Cultivating an urban green thumb

Having lived in both a condo and townhouse over the past four years, I have enjoyed many benefits of urban living: short commute to work, access to public transportation, lower energy costs, etc. 

But recently, I began to miss an important aspect that I thought only a single-family home could provide – the freedom to plant a garden and grow my own food.

Growing up in rural West Tennessee, my family had a large garden each summer.  I was always skeptical of its necessity and even a little resentful of its existence.  As a creative kid (who grew into a designer/planner), I probably would have loved the garden had I played a role in its undertaking. Perhaps being consulted on food choices and planting layouts may have fostered some enthusiasm. But childhood is no democracy. 

I was merely used as a forced laborer during harvest time.  There I found myself toiling away in the blistering heat, picking the endless rows of nameless beans, peas, or whatever else happened to be ripe at the time.  Any child who’s been compelled to pick vegetables will attest to the lasting horror that comes from shuffling down the claustrophobic rows of a cornfield.  The tiny wounds like paper cuts from leaves slicing into young flesh are enough to completely suppress the pleasure of eating any plant product for the better part of one’s adolescence.

Negative childhood memories aside, something interesting happened a few years ago that has changed my perspective on gardening; I joined a community supported agriculture (CSA) program.  Membership delivers a weekly supply of locally grown organic food from spring to fall, and has provided an internal reckoning with my gardening past.  It has also led me to my present undertaking.

Behind our townhouse is a south facing, 9 ft by 4 ft lawn that separates our deck from our neighbor’s.  I began to wonder, could I utilize this miniscule space to construct a garden?  It has ideal solar orientation and is the perfect size for a raised planter bed.  The grass required almost daily watering during the heat of summer and seemed totally unsustainable.  I identified the potential speed bumps I might encounter, namely the strict policies of the homeowners association.  Luckily, my partner Miguel is on the board of directors, so the garden project easily got the green light.  With a plan in place, Miguel and I set out over Easter weekend to construct our urban garden.

The building process was quite simple and went fairly quickly.  We utilized eight 4”x4” posts for the frame, a power saw and drill, four metal bolts to secure the frame, paint (to match the trim color of our townhouse) and 10 bags or organic topsoil.  The finished product is an eight-inch deep rectangular box that fits perfectly into the former vacant space. 

I am holding off on planting until early May to avoid the threat of a late frost, but the initial planting plan includes tomatoes, peppers, herbs and strawberries and will change over the course of the season.  The addition of a rain barrel will help cut down on the water bill during the summer and I will finally be able to put my composting bin to a good use.  To keep track of the whole process, I’m documenting this endeavor with a photo journal that I hope to share in a story at the end of the summer.

I am beginning to understand what my wise parents knew long ago, but that a certain overly dramatic kid did not grasp; gardening is a joyful experience, regardless of the garden's size.  Of my recent green projects this one certainly has me the most excited.  And while I overcame the trauma of the cornfield long ago, corn is still the one plant that will never appear in any garden of mine.

For more information on planning an urban garden, visit

Gary Gaston is the Design Studio Director of the Nashville Civic Design Center and serves on the Mayor’s Green Ribbon Committee.  He lives with his partner and dog in East Nashville.

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