How to Grow Food for Free in the City
There are many limiting ideas floating around out there about growing your own food. Many think you need a lot of money to do it. Some think it’s too time consuming. Some think they don’t have enough space. Others feel that they just don’t have a green enough thumb. All of these ideas are totally understandable but the reality is that if we really truly want to, we can all grow some food. Sure, we can’t all have a fruitful acre of farm land but we can all have at least one little windowsill herb garden, one balcony tomato plant, some planters on our porch, a plot in a community garden, a small garden on someone else’s unused land, or something of that sort. With some initiative we can all grow some food!
My goal with this guide is to help you get past any of the major limiting factors that you may be up against when it comes to growing your own food. This guide is geared particularly at how to grow food for free or with very little money in an urban environment where space may be limited. These tips can be used for people that live in the country and have ample space as well but this guide is really designed to help people where space is more of a limiting factor. One of the main keys to growing food for free in the city is to utilize wasted materials and resources. You will see this as a central theme throughout the entire guide. Creating a minimal environmental impact is a central part of everything in this guide and utilizing wasted materials and resources is one of the best ways to keep our environmental impact small. Most of what I lay out here is designed to be both free/super inexpensive as well as have a low environmental impact. You’ll see that they go hand in hand with this philosophy. I don’t have close to all the answers but what I want to do here is stimulate your creativity and resourcefulness because with these skills honed there are few challenges you won’t be able to overcome in gardening.
I will be covering all the main limiting factors in growing food to help make gardening as accessible to you as possible. The limiting factors I’m going to talk about are:
Containers and Raised Beds
Within these 7 main factors I will also touch on how to compost, how to harvest rainwater, and foraging for food. There is a lot of information here but remember that all you have to do is put some seeds in some soil and water them. It’s been happening for millions of years and you can do it too. Just plant some seeds! It’s actually that simple. Sure you’ll run into different problems such as insects eating the plants or not having enough sun or too much sun. But with some dedication you’ll turn those seeds into edible food.
So let’s dive right into it!
Containers and Raised Beds
You can make raised beds out of just about anything.
Bookshelves, drawers, etc. – Just lay them down flat and fill them up with soil. Your raised bed is made for you already. You can often find them in alleys after people get rid of them.
Pallets – Pull them apart and turn them into a raised bed. 99% of pallets in the USA are used once and thrown away. There’s no shortage of pallets to make raised beds from.
Scrap wood – Construction site dumpsters are a great place to get scrap wood to make raised beds out of.
Bricks – You can find them near crumbling buildings or in construction waste. Pile them up to make a very simple raised bed.
5-gallon buckets – These are especially great for patios and balconies. Grocery stores and restaurants get a lot of food (such as pickles or condiments) in food-grade buckets and often throw them away. You can grab them out of the dumpster.
Tires – These are ideal for planting native wildflowers that are beneficial for bees and butterflies rather than food that you are going to eat.
Milk crates – Line them with cardboard and then fill them with soil.
Most anything that can hold in the soil can be utilized! The keys to making raised beds for free are to be creative, use wasted resources, use what is nearby, and to try to have the least environmental impact, using as few virgin resources as possible.
For people in an urban environment vertical gardening is a way to really maximize your space and your productivity.
Pallets – These make really awesome vertical herb gardens!
Ladder – Find old broken ladders and turn them into a simple vertical garden. Find some wasted small buckets or containers, such as yogurt containers, and you’ve got yourself a good setup.
Composting is really simple and something that just about anyone can do. If you’ve had any worries about whether or not you can do it, you can drop those right now. Composting can be done at your home, school, work or just about anywhere. The earth even does most of the work for us. You just have to give it a little place to do the work.
The biggest mistake you can make is not composting and sending your food scraps and yard trimmings to the landfill instead. This is a waste of resources and instead of being a benefit to the environment by composting, you are putting a burden on the environment.
Composting is a way to make nutritious soil for your plants without spending a penny.
It is as simple as adding your kitchen waste, yard waste and paper waste together into a pile outside. You can compost just about anywhere too. It can be done in a big city on the balcony of an apartment or in a spacious backyard in a suburban setting. It can be done at school or work. It can be done at your neighbor or friend’s house, a community garden, or a vacant lot.
I have covered how to compost at my How to Compost Guide and there is a list of helpful resources there as well.
How to Make a Compost Bin
There are many simple ways to make a compost bin. You can construct a great bin out of wooden pallets, chicken wire (see instructions), or scrap wood.
