through the middle of July, and collard greens through early August. In early July, begin planting Brussels sprouts and Chinese cabbage, and around mid-month start planting cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, Swiss chard, lettuce, radish, and spinach. Get going with kale in early August, and with turnips mid-month.
In Gila Bend, Safford, and Tucson—anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000 feet—continue planting muskmelon, pumpkin, and summer squash through mid-July. Some varieties of dent corn can be planted very early in July, and winter squash can be planted by the end of the month. Plant bush or pole beans and sweet corn from mid-July to mid-August. In late July or early August, plant broccoli along with cauliflower, celery, cucumber, and radish. Begin planting Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, Chinese cabbage, kale, fall peas, and turnip around mid-August, and begin planting carrot, rutabaga, and spinach at the end of the month.
Lower elevations like Ajo, Casa Grande, Florence, and Marana have more going on in August, but you can continue planting dent corn varieties until mid- to late July, and plant muskmelon, pumpkin, and winter squash by the end of the month. There’s a short window to plant bush and pole beans from mid- or late July until around mid-August, and sweet corn from late July to late August. In mid-August begin planting a few cool season crops like cauliflower, celery, cucumber, and fall peas.This isn’t the busiest time of year in the very lowest elevations, like Yuma, though carrot, pumpkin, and winter squash can be planted from mid-July to mid-August. Plant bush beans, pole beans, and sweet corn in August. ✜