From Vacants to Vegetables: How do I build a garden By: James McComas

Cross-posted from UNspOILed

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As reported in my last post, I obtained rights to build a community garden on a vacant lot from the City of Baltimore. But I have never actually gardened, and had no idea how to build a garden from scratch. After doing my homework, and looking into examples of urban gardens online and around the city, I had a better idea of where to start. So this is what I had to start with (see above). Not so great in the natural light department, but at least there wasn’t any trash to clean up!

The lot. 414 E 26th Street, Baltimore, MD. Not much to start with, but at least there is no trash.

Before you do anything, you should put a sign up on your lot to let neighbors and passersby know what is happening to the lot. Feel free to give it a name, something fun and quirky. You should also consider providing contact information, like an email address, in case people have questions or want to join in. I named my plot The Kailyard, the Scots name for a cabbage patch or vegetable garden. I got a friend to help paint the sign for me, as I lack artistic skills.


The Kailyard. An adopted community garden. Such a pretty sign. Although the wind has already given it quite a beating.

The second thing you should do is measure your plot so that you know how much land you have to garden with. This will help you determine how much you can grow, and if you are growing with others, how much space you have to divide up. You should also determine what type of soil you have. Generally there are six types of soil: clay soil, sandy soil, silty soil, peaty soil, chalky soil and loamy soil. Each type is better for growing different things. Here is a good guide that I used. You should also get a soil tester kit to determine the pH and levels of Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium, the three main nutrients. I decided to go withLuster Leaf because it is cheap and reliable, but most tests get the job done.

Next you need to determine where exactly you will plant in your plot. You can plant most vegetables straight into the soil, after tilling and fertilizing, but raised garden beds fight erosion, help with drainage and give greater exposure to the sun. They are fairly simple to build, and a variety of guides are available online, as well as kits to purchase at home improvement stores. I chose the simple route and decided to build 3-foot by six-foot beds out of six, six-foot long 2″x4″s, using only a hammer, a saw and some nails. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on lumber and tools, because all it was going to do was hold dirt (experts recommend using cedar lumber, as it is rot resistant.) So I headed to a local re-purposing store, Second Chance, Inc., that sells reclaimed lumber for cheap. They are a non-profit organization that deconstructs buildings and sells the materials for cheap. I will need to build a few more, and get some more dirt to fill in, but it is a start.


One raised garden bed. I will need to build a few more to fully utilize the space.

I also decided to build a composting pit. While there are many different types available for purchase, I wanted to see how a simple wood enclosure would fare, and bought some re-purposed barn wood to throw something simple together. Composting in the city can be quite the arduous task, so be sure to know what you are getting into. Check out this composting guide that we posted on composting in the city a little while back for some great tips.


Composting pit. Nothing pretty, but it is holding kitchen waste after all.

In preparation for the growing season, you should begin to think about what you want to plant and, if all goes well, eat! You should plant a variety of vegetables in each garden bed in order to protect against disease and keep healthy soil. But don’t get too eager and start planting right away; you should wait until the middle of May to start sowing your seeds, as frost can kill off young seedlings. Some vegetables, like pepper and tomato plants, can and should be started in-doors and transplanted to the garden after a couple of weeks. I got a start on both peppers and tomatoes in some in-door pots.


The beginnings of a bell pepper plant. Amazing what some sun, water and good soil can do to a tiny little seed.

The growing has yet to begin, but progress has been made. Check back in May to see how the plants are doing, and if the rats have been kept out of my compost!

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Dana Howell

As an Executive Assistant to the CEO and President of Campaign Consultation, Inc. I primarily work on initiatives with Very Special Older Properties (VSOP), Transit Choices, and the School of Social Work. Prior to joining Campaign Consultation, I worked as account manager for a growing medical company, interned with both the U.S. House and Senate focusing on health care and national security, and served as part of the Commerce Department for the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen where I helped U.S. companies find potential business partners in Denmark. Read more.