Brooklyn Bounty: Growing and Harvesting in Small Urban Spaces

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It’s officially March and the garden-planning season is in full swing. It’s time to turn your compost, peruse seed catalogs, clean and sort your equipment, and make some final decisions about what you are going to plant, and where. 

Living in Brooklyn, you probably aren’t working with a ton of space. To help you maximize every inch, Bluedot Brooklyn has compiled a list of plants for your stoop, rooftop, and fire escape — plants that will look nice, thrive in our climate, and maybe even deliver some satisfying produce. You might be surprised to learn that native plants, still absent from many edible gardens in North America, have the potential to accomplish all three goals. Not to mention, native plants also play critical roles in our local ecosystems, such as providing habitat for other species and forage for pollinators, regulating the water table, and improving soil structure. Incorporating them into whatever greenspace you have can help preserve them for future generations. 

If you are keen to get more into gardening, whether with native plants or otherwise, but don’t have the space to do so, consider a community garden. Community garden plots are in demand, but many allow you to volunteer even if you don’t have a plot yet. This can be an excellent way to get outside and test your growing skills without committing a lot of time or resources. You can find a list of community gardens in Brooklyn here. You can also join the volunteer conservation team for your local park, where you will likely be working with a variety of native plants, both edible and not. You will also likely gain experience identifying and removing invasive plants that pose a threat to our local ecosystem –– an important skill for any Brooklyn gardener to have!

Read on for a list of native plants that would be excellent additions to every Brooklynite’s garden, ordered by how much space they take up (least to most).

Native Plants:

RAMPS

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Botanists have long warned that this in-demand wild garlicky delicacy is at risk due to overharvesting, but with some patience and skill, this delicious allium can be cultivated at home. In fact, ramps are excellent for gardening in small spaces because they prefer shade and shallow soil. Unfortunately, they require significant time to reach maturity, as much as three years from bulb and seven from seed. Consider harvesting only the leaves and leaving the bulbs to allow for future growth. 

You can purchase ramp seeds here.

MILKWEED

Though more commonly known as a dietary staple for monarch butterflies, milkweed has also been eaten by humans for hundreds of years. The shoots, buds, and seed pods are all edible. Its delicate flowers form a show-stopping pink cluster that would look fantastic on a stoop or a terrace. (Be sure you are getting the right kind of milkweed –– Tropical milkweed (asclepias curassavica) is non-native and may confuse migrating butterflies.) Bear in mind that milkweed seeds require cold weather to germinate, so you might want to consider planting them early in the spring, or keeping them in the refrigerator before planting. 

You can purchase milkweed seeds here.

NETTLES

If you ever had a childhood run-in with nettles, it might seem counterintuitive to cultivate them on purpose. In addition to their many medicinal uses, however, nettles can also be a delicious early-spring ingredient. They are also fairly easy to grow in small spaces. Like ramps, they will do well in a medium-to-large pot, approximately 5-10 gallons. You can find Brooklyn-based forager Marie Viljoen’s recipe for nettle pesto in her book “Forage, Harvest, Feast: A Wild Inspired Cuisine.” 

Though nettles prefer to grow from a transplanted root or runner, which you might be able to forage yourself, you can purchase nettle seeds here.

GOLDENROD

Not only would this late-blooming perennial be a vibrant addition to any terrace or roof garden, but the bright yellow flowers are also edible and delicious. Foragers harvest the tender buds when they first emerge to preserve their taste and texture and prepare them in a number of ways. The tender shoots are excellent sauteed with a savory marinade and syrup extracted from the flowers is excellent in baking. (My favorite way to enjoy goldenrod is in a rich, spicy ramen with fresh corn and shiitake mushrooms.) It is also collected for a number of medicinal and cosmetic uses.

Goldenrod requires plenty of sun and average soil in a 5-10 gallon pot. The mature plants can be 1.5-5 feet tall.

This distant cousin of milkweed also performs an essential function for pollinators, by providing a valuable source of pollen and nectar in the early fall when blooms are scarce. 

You can purchase goldenrod seeds here

ELDERFLOWERS/ELDERBERRY

Elderberries are well known for their delicious taste and many medicinal uses. Make your own cordials, vinegars, fritters, and infused gins with the berries –– my favorite way to enjoy them as a child was in homemade popsicles. Elderberries prefer full sun, grow energetically, and can quickly get out of control, so you might want to prune regularly or keep them in a pot.

You can purchase elderberry seedlings here.

