How's your garden grow? $1,000 in veggies for a $100 investment? It's easy.

Ralph Costobile, chef at the Fountain, waters vegetables at basilica- dome level, atop the Four Seasons Hotel.
Ralph Costobile, chef at the Fountain, waters vegetables at basilica- dome level, atop the Four Seasons Hotel.
Posted: April 29, 2010

VEGETABLE gardening is suddenly in vogue.

Seed sales at the Warminster-based Burpee & Co. have spiked 15 percent since January, one sign that more Americans then ever are following first lady Michelle Obama's lead and planting a vegetable garden.

Whether it's a way to combat rising food costs, a renewed interest in green and sustainable living or just wanting to experience the goodness of homegrown food, even city folk are getting onboard, using their limited space to grow greens.

"I live in South Philly and last year somebody planted corn in a container on Catharine Street," said Chela Kleiber, senior education program manager for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. "You really don't need a lot of space to get great results."

Kleiber leads programs, open to the public as well as PHS members, on topics ranging from composting to conifers. "People get a lot of satisfaction from picking their own herbs and vegetables, even if they're just planted in a few pots on the front steps."

And the savings gleaned from a veggie garden can be formidable: at least $1,000 worth of vegetables for a $100 investment, according to the Department of Agriculture.

"We're definitely seeing more interest in home-vegetable production," said Jim Sutton, display designer for Longwood Gardens, in Kennett Square. "People want to grow things they can't find in stores, including heirloom varieties of vegetables."

City chefs are also getting with the program. Fairmount garden designer Grace Wicks created rooftop gardens for Four Seasons' Fountain Restaurant and Noble American Cookery, at 20th and Sansom. "I'm doing a lot of work with edible rooftops," said Wicks, whose mother, restaurateur Judy, instilled in her a love of sustainable food.

Her business, Graceful Gardens, is working on rooftop gardens in Bella Vista, Fitler Square and Fairmount.

At her local community garden, at 33rd and Race, Wicks is planting native edible plants that were once staples to Native Americans, including American persimmons, strawberries, pawpaw trees and groundnuts.

Wicks, whose mission is to "develop the gardener as much as the garden," offers a free consultation to assess what a client's urban space can yield. Sun and water availability and drainage, as well as wind exposure, are a few factors.

"Once you determine what you have to work with, then start with what you like to eat, and go from there," said Wicks.

Fountain chef Ralph Costobile is planting nine frames atop the Four Seasons roof with veggies, including carrots, broccoli, snap peas, beets and all kinds of herbs. With the help of his kitchen team, the rooftop harvest is used in the Fountain's changing daily menu. "I've always had a garden," said Costobile, who grows tomatoes, herbs and more in the ground and in containers behind his house in Packer Park. "For people starting out, I recommend getting herbs going first, and, if you like that, follow up with tomatoes and maybe peppers. They're pretty easy to grow."

At Noble, chef Brinn Sinnott looks forward to a harvest of baby vegetables, herbs de Provence, lemon-flavored herbs and edible flowers.

Containers are the city gardener's friend, but it takes a little finessing to get them right.

Ideally suited to smaller spaces, container gardening offers a one-size-fits-all approach to growing herbs, veggies and flowering plants. "Containers make plants pop, because they're elevated," said Sutton. "You can rearrange them to move color around and change the layout of your deck or patio. And containers make scented herbs more noticeable."

Think of containers as room dividers, said Main Line gardening expert Lis Braun. "Almost any plant can be grown in a container, including shrubs and trees," she said. "They can offer privacy, and carve out little seating niches on a deck or patio."

Avoid the common mistake of having a bunch of small containers that need lots of care and watering. Instead, Braun advises, plant different kinds of plants in a larger container, being sure to mix it up with colors, heights and foliage. And remember not to sow sun and shade lovers in the same large pot, a common mistake guaranteed to deliver sorry looking - or dead- plants.

When planting containers with veggies, it helps to choose compact varieties with good yield. "Best to choose hybrids over heirlooms in containers," said Burpee chairman George Ball, a lifelong gardener. "Hybrids are earlier and more productive on a per- plant basis. Look for the word 'determinate,' which means you'll get a bushy plant."

The Bush Big Boy tomato, for instance, is designed specifically for container growth.

Another point to remember is to give the plants plenty of room to grow. "If you think the container is big enough, double that size," recommended Tim Mountz, a consulting organic farmer with Terrain at Styers, in Glen Mills.

Mountz, who lives and farms at Happy Cat Farm, a three-acre spot on the grounds of Winterthur, in Delaware, said that a single tomato plant needs to be in a 10-gallon container, minimum.

In the 11 years since he's been farming, Mountz has seen something interesting happen. "When we started out with our transplants, our customers were all ladies with straw hats and denim sundresses. Now, our customer tends to be young and tattooed. A lot of people are growing their own food."

Mountz, who sells his own seed stock, gardening tools and plants online at www.happycatorganics.com, and at places like Kimberton Whole Foods and Milk & Honey Market, in West Philly, recommends using Organic Mechanic Soil (www.organicmechanicsoil.com) to grow the best veggies. Based in West Chester but sold in more than 160 locations around the United States, it sells in a 16-quart bag for around $16 - perfect for a 10-gallon container.

"The soil is perfect - you don't have to do a thing to it for two years," said Mountz. He also recommends using every inch of space available, even in a single pot. Beans, tomatoes and lettuce and herbs can coexist just fine in a single pot. "Tomatoes and basil grow really well together."

That's exactly what Doug Oster celebrates in his book "Tomatoes Garlic Basil: The Simple Pleasures of Growing and Cooking Your Garden's Most Versatile Veggies," (St. Lynn's Press, $18.95). Although he's always been a gardener, Oster, a Pittsburgh-based writer, found himself looking at food differently after a trip through the Italian countryside with his wife a few years ago.

"There's something about the immediacy of picking the food in the moment, cooking it and enjoying that full-of-life flavor that the Italians just do so well," he said. "Everyone should have that experience."

His book covers container gardening ("you can grow anything in a container that you'd normally grow in a garden"); easy composting (everybody should have a compost pile); and preserving tips for herbs ("basil chopped with olive oil freezes well in ice cube trays"). He also offers 31 easy-to-make recipes for his three favorite ingredients, which just happen to be pretty easy to grow.

"Buy your seedlings at a good nursery, be sure you have good sun, fertilized soil and plenty of water," he said. "Start there, and your garden is going to thrive."

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