In the video included in this guide I have shown how to construct an ultra simple compost bin out of pallets. You can do this completely for free or for a couple of bucks. Simply set 3 pallets of the same size on their sides into a U shape. Then attach them with metal wire, nails, or hinges. The front you can leave open or you can put a simple door on there or nail it up with pallet pieces. If you want more detailed instructions here is a video: How to Build a Compost Bin from Wooden Pallets- UrbanFarmOnline.com
How to Get Compost for Free
When you are getting started with your garden you’ll need compost. Eventually you could make all of your own compost if you wanted to but to start it makes sense to get a whole bunch of it. Here’s a few options:
Many cities offer free or very inexpensive compost. This is made from the yard waste they pick up and, in some cities, food waste as well. If you have a truck you can drive to the site (usually at the landfill) and fill up a whole truck bed for free. I’ve done this in both San Diego and Atlanta. (Here is San Diegos website as an example.) If you don’t have a truck you can ask a friend if they can do it with you and give them some of your home grown veggies in exchange. You could also do a trade with someone who has a truck and give them some homemade pickles, sauerkraut, ginger beer, or kombucha, a sweet deal for someone who doesn’t make their own.
Go onto your local craigslist site and type in “compost”. Places that grow mushrooms often have huge quantities of spent mushroom compost and they give it away for free. Some places will deliver it for a fee as well (See my craigslist compost search in Atlanta for an example)
You could also seek out a community garden that went under in your neighborhood.
Make Your Own Compost with Wasted Materials.
Go dumpster diving for food waste. Grocery stores are a great source of perfectly good fruits and veggies that will make great compost. (See my dumpster diving guide) You can also go to restaurants, juice bars and farmers markets. Coffee shops dispose of an incredible amount of coffee grounds and this is an excellent nutrient for your compost. You can ask your local shop if they can save it for you to pick up weekly. Simply give them a 5-gallon bucket and they’ll fill it up. When you come to pick it up have a clean and empty one to swap out with them. You can ask anyone to save their food waste for you, neighbors, restaurants, etc. Just make it easy on them so they just have to put it into a bucket and make sure you are always there to pick it up when you say you will be. Spent grains from breweries are another really awesome source of materials for compost.
Collect yard waste from your neighborhood. When people put out their yard waste to be picked up by the city, just grab some of those bags and put them to good use. You can also offer to rake up your neighbors’ leaves or collect from an unmaintained park or abandoned lot or house. Just keep your eyes open and you’ll see that the materials to make your own compost are everywhere!
You can also safely turn poop and pee into super nutritious soil. See my guide and video on How to Compost Human Waste (Humanure).
Mulch serves as a barrier between the soil and the sun. This has multiple benefits. By keeping the sun directly off the soil it prevents evaporation which means you have to water less. Weeds generally need light to grow too so by keeping the sun off the soil weeds will have a harder time growing, which means you’ll have less weeding to do. Mulch is something you never have to buy if you are resourceful.
Leaves – A very simple form of mulch is leaves. It is best to crush them up some so they are more dense and there is less air space. Leaves will break down much faster than wood chips though, which means you have to add mulch more often.
Cardboard – For an unlimited supply of cardboard just hit the dumpsters of retail stores. They throw away incredible amounts of cardboard. You’re getting a job done and saving resources from the landfill at the same time. You can also grab them out of recycle bins in your neighborhood.
Wood chips – Wood chips make a very solid mulch. You can often get wood chips from your city’s green waste program, sometimes for free or sometimes for sale. If there is any sort of logging company around you might be able to get a ton of wood chips from them that would have gone to waste. When the city comes around and chops down trees or grinds stumps you can get those wood chips. If someone has a wood working shop you can also check with them. Just make sure that the wood chips did not come from any wood that was treated with chemicals.
Go onto your local craigslist site and type in “fill dirt” or “soil.” Construction sites often dig up huge amounts of dirt and then they need to get rid of it. It’s usually free if you pick it up. This fill dirt will have to be amended with compost. (See my craigslist fill dirt search in Atlanta for an example)
Look for abandoned community gardens and find out if you can take that soil. I’ve seen this on multiple occasions.
Dig it up from an area as long as it is not contaminated and you are not pillaging a natural area.
Many areas have contaminated soil. You wouldn’t want to take this from a site where there was an old house with lead painted walls.
The average American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water per day at their house alone. Imagine if you could put all that water to good use to grow food? That water could grow quite a bit of food!
