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For urban dwellers, advice on growing in small spaces

By Joel M. Lerner,

Growing vegetables and raising animals aren’t just for country folk.

That’s the message conveyed in a number of new books geared toward urban dwellers who want to try their hand at producing their own food — everything from lettuce to eggs.

In the book “Apartment Gardening: Plants, Projects and Recipes for Growing Food in Your Urban Home” (Sasquatch Books, 2011, $18.95), Amy Pennington offers useful information for those who live in apartments, have a small parcel of land, or a deck large enough to accommodate big pots and window-box planters.

Pennington advises against garden vegetables that need lots of space to spread their roots and interact with the soil. Instead, she recommends herbs and smaller edibles that can scent food — such as lovage seeds, anise hyssop, and nigella and scented geraniums (also known as Pelargonium). All of these will do well in the correct indoor microclimate if they’re in pots with good drainage.

Keep in mind that the herbs or any edible flowers you might wish to grow indoors will require at least six hours of sunlight. If you’re confused about what types of soil or supplies you might need, Pennington offers a few pages of advice on that, too.

Her last chapter focuses on plants that are perfectly suited to apartment gardens, such as micro-greens. These are cotyledon sprouts that germinate quickly. They’re so small and tender that cooking will destroy their fresh flavors. These greens — including arugula, basil, beets, celery, cilantro, cucumber, parsley, radish and sorrel — are often the chef’s secret to tasty salads, Pennington says. They are used when they have barely grown a leaf or two.

Another chapter devotes 45 pages to recipes using seeds, sprouts and flowers. I can’t vouch for the quality of Pennington’s recipes, as I have not tried them, but they are quite original and read well. They include lemon trout with dandelion greens, roasted shiitake mushrooms with fennel blossoms, minted arugula salad, chocolate lavender tart and rosy strawberries with buttermilk cake.

As for other books geared toward urban dwellers, Derek Fell’s newest publication takes it to a another level, literally.

The book’s title pretty much explains the concept: “Vertical Gardening: Grow Up, Not Out, for More Vegetables and Flowers in Much Less Space” (Rodale, 2011, $23.99).

This method also tremendously cuts down on the amount of weeding and tilling involved, because you’re working in a narrow area, using rope or wooden supports to train the plant to grow in a limited space.

Hanging planters will accomplish the same effect from above, and cascading plants can add an aesthetic touch to the canopy of a vertical garden with the addition of flowers such as bacopa, weeping fuchsia, purple wave petunias and homestead purple verbena. Certain vegetables also have a cascading tendency, such as Tumbling Tom tomatoes and ever-blooming strawberries.

Fell goes on to cover disease and insect problems, starting seed, watering and controlling weeds. He addresses compost, cultural practices for a successful harvest, ornamental vines and various ways to create an aesthetically pleasing vertical garden in city landscapes.

Urban dwellers do not need to limit themselves to just produce or flowers, either.

Another trend recently caught my eye: homesteading. It was a surprise to see this subject in the context of urban life. I thought that urban livestock within many large cities had become passe decades ago, especially in heavily populated cities. But one of the latest books to hit the gardening trend circuit is “Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living,” by Rachel Kaplan and K. Ruby Blume (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011, $16.95).

The authors offer landscape designs that allow readers to raise chickens for eggs, install beehives for honey, and raise goats for cheese or milk. They also tackle ways to conserve water in these spaces by catching rainwater, cleaning gray water, creating rain gardens and adding rain barrels to downspouts.

But before you go that route, check the ordinances in your city. Not every jurisdiction will allow raising animals in urban areas. And you may want to check with your neighbors, too. They may not appreciate the rooster’s cock-a-doodle-doo at the crack of dawn.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md.

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