March 2, 2018

Tips to Maximize Your Urban Garden

Mike Irvine of Sunset magazine gives five pointers for growing your own food

Inspired by our exhibition in the Gallery of California Natural Sciences, Take Root: Oakland Grows Food, we asked Associate Home and Garden Editor, Mike Irvine, of Sunset magazine for tips on growing your own food—no matter how small your space it.

Test Your Soil

Urban environments can pose challenges to even the most skilled gardener, especially when it comes to contaminants. Pollutants and heavy metals (such as lead and cadmium) can be present in the soil, so be sure to have it checked out before planting. To check your garden, Irvine recommends sending soil samples to a professional lab for analysis. Want to learn more? The University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources has helpful information on soil testing and other related topics.

Start Small

Would-be gardeners may not realize how much they can do in tiny spaces, Irvine says. You can grow plenty of things in pots, window boxes, and barrels, for example. And don’t overlook your vertical spaces: trellises, overhangs, and ladders can support a variety of plants. Additionally, beginners may want to start with easy-to-grow herbs—perfect for small containers—to build confidence in their green thumbs.

Consider Raised Beds

Making raised beds can be a fun and creative DIY project, Irvine says. Repurpose pallets, dresser drawers, old file cabinets, and the like, and fill them with fresh soil—which you can obtain from a nursery, eliminating the need for soil testing. (Although if you repurpose pallets or drawers, make sure they aren’t old pressure-treated wood, which can leach toxins into the soil and your food.) Most veggies will do well in raised beds, which can make attractive additions to your outdoor space. Watch an easy how-to video from Sunset to learn more about building your own.

Irrigate the Easy Way

Irrigation can be a complex proposition, Irvine says, but it does not have to be. All you need for a basic drip irrigation system is a simple timer and some basic poly tubing. This is key for an optimal yield, he adds, because most food crops require a significant amount of water.

Don’t Give Up!

Gardening can involve a lot of trial and error, and many first-timers get frustrated when plants die on them. Irvine urges people not to give up and to just keep trying. “It’s a way to use your space well and wisely,” he says, “and it’s worth the time and energy you put into it.” Plus, there’s nothing like making a fresh meal from your first homegrown harvest.

Don't forget to check out our selection of home gardening products in the OMCA Store for more inspiration!

Take Root: Oakland Grows Food is on view now through January 13, 2019. 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Inside Out, the Oakland Museum of California's Member Magazine.