Rainwater harvesting is another one of those things that people often complicate but it’s actually extremely simple. It’s as simple as channeling the water from your roof into a container that can hold it. If you have gutters already and a downspout you can just direct the downspout into a bunch of big garbage cans or barrels. It truly is as simple as that. If you don’t have gutters already you can get used gutter materials from a second hand shop like Habitat for Humanity ReStores (Also check out this article from Mother Earth News: Save Money with Used Building Materials for some other suggestions and tips). You don’t need to put gutters on your whole house to harvest rainwater. As you’ll see from my demonstration garden I put up just 10 feet of gutter and in Atlanta that was good for filling a 55-gallon drum.
55-gallon drums are abundant in many places. Go to craigslist and type in “55-gallon drum” and in many cities you’ll find them for between $10 and $50 each.(See my craigslist 55-gallon drum search in Atlanta for an example.) You’ll want to get ones that stored food in them, nothing toxic. Some food retailers get things like apple sauce in these drums. Hospitals get saline solution in them. I would fully recommend against using one that was used at, say, a car shop for oil.
Passive Rainwater Harvesting
One of the major limitations to harvesting rainwater is having containers large enough to hold it. That’s where natural rainwater harvesting comes into play. Remember this phrase: “Slow it, spread it, sink it.” Whenever you think of maximizing the water on your land you should think of this phrase. Most houses are designed to do the opposite. Funnel it off the roof, shoot it through a pipe, and dump it out onto the street. This takes all the water off your land. When trying to grow food for free, naturally you want to do the opposite. Slow the flow down as much as you can, spread it out across your land, and let it sink into the ground. You can dig a deep hole and send your downspout gutter into this. Then fill that hole up with mulch. Now it becomes a sink-hole where it can spread out and soak into your land. Now even during a long period of rain your plants can be sucking up water from deep in the ground. Swales and Hugelkultur beds are an excellent way to do this.
Grey water is the water from sinks, showers, washing machines, etc. It’s all water used in the house besides the toilet. Grey water is totally safe to be used on your garden as long as you aren’t using any toxic chemicals. You’re going to want to stop using chemical products like toxic drain cleaners, bleach, and chemical body products. You can switch over to biodegradable, grey-water friendly products to live with better health and to stop polluting the earth. That toxic bleach you’d never put in your body isn’t just going away once you put it down into the earth. It’s polluting your earth. See My Natural Personal Hygiene for more information on removing chemical body care products from your life.
Simple, No Infrastructure Grey Water
Bucket Under the Sink – Unscrew the P-trap on your sinks and place a bucket underneath there. When the bucket’s getting full, take it outside and water your garden with it. You can also simply keep a 5-gallon bucket next to the sink and dump your water in there if you don’t want to unscrew the P-trap.
Bucket in Your Shower – When you are warming up that shower, have the water flowing into a bucket. Also while you’re showering you can leave it in there and have the excess water flow into the bucket. If you want to catch more you can close the drain and then scoop all the water you use out bucket by bucket.
Outdoor Shower – Instead of showering indoors, set up a simple shower outside and put it under your fruit trees or bananas, our surround it by a vine food like squash or passion fruit. Enjoy an outdoor shower and feel good about watering your plants while you do it!
Another awesome thing you can do that is not technically grey water is to utilize the water dripping out of your air-conditioning unit. This is pure water and you’d be amazed how much it can add up to if you position plants underneath that drip. You can also put a bucket under it to collect the water.
Infrastructure-Based Grey Water
Laundry to Landscape- With a very simple adaptation to your laundry machine you can send that water out to your garden without extra work or burden on your end. See my guide to earth friendly laundry for information on natural products that can go into your garden.
You can set up your sinks and shower to flow right to your garden as well. In some houses this is an easy bit of work. In other houses it’s more challenging to get at.
Note: Use grey water in a fashion where it’s not directly contacting your food plants. Dirtier grey water would be best used on fruit trees and berry bushes rather than greens or carrots for example.
Seeds are definitely a limiting factor for a lot of people, both being able to find quality seeds or just being able to afford seeds in general. When you really start to look at what you get out of a seed though, you realize they are one of the best investments you can make. A $3 pack of vegetable seeds can grow $100s worth of vegetables! But still I’ve got some ideas for you on how you can get seeds for free.
Go to a community garden and ask people there if they have extra seeds they aren’t going to use. They might have bought a few ounces of kale seeds, for example, which is thousands of seeds. There’s a good chance they could give you 10 or 20 to get started. They also may be saving their own seeds, meaning they didn’t even have to buy them.
Go to a community garden and see if there are neglected plots where the plants have already gone to seed. You can harvest those seeds with their permission.
