An “urban garden”, the hottest trend to hit horticulture, is not an oxymoron. Nor is it impossible, for those of us who thought we lacked that “green thumb gene”. At least once a month, newly opened “VEG and the City” garden store in downtown Zurich hosts a hands-on three hour evening gardening class. Led by owner Gudrun Ongania and co-taught by expert gardener Wanda Keller, the class is designed to make gardening not only understandable, but achievable on a real level. We joined Gudrun and Wanda recently for the “Urban Gardening: Basics Class” in English, and learned that gardeners aren’t born with green thumbs, they grow them!
When class began, everyone shared names and level of experience, looping around a large high table in VEG & the City’s downtown location. We were gathered at an active work space, and each carefully arranged place-setting had a gardening tutorial, plus an array of seedlings ready for potting. The beginning “icebreaker” quickly became a confessional of horticultural aspirations, as each student revealed wishes, dreams, and self-doubts surrounding the art of gardening. “I’m impatient about gardening” and “I’d love to be able to properly grow basil” were met with echoes of agreement, and even “I tend to kill every plant I touch,” earned a few laughs, and many nods of understanding.
The truth is, gardening is harder than it looks, and, while we all might know this on a rational level, we don’t always honor it. We’d all love to grow a Garden of Eden on our balconies, wouldn’t we? Sure, our little garden space seems perfect for herbs, flowers, tomatoes, carrots, beans and sweet peas. In addition, there seem to be some wellness benefits popularly associated with gardening. Those who garden seem to have reached a state of Zen, somehow, a peaceful, meditative well-being and “oneness with the world”, and, instinctively, we want some of that. We also want to honor our busy, active lives, and making time for gardening is sometimes a challenge. Still, what we learned at the basics class is something of a paradox: the idea that gardening is simple is an illusion, yet being able to create a garden in an urban setting is easier than it looks. The number one prerequisite to ace the course? Get creative.
While you may have mastered the basics already, what follows are ten compelling urban gardening tips and tricks that piqued our interest at last week’s course.
10 Hot Urban Gardening Tips and Tricks
1. Go Organic! Organic is the way to go… natural gardening is sensible gardening, according to VEG and the City. It makes sense, too—the least amount of pesticides we use, the better. It’s not about combating the natural environment, but rather about peaceful coexistence.
2. Basil is a Diva! We smiled when we heard Gudrun make this announcement during class, as we all bemoaned the labors spent trying (and failing) to grow a healthy, flourishing basil plant. Apparently this is completely natural. Basil needs the perfect location, with the perfect amount of sun, water, climate and conditions… it’s common for the relationship with basil to be a rocky one.
3. Size Doesn’t Matter! Organic homegrown urban plants will naturally have a different look and feel than those in the grocery store, especially those grown in different conditions. Celebrate your own fresh produce, and don’t compare!
4. Get Creative with Space: Think Vertical! Urban Gardening is often about maximizing space, and, as Gudrun points out in diagrams, there are four levels of balcony gardening: high pots on the “floor”; plants hanging on the balcony railing; those partly protected in the shade/rear; plants attached to the wall of your home. Remember, creativity also yields varying sun options!
5. Mulch it up! Your aim is to have no surface uncovered in a pot! Mulch, found in natural form in freshly cut grass and other options, allows for better water retention in soil, repels snails, protects plant against pollution, and also prevents weeds from growing in your plant’s space. The myriad benefits of mulch are rather astounding!
6. Plants are thirsty in the morning! Try to water in the morning, before plants have sun exposure, rather than at nighttime, Gudrun recommends. How much to water? That depends on your plant’s needs, but the type of leaf gives you a clue, and also reveals some of the plant’s sun preferences. For example, plants with a waxy coating on leaves have a natural sun protectant that also prevents water loss, indicating their conditioning to sun exposure.
7. Herbs are dis”joint”ed! Try to cut herbs at the “joint”, or “branching out” points, so that there is opportunity for more growth. Never cut an herb at its base, or core, which will essentially diminish and/or kill the plant’s ability to rejuvenate. One of the best times to cut herbs? Right before flowering!
8. Break the roots! When potting herbs, look to break roots just a little, to give it an idea of the space beyond, so that roots will extend outward. It needs to feel the dimensions of its space!
9. Small seedlings are better! When looking to buy a seedling, aim for plants with a strong base, dense, dark leaves (not large and thinned), with small, bushy growth. A tall seedling could be a sign that it’s been “pushed” to grow too quickly by a fertilizer.
10. Planting is social, and you learn a lot by sharing your experience with others! In sum, celebrate the fact that no one is born with a green thumb, so there’s ample opportunity for learning by experimenting and having fun with it! In addition, urban gardening provides a huge opportunity for social interaction. Join a community garden, take a class at VEG and the City, or just drop by the store for a chat sometime. As Wanda says, “Plants are like a translator, bringing people together.” We couldn’t agree more.
VEG and the City is located in the center of Zurich, close to the main train station at Lagerstrasse 36-38 (Europaallee). It’s open from Mo – Fr: 9.00 – 19.00h and Sa: 9.00 – 18.00h. Check online for upcoming classes in English and German, web tutorials, online shop, and more at: www.VEGandthecity.ch. Happy urban gardening!
Article & Photo created by Zuri Girl Caitlin Krause, a Bostonian by birth who writes and teaches in Zurich. Poet, photographer, and running coach, she finds inspiration outdoors, swimming in the lake and hiking in the Alps.
Having lived in Belgium for two years, she is building her credentials as a chocolate aficionado in the land of Swiss Bliss.