Expert Advice on Organic Gardening and Farming

The Ultimate Guide to Urban Gardening to Grow Food Anywhere 

Julie Thompson-Adolf is a Master Gardener and author with over 30 years of experience in year-round organic gardening; seed starting, growing heirlooms, and sustainable farming.

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 The Spruce / Meg MacDonald


  • Getting Started
  • Gardening in the City
  • Patio Gardening
  • Best City Plants
  • Common Problems
  • City Pests


Urban gardening, which makes the most of limited outdoor space, is a great way for city dwellers to get their hands in the dirt. With a patio, balcony, rooftop, porch, or even a sunny window, you can grow vegetables, fruits, herbs, or flowers. Plus, community gardens, urban farms, and other green spaces can offer the opportunity to connect with neighbors and get growing at the same time.

Here's what you need to know to start your own garden in the city—no backyard required.

Getting Started With Urban Gardening

The first step to gardening in the city is assessing your space. Even a tiny balcony or the steps leading up to your door can hold a few potted plants. A south-facing or west-facing window can hold a window box for flowers and herbs. If you do have a front or back yard or patio, you can do even more with raised beds, containers, and other creative planting ideas.

If you're planning to grow food like tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, dwarf fruit trees, and other fruiting plants, you'll need a space that offers at least 6 to 8 hours of full sun. For shadier spaces, vegetables like lettuce and some herbs require only partial sun. You'll find plenty of ornamental plants that tolerate shade or part-shade if lack of sun is an issue--just check the label on the plant.

Also, because many urban gardeners grow in containers, make sure to choose containers with drainage holes to keep your plants healthy and avoid root rot.

Check out what resources exist for would-be gardeners in your area. Some cities or nonprofits offer free rain barrels or even free downspout planters to residents. If you're a homeowner, you may be able to get a free street tree to plant in front of your house through a municipal program. Your county's cooperative extension office or Master Gardener program can offer guidance as you begin your urban gardening journey.

How to Garden in the City

As you consider where and what to plant, think about sun exposure, temperature, and ease of accessibility to create an urban garden you'll be able to maintain successfully. Choose plants that will thrive in the environment you've chosen.

It's also a good idea to think about how much time and energy you want to spend on your garden. If you've got a busy schedule, a few container plants on your stoop or a window box may be all you have time for.

Don't forget that there's always indoor gardening. A countertop garden or houseplants can be a convenient way to work out your green thumb without any outdoor space.

Window Boxes

A colorful window box is an easy way to beautify the exterior of your living space, especially if you live in a rowhouse or townhome. Renting your place? Look for no-drill window boxes that won't leave a mark when your lease is up.


A sunny balcony is an excellent place to keep a few containers of flowers, grow your own herbs, or tend a dwarf fruit tree like a fig or Meyer lemon.

Porch or Stoop

Porches, stoops, and even the sidewalk adjoining your home can be great places for raised planters, potted plants, or large containers. Note how your neighbors are incorporating plants into the front of their buildings for ideas that fit your area. Be sure to keep sidewalks passable for pedestrians.

Community Garden

Seek out community gardens or other shared growing spaces in your neighborhood. Many have long waiting lists or require a certain number of volunteer hours to participate, but they're not the only way to grow. Look into urban farms or organizations doing urban greening or food justice projects and offer to volunteer. In addition to meeting your neighbors and supporting your community, working alongside more experienced gardeners is a good way to learn.

How to Create a Patio Garden

If all you have is a concrete slab, you can still create a lush, beautiful urban garden. Consider border plants, fence-mounted planters, elevated planter boxes, and hanging baskets. As you create your patio garden, think about ways to make the most of vertical space, like trellising flowering vines or vegetables like cucumbers and squash.

Best Plants to Grow in the City

What you plant will be determined by what you want to grow, your climate, and the space and light you have to work with. Look for dwarf varieties of shrubs, perennials, vegetables, and fruit trees that fit into small spaces. There are even miniature vegetable cultivars designed for growing in small spaces or indoors under grow lights. Here are just a few plants you can grow in the city:

  • Herbs
  • Salad Greens
  • Strawberries
  • Determinate Tomatoes
  • Spring Bulbs
  • Pansies
  • Sedums
  • Dwarf Fruit Trees
  • Prickly Pear Cactus
  • Sweet Potato Vines
  • Coral Bells
  • Marigolds
  • Ferns

Common Urban Gardening Problems

Contaminated Soil

Lead contamination is one of the biggest concerns in urban gardening. Get your soil tested well before planting, source soil for raised beds and planters from a trusted source, or stick to growing ornamentals that won't be consumed.


Depending on your city and the project you have in mind, you may need to secure permits to install some larger-scale garden projects. Check with your municipality and get the all-clear before proceeding.

People and Pets

Gardening in close proximity to others—and their pets—can put your plants at risk of theft or damage. Seek out hardy, tough-to-kill plants for areas that the general public can access. If you're planning a big project that may create noise or disrupt roads or sidewalks, talk to your neighbors first to give them a heads-up.

City Pests of Concern

Plenty of pests are common to gardeners everywhere. In cities, rats, squirrels, groundhogs, and raccoons may damage plants or eat food crops. Neighborhood dogs and cats may dig up garden beds or use them as a litter box. Protect plants with plastic mesh or chicken wire fencing to keep out intruders.

Many of the same insects that affect rural and suburban gardeners, like aphids and harlequin beetles, can affect city gardens, too. Use floating row cover, hand-picking, or organic insecticides to keep insect pests at bay.

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