Ask gardeners in your community if they have seeds that are laying around going unused, perhaps last season’s seeds. Whenever you are getting older seeds there is a possibility they won’t germinate. All you have to do is test them out in your house in little planter trays and if they don’t turn into plants you know not to put them in your garden. This may take a bit of extra effort but it’s free!
One way to get seeds for cheaper is to get a couple of friends together and split larger packs. This will drastically lower the starting cost for small gardeners.
You could contact seed companies and ask if they have old ones that they weren’t going to sell. If they are a company you like you could return the favor by writing a blog about them or telling your friends about them.
Once you have started your garden you can always let a small percentage of your plants go to seed so that you can save them for the next planting. This way you have a continuously producing garden without needing to buy seeds each time.
Cuttings – Many plants don’t even need a seed to start a whole new plant. You can take a small cutting from another plant, place it in soil or water, depending on the plant, and then you’ve got yourself a new plant. Mint is an example of a plant that can do this.
I also have a free seed program. Visit the Free Seed Project to learn more and get your seeds!
Probably the most common reason that people don’t grow food is because they think they don’t have enough space to do so. But with some dedication and some resourceful thinking we all have space to grow food. Here are just a few ideas to get your brain kick-started:
Front Yards, Back Yards and Side Yards – Turn any lawn you have into a garden.
Balconies, Porches and Patios – Use 5-gallon buckets to grow greens, tomatoes and herbs on your balcony
Windowsills – Set up little planters on all your windowsills and you can have fresh herbs every day.
Vertical – You can grow food right up the walls of your house.
Rooftop – Many roofs can support a garden.
Aquaponics or Hydroponics – You can grow food indoors using aquaponics or hydroponics.
Other People’s Yards – If you don’t have a yard of your own you probably know people who do. Ask them if you can put a garden in their yard and give them a portion of the harvest.
Freestyle Gardening – Find vacant lots that are completely going to waste and turn them into bustling gardens. Take over the space between the road and the sidewalk and turn that into a fruitful nook rather than a pile of nothing. See How to Freestyle Garden for more tips on this.
Join a community garden so you have your own little plot there.
Make a community garden if there isn’t one in your area.
Make a garden at your school, work, church, etc. This can be something you team up with your fellow students, colleagues, etc., to make a garden that everyone there can benefit from, including you!
Even in urban environments there can be a lot of food growing for free all around you. Once you open up your eyes you might even see that you don’t even have to grow food to have an abundance.
Fruit Trees – In many cities around the country people have fruit trees that they don’t harvest. Check out this video on Concrete Jungle in Atlanta for example. You can knock on the door if you notice a lot of fallen fruit and ask if you could maintain their tree for them. You could even set up a deal where you maintain and harvest the tree where 33% goes to them, 33% to you, and 33% to a local food bank. By canvassing your neighborhood you could have a really solid supply of fruits while being able to feed people in need and help the owner to perhaps even eat more of their own fruit that would have gone to waste. In San Diego for example there’s nearly infinite lemons, oranges and grapefruit and tons of fig and avocado trees that never get harvested. In Washington, blackberries grow so abundantly they are a nuisance to many. In Florida there are more foods growing than I can name. In NYC there are cherry trees. In London there are plums. I’m just naming a few of the big cities that I’ve foraged in to get your brain flowing.
Farm Gleaning – Many farms waste as much as 50% of their crop. You can start a food rescue organization that goes to farms and gleans the food to donate a majority to food banks and keep a portion for yourself.
Eat the Weeds – So many “weeds” are far more nutritious than the vegetables you’d buy at the store. Dandelion is one of the most overlooked plants out there. Lamb’s-quarter, broad leaf plantain, and nasturtium are just a few other common plants in urban environments that can be eaten.
While I’m at it I might as well mention dumpster diving. It’s not growing your own food but nearly half of all food produced in the USA goes to waste and most of it is perfectly good food. Grocery store dumpsters are often loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables and so much more. Check out my guide to dumpster diving if this interests you.
Check out this article for some information and inspiration on foraging: The Wild and Native Foods We Should Be Eating.
Perennial Plants – Perennials are plants that come back year after year without you having to plant them again. The more you plant perennials the less work you have to do. They are usually hardier, more resistant to pests and often more nutrient dense.
Plant for Pollinators – Help the bee and butterfly populations in your community by planting native wildflowers that are beneficial to them. Look up bee friendly flowers in your area. Also put out a water dish for bees and butterflies. They will pollinate your plants and create a more bountiful garden. Fill it with rocks so there is plenty of space for them to land and drink water.
