Sustainable Living – Chapter One: WHAT to Grow?

Artwork by Todd Thomas
Artwork by Todd Thomas

These days we hear all about the benefits of lush, productive urban gardens.  Our sustainable living blogger Rabecca Ranaldi helps newbies get started in this fab post:

Have you noticed that our society is increasing the demand for fresh, organic and nutritious produce? Thanks to urban farming, customers can pay big bucks for hand-picked, locally-grown produce, harvested and boxed-up especially for the customer.  In some cases it is even delivered to your door!

Others are paying almost twice their weekly grocery budget at their local health food store or farmer’s market, simply to reassure themselves that they are providing the best quality, organically-healthful, locally-grown produce to be served on their dinner table.

Container Gardening

Over the last few years I have learned about something called container gardening. Whether you live on a 5-acre farm with open land or in a tiny 600 sq ft. condo with a balcony the size of a small surfboard, you, too, can have fresh, home-grown vegetables at your urban fingertips!

First, let’s discuss plants that thrive in containers and discuss designing a beautiful, mufti-functional container garden that can feed your family!

Peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini are hearty plants that have a high yielding harvest and can be trained to grow vertically to save on space. Eggplant, bush beans, peppers, and potatoes might take up space in a pot or garden bed and they may take a bit longer to reach maturity, but they can also produce a strong harvest all season long so one (or two plants at most) would be needed to provide produce for a family of four.

Carrots, radishes, beets, lettuce and chard are all fast producing plants that yield multiple harvests from a single planting. Lettuce and chard, especially, can continue to grow while harvesting just a few leaves off each plant at a time when needed. Marigolds and nasturtiums can be planted along with these vegetables to reduce bugs and rabbit problems (which I don’t know about you, but I have A LOT of both problems). Herbs are well known to container gardening also.  Some common herbs used are basil, chives, thyme, rosemary, cilantro, and oregano.

tomato RabeccaCompanion Planting

Now that you know which plants have been tested and proven to be successful with container environments, let’s get creative!  Let’s combine plant types!  This is something called companion planting.  Companion planting serves many purposes, but mostly space conservation. Shade-tolerant plants like lettuce and basil will typically do well planted next to taller crops like corn, tomatoes. The quick harvesting crops like spinach, radishes and peas can be planted with much slower producing crops like broccoli and peppers.

You can combine various herbs and vegetables to make a “pizza garden,” like basil, tomatoes and peppers. You might want to combine edible flowers like nasturtiums, pansies and marigolds to make a beautiful, edible display for your kitchen or front porch that can carry over into your dishes at mealtime as well!  You can combine lettuces, dwarf tomatoes, chives and parsley to make a “salad garden” as well.

Succession Planting

If you plan to have more than one of a certain type of plant, it is important to do something called succession planting. This is something I have yet to have the patience to do.  When I have a beautiful packet of seeds in my hands I get too excited and plant them all!!  Then I end up with a giant harvest of radishes or zucchini coming out my ears! But the smart people learn how to plant zucchini, lettuce, beans, radishes… every 2-3 weeks.  This way you can have an ongoing harvest throughout the season, rather than one GIANT harvest.  Oops!, but It’s okay, if you are like me and fail at succession planting, do stick around!

We’ll talk later more about how to save the over-abundance of your produce. Do not fret –  you can STILL be successful!

My grandmother once told me the key to choosing plants to successfully grow in a container (by successful, my over-achieving grandma meant to have it be a beautiful presentation as well as abundantly productive) is to include a ” thriller, a spiller and a filler.”  This means pick a focal-point plant; something with a ‘thrilling’ color scheme combined with plants that can stretch and “spill” over the edge of the container.  Then add in the “filler” plants which are plants with smaller leaves and flowers that add color and “fill” the arrangement all season long.  You can also use foliage plants to do this, which are plants like parsley or cilantro.

lettuce and zucchini RabeccaTime to do it!

SO here’s the deal: Don’t bother planting anything you don’t like or won’t eat. Look at your past grocery bill and see what type of vegetables you typically use.  Also think about the possibility of canning and preserving, which we will discuss in a future post.  With container gardens you can also cover them or shelter them so that you can preserve the growing season.  Or you can use your new knowledge of succession planting to extend the growing season.  There are so many wonderful plants to choose from!  Once you have picked your plants that you would like to grow, we can move on an begin discussing: the container!

Please follow Rabecca Ranaldi if you too have a dream to be an urban-green-thumbed-self-sustainable-farmer!  Rabecca is a mother, wife, sister, daughter and friend. She is  proudly a San Diego native; California born and bred.  Rabecca began writing in Kindergarten but more memorably in high school where she learned that poetry and creative writing could be used as an emotional outlet to not only express yourself but allow others to glimpse into your world and really feel what you are going through.  


  1. Thank you for the inspiration and tips! We look forward to growing herbs, salad greens, tomatoes and strawberries.

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