YUCCA

Despite its tropical appearance, yucca (not yuca, the starchy tuber indigenous to the Andes mountains in South America) is a native northeastern edible with spiky variegated leaves, thick stalks, and delicate white flowers that bloom in late summer. Nearly the entire plant is edible, but if you are cultivating yucca for your garden scape, you probably will want to stick with the early season shoots at the plant’s base or the white flowers that taste slightly sweet. Though its preferred habitat is near saltwater, yucca has become increasingly popular with urban landscapers and can just as easily be found in Midtown as in Brighton Beach.

Yucca requires a bit more space than ramps or goldenrod but will do well in a sunny spot with a 15-gallon pot.

You can order yucca seedlings from Growing Wild Nursery

SPICEBUSH

In their wild habitat, spicebush is an early-blooming understory tree with bright yellow flowers that eventually develop into bright red berries. They are popular among foragers and native edible enthusiasts as the berries have a flavor similar to allspice, making them useful for a number of sweet and savory applications.

While this large shrub requires more space, it is perfect for a rooftop or a small yard. You can grow directly in the ground or in a very large pot. Spicebush is also dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are on separate plants, so you will need both in order for the female plant to produce fruit.

You can purchase spicebush seedlings here.

SERVICEBERRY

If you have a bit more space to work with, serviceberries might be a good option for you. These indigenous berries go by many names: saskatoon, juneberry, shadebrush, and as Robin Wall Kimmerer calls it in her popular book, “Braiding Sweetgrassbozakmin, a Potawatomi word that translates to “the best berry.” The berries are firm, tart, and can be made into a delicious fruit leather.

Serviceberry bushes can get up to ten feet tall, but if you prune judiciously they can be grown in a 3 ft pot.

You can purchase serviceberry seedlings here.

PAWPAWS

This native fruit has risen in popularity recently, particularly among Brooklyn restaurateurs. Due to its rich custard-like flesh, pawpaws are often compared to bananas or other tropical fruits. They don’t ripen well off the vine, so it’s best to wait until the fruit drops to harvest. Enjoy custards, salsas, ice cream, and pastries when pawpaws ripen in late August. 

Also better suited for larger gardenscapes, pawpaws will start small, but eventually require transplanting into a very large pot or into the ground. They prefer plenty of sun and fairly humid conditions.

You can purchase Pawpaw seeds, from the Pawpaw King of Brooklyn, here.

MUSHROOMS

Easy-to-use grow kits have made growing your own mushrooms at home increasingly trendy. All mushrooms really need to flourish is a dark room, time, and a bit of water to get them started. Though excess closet space is far from guaranteed in small New York City apartments, if you find yourself with some room, and a hankering for fresh fungi, this is a great option. You can order user-friendly mushroom grow kits from several locations, such as Johnny’s Seeds and Sugarshack Farms, based in New Paltz, NY. You can find native and non-native varieties from both retailers.

Non-Native Varieties Suitable for Brooklyn Gardens:

Even though we advocate incorporating native edibles into your gardenscape, that doesn’t mean you should totally give up on more familiar garden staples. Below is a list of non-native options that do well in pots and in small spaces, along with recommendations for particular varieties:

TOMATOES

When selecting tomatoes for growing in pots or on patios, most gardeners prefer varieties with “determinate” growth patterns. Indeterminate varieties are vining and can grow as tall as six feet, which can be unwieldy in small spaces, whereas determinate varieties are usually only a couple of feet tall and more bush-like. Hudson Valley Seeds’ early season “New Yorker Tomato” is an excellent option.

LETTUCE

Lettuce is a fantastic crop for urban gardeners. It is easy to grow, shade-tolerant, and you can harvest individual leaves as you want to use them. There are a number of lettuce varieties you could choose: from this very unique Chinese stem lettuce to butterhead lettuce, the preferred option for American cheeseburgers. 

PEPPERS

One of the benefits of growing some of your own food is you can use your garden to source ingredients you might have a hard time tracking down otherwise. For example, you could grow hong gocho peppers and ferment your own gochujang paste, cultivate Peruvian aji amarillos for ceviche, or plant some of these unique chocolate scotch bonnet peppers for hot sauce. Peppers are great options for urban growers as they are usually compact, high-producing plants that do well in pots, though they do require quite a bit of sun. Keep that in mind if your terrace, patio, or fire escape lacks consistent sunlight. 

HERBS

Flavorful herbs are an excellent addition to any garden –– they are also often an easy way to incorporate some global diversity into your space. With soft aromatic blooms, many herbs even act as natural repellents for annoying insects. You could grow your own za'atar, huacatay to go with your aji amarillo peppers, basil, dill, mint, ashwagandha, burdock, clary sage, cilantro, among others!


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Chrisaleen Ciro
Chrisaleen Ciro
Chrisaleen Ciro is a journalist covering environmental issues and MA candidate at the New School. She also writes the “Knife Bloc,” a newsletter covering the intersection of food and politics in NYC.
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