Plant Companion Plants – A natural way to deter pests is to grow plants that deter pests next to the plants that are usually eaten by pests. This is a brilliant way to naturally increase your yield and keep away the bugs you don’t want in the garden.
Practice Permaculture – One of the main ideas of permaculture is to work with nature instead of against it.
Disclaimer: This is not pure organic gardening – This guide I have laid out here is not organic gardening but you could adapt it to be with simple changes. This form of gardening uses no chemicals, pesticides, etc. and adds no extra burden to the environment but there are issues that come from using some wasted materials.
Using plastics is not truly ideal because plastic can break down and leach chemicals into the soil. This really comes down to who you talk to though. Many experienced gardeners that are very focused on healthy food and living are happy to use plastic. I would recommend using sturdy BPA-free plastic such as food-grade 5-gallon buckets rather than cheap, thin plastic that breaks down real easily.
Using tires is not ideal because they also can break down and leach into the water and soil. Here’s an article from Brighton Permaculture that goes into that. With tires I chose to only plant native wildflowers for pollinators and not grow food in them. Tires would be my absolute last choice as a container for growing food.
It is highly advised not to use treated lumber that can leach toxins into your soil. There is A LOT of untreated lumber out there to be used though. Most pallets are not treated. Here is an article to help with that: How to Tell if a Pallet is Safe for Reuse.
Using soil that could have contaminants is also not ideal. Some soil around older buildings has lead in it from lead-based paint for example. If that is the case then raised beds are the solution. Land that has been used for industry in the past can be highly toxic. Compost and soil from craigslist is also probably not organic but it is likely to be very low in toxins from most sources such as the city programs I mentioned.
The bottom line is that if you can find a natural building material going to waste such as rocks or wood then it makes sense to use that over plastics and tires. However if you are going to think about all of these chemicals you also should be applying the same thought pattern to everything you are buying at the store. If you are buying food that was not grown organically you can typically be sure that it has been sprayed directly with chemicals. This is likely to absorb more toxins than growing your food at home in a plastic container while using organic principles. I personally would say opt for growing your own food even in plastic containers vs. buying most foods that are offered at the store in the USA.
Again this guide is organic in a sense as there are no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides prescribed in this guide to growing food for free. There is no environmental destruction caused via adding any of this stuff but in some scenarios it may already be there. If you want to be fully organic you can still utilize a lot of the tips from this guide anyway.
So that’s it! I know it’s a lot of information. But remember the most important thing is to start! Put some seeds in the soil today! And have fun with it!
Curtis Stone the Urban Farmer
Growing Food for Profit on Leased and Borrowed Land
Curtis is the creator of Green City Acres, a commercial urban farm based out of Kelowna, BC. They run a profitable farm on just a third of an acre and service restaurants and a farmers market.
The Urban Homestead – Self-sufficiency in the city since 1985
Through the creation of the “Urban Homestead” the Dervaes family shows that change is possible — one step at a time. They harvest 3 tons of organic food annually from their one tenth of an acre garden while incorporating many back-to-basics practices, solar energy and biodiesel in order to reduce their footprint on the earth’s resources.
A bike-powered urban farming program + a small-scale distributed agriculture system. They are turning other people’s lawns into gardens. The owner of the land gets to keep some of the produce and they sell the rest locally.
Ron Finley the Gangster Gardener
Ron Finley grows a nourishing food culture in South Central L.A.’s food desert by planting the seeds and tools for healthy eating. He’s a super inspirational dude when it comes to turning unwanted spaces into produce gardens.
Growing Power is an incredible urban agriculture center based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Their vision is to inspire communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound; creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time. Their vision is growing larger than I think they ever imagined. On their little urban farm in Milwaukee they grow over 1 million pounds of food on three acres each year.
Food Is Free Project
Food Is Free is a project that I am absolutely elated to be involved with. The Food Is Free Project grows community and food, while helping gain independence from a broken agricultural system. The Food Is Free Project is a community building and gardening movement that teaches us how to connect with our neighbors and line your street with front yard community gardens, which provide free harvests to anyone. I’ve spent time on one of the blocks they transformed and it was unlike any other community I’ve ever been in. I highly encourage following them on Facebook.
Urban Organic Gardener
Practical container gardening tips to grow your own food so you can avoid toxic pesticides, eat healthier and not feel limited by your lack of experience and space.
Victory Garden Initiative
Victory Garden Initiative builds communities that grow their own food, creating a community-based, socially just, environmentally sustainable, nutritious food system for all.