Though I’ve been lucky to “borrow” my friends’ back yard for a garden this year, during the winter I still crave growing something green and edible. But in an apartment with insufficient amounts of direct sunlight, I sometimes find it difficult to grow much of anything.
I know I’m not alone in having that problem, and for those people who don’t have access to community gardens to exercise their green thumbs, indoor gardening can seem more of a hassle than it’s worth. But R. J. Ruppenthal, in his new book “Fresh Food from Small Spaces: The Square-Inch Gardener’s Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting” (Chelsea Green, 2008), offers hope for pavement-bound urban dwellers. By applying just a couple of his ideas, he claims, anyone can grow up to 10 or 20 percent of their own fresh food indoors, in limited paved spaces, or in small yards.
As garden guides go, “Fresh Food From Small Spaces” is a good introduction to many useful small-scale techniques, complete with an appendix of resources for tools, equipment, seeds, and further information. It covers a lot of ground (so to speak), and even though much of what I read was familiar to me, I still picked up a number of good tips to incorporate into my own gardening. For those who already garden, this may not be a book to add to your collection, as it doesn’t sink deep roots into most topics. However, those urban dwellers who are just now looking for ways to grow some of their own food will find many possibilities here for starting your own at-home food production.
Ruppenthal begins by listing many popular food crops and their optimal light and temperature conditions. Surprisingly, many vegetables can grow, albeit a bit more slowly, with just a few hours of direct light per day, and many adapt well to container gardening. He discusses the pros and cons of different kinds and shapes of containers, including a large, deep bin one can build oneself, and encourages the use of self-watering containers. He also reviews soil amendments, the gift of compost, water requirements, companion planting, and, of course, light.
Since light is generally the most critical factor for gardening and all the more precious indoors, he upholds the methods of vertical gardening — terracing, trellising, and tumbling (hanging plants) — as the best means to maximize available light. Reflected light offers nourishment, too; additional light can be absorbed from walls and reflectors as needed.
For those people with some outdoor space, even very limited amounts, Ruppenthal offers the tantalizing possibility of growing fruit, from trees as well as berry plants and canes. Dwarf varieties of many tree fruits are now available and adapt well to planters. Noting that small crops may have difficulty in attracting pollinators, he recommends planting herbs and flowers nearby to help the fruit trees flourish.
Beyond the customary fruit and vegetable crops, Ruppenthal touts the advantages of sprouting. No longer the perceived province of “health-food nuts,” sprouting can “produce armloads of fresh food every week, from pennies’ worth of seed, using just one or two square feet of space that does not need to be well lighted.” He discusses the nutritional value of sprouts and points out that this method can help you prepare grains and beans in a way that takes advantage of all the nutrients they can offer. And if you have no idea how to use them other than on salads, he lists several recipes to help you incorporate sprouts into meals more fully.
In addition to sprouting, he includes a chapter on fermentation, chiefly in yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kim chi, as another way of growing food or, as he describes it, “‘farming’ beneficial microflora that help produce your own superfood.” He also describes growing mushrooms as a way to use dark closets for food production, and for those lucky souls with a little yard space, he suggests raising chickens for eggs or bees for honey (as long as local ordinances permit).
Ruppenthal’s ideas for such small-scale food production come not just from the desire to see more people grow their own food. He also discusses the concepts of peak oil and climate change and encourages readers to find ways to scale back their energy use and to prepare for emergencies through food production. In all these methods, he mentions what steps or equipment may be more energy-intensive (such as grow lights or automatic sprouters), and he outlines ways to close the cycle and return wastes to the soil through compost. (He doesn’t address the question of urban pollution when discussing outdoor plantings in the city, though that, too, is a valid environmental concern.)
Given the recession, his last two chapters — on the true cost of food and how to expand gardens in tough economic times — seem particularly relevant. For the latter, he emphasizes planning the garden space to return the most calories for the household, beginning with larger-scale sprouting indoors so as to make more room in vegetable plots for “high-carb crops” such as potatoes, grain, or corn. Above all, he reminds the reader to keep the big picture in mind and to continue amending the soil: “Build up the soil in your own garden; nothing is more local, organic, or nutritious than what you can grow yourself. Your wealth is in this soil and in the skills you can apply to help you produce food.”