In a recent previous post “Do You Have to Grow Food” I pointed out that the impact of urban gardening is vastly greater, in the aggregate, than most people believe. We tend to think that little gardens here and there make no difference, but in fact, they add up rapidly. Consider the impact of US Victory Gardens in WWII, for example – in 1944, US Victory gardens, which averaged only about 350 square feet, grew fully half the produce for the US. That is, home gardeners grew as much produce as all the vegetable farms in the US at the time. While it may seem, intuitively that small gardens don’t matter, they do.
They particularly matter in places where it is hard to get adequate food or nutrition – in the Global South where billions struggle just to get enough food- and also in food desert urban areas, where much of the food come from convenience stores and other sources that provide little fresh, unprocessed food. Here, the problem is not too few calories, but too little nutritional value in those calories. And in both places, small gardens are part of the answer. We know how important small scale production is – it has been documented in hundreds of studies, and recently UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon reaffirmed the importance of small scale production to world food security.
The sack garden, which is simply a low cost form of container garden, is getting some real attention as a potential source of high-nutrition foods for people in the developing world, and it is just as applicable here. This Scitezen article by William Van Cotthem advocates that NGOs and relief organizations institute sack garden training, because it can be done at minimal cost, with substantial potential to increase nutrition.. The same goes for urban dwellers who may believe they cannot garden because of contaminated soil, lack of space, or physical disabilities.
What can you really grow in containers? Well, a lot, actually. Using homemade self-watering containers, my friend Pat Meadows, disabled and in her 60s, reported growing hundreds of pounds of vegetables one year entirely in containers made from plastic storage bins. Other people I know use scavenged food buckets and styrofoam fish coolers.
I have 27 acres, and I still use containers for a substantial number of plants. I began as a container garden, growing on balconies in third and fourth floor walk-up apartments, where every ounce of soil was hauled up to be planted in scavenged containers. My housemates, husband and I ate a lot of food from those containers. I know what can be done in urban setting with minimal inputs – and those who can least access or afford the ingredients for fresh food are usually those who need them the most. Containers make gardening accessible to those who don’t have land, money or the physical ability to get down in the dirt, and they represent the beginnings of a democratic garden access.