Metro Weekly

Pocket Garden: Kim Roman’s urban gardening revolution

Tips for urban gardening even for those without a window

Home Herbs -- Photo by CBCK

Home Herbs — Photo by CBCK

It’s not easy, being green.

It’s even harder in an urban environment, with outdoor space at a premium and direct sunlight a precious commodity.

Still, Kim Roman just won’t take no for an answer. A U.S. Air Force veteran and former military intelligence officer, Roman now battles against the dearth of vegetation in our concrete jungles.

“There’s no reason you can’t grow a little bit of something, even if the only thing you have is a window,” she says. In fact, Roman has a solution for those who don’t even have a window — or can’t readily get outside. All you need is a modular shelving system and proper lights and you’ll be good to grow.

“You can buy one of those systems with shelves and hang it on a wall, and then have grow lights. That’s a really good system if you use a wheelchair and you can’t even get outside. It gives you a little bit of something green and fresh.”

A certified “square foot gardening instructor,” Roman started Square Foot Gardening 4 U four years ago “to teach people how to grow vegetables in small spaces.” Roman’s approach is not only more suitable for urban living, it’s also touted as easier, more efficient and more environmentally friendly than traditional methods that require more space, more water and more work.

Roman will stop by Alexandria’s Ten Thousand Villages on Sunday, April 26, to share some insights about several “small-space, high-intensive vegetable gardening methods” that she says require “no digging, no tilling, no weeding…no kidding.” In the week leading up to the demonstration, beginning Friday, April 17, the Old Town fair-trade retailer will put all of its planters and other garden items on sale, including space-saving hanging pocket planters from Cambodia. Of course, you could also be green (Earth Day is Wednesday, April 22) and re-purpose an old household item to create your own raised-bed garden. “I show how to use a broken laundry hamper that I just line with cloth and fill with soil and cut some holes in for drainage.” That could work for strawberries, for example, or gourmet lettuces in the shade.

Home Herbs -- Photo by CBCK

Home Herbs — Photo by CBCK

For a window or glass door, Roman recommends clear acrylic hanging planters called Living Ledge. “They come in different sizes and have super strong suction cups. People don’t have to worry about them not sticking.” You could even consider a Living Ledge on the shiny tile backdrop you might have in your kitchen — provided you could also install grow lights. Regular under-the-counter lights are probably not suited to the task of growing plants, which essentially require a minimum Lumen (or brightness) number of 2000 and a minimum Kelvin (color) of 4100.

Of course you mustn’t forget your roots. “With any small-space method, you are going to need super-rich soil.” You could make your own, mixing in equal parts vermiculite, peat moss and compost, or you could pick up a bag of organic vegetable mix called Pro-Mix. Roman uses a Square Foot Garden Mix from Veteran Compost, and this Aberdeen, Md.-based company can make arrangements to deliver the mix to you or let you pick it up at locations throughout the region, including one in D.C.

But what to grow? “If you can only grow one thing, the best thing is cilantro,” Roman says. “Any herb is worth the time.” Herbs grown from seed are particularly cost-effective, and can be grown at pennies on the dollar over their fully grown incarnations at the grocery store, even if you think you’re being smart by buying a basil plant and not just loose leaves. “Those are not really good plants,” Roman warns. “They’re not meant to survive. They want you to continue to buy them.” One additional herbal tip: “They like to have a friend with them.” So it’s best to plant two next to each other.

Roman harvested 250 pounds of vegetables last year from her own small backyard in Glen Burnie, Md., but she’s not exactly self-sufficient. She doesn’t do enough canning or freezing for one thing, but she’s also just too generous, preferring to share, not stockpile, her bounty. “As a matter of fact I’m in the middle of writing a book called Kindness in Kale about how to use your garden to help other people.”

The first step, of course, is to help yourself — and to learn. Gardening, like cooking, “is kind of an imprecise science,” Roman says. “You’ve got to be willing to experiment. Not everything is going to work, and you’re not going to like everything. But unless you give it a try, you’ll never know.”

The “Small Space Gardening Demo” is Sunday, April 26, at 1:30 p.m. at Ten Thousand Villages, 915 King St. Alexandria. Call 703-684-1435 or visit alexandria.tenthousandvillages.com.

For more information about Kim Roman and Square Foot Gardening 4 U in Glen Burnie, Md., call 443-995-1288 or visit sfg4u.com.

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @ruleonwriting.

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