Urban Agriculture:

A Guide to Container Gardens

With inexpensive containers and suitable soil mix,
you can create an urban garden virtually anywhere - on roof tops,
vacant city lots, borwn fields, and unused portion of parking lots


Job S. Ebenezer, Ph.D.
President, Technology for the Poor,



It is estimated that by 2030 AD nearly 50% of the world’s population may live in urban areas. As a consequence of this many millions of acres of productive farmland are expected to be lost to housing and other usage. Any further encroachment of natural habitat for other creatures may result in serious degradation of the eco-system. In addition to the loss of farmland, the new urban sprawl also creates urban wastelands like: roof tops brown fields and unused paved spaces.

Due to the recent terrorist attacks, food security and safety are seriously compromised. A large amount of the fruits and vegetables consumed by the US population is currently imported. There is no widespread testing of these imported produce for harmful chemicals and biological agents at the border crossings. Urban agriculture has the ability to mitigate this problem as the fruits and vegetable grown in the urban areas can be carefully monitored and safeguarded.

Migration from rural areas also brings into the urban areas many persons with very little formal education. This may result in unemployment and under employment of a sizable number of people. Idleness and frustration of the masses may result in the increase of crime and other problems. Urban agriculture may be a way to occupy the inner city youth, parolees and persons on welfare.

Urban agriculture has the potential for creating micro-enterprises that can be owned and operated by the community members without too much of initial capital. Inner city churches and community service organizations can use urban agriculture as part of their programs for the seniors, homeless persons, parolees and disabled.


Urban farming is not new. Ancient cities like Babylon had their hanging gardens and farms in or in the vicinity of urban areas. During World War II, it is estimated that nearly 40% of the fresh vegetables and fruits in this country were produced in the Victory Gardens. Only recently, the US has started to import much of the fruits and vegetables from other countries.

A few decades ago ECHO (Education Concerns for Hunger Organization) in Fort Myers, Florida, has introduced container garden techniques for impoverished counties like Haiti. In 1993, Dr. Job Ebenezer, former Director of Environmental Stewardship and Hunger Education at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) established a container garden on the roof of the parking garage of the ELCA offices in Chicago. The hope was that the roof top garden would serve as a role model for creative use of urban space throughout the country. Dr. Ebenezer proved the feasibility of growing vegetables in plastic wading pools, used tires and feed sacks. The demonstration garden has proved to be highly successful. Each year since 1993, urban gardeners at the ELCA offices in Chicago harvested nearly 1,000 pounds of vegetables from nearly 40 wading pools and a dozen of used tires and feed sacks.


There are several reasons why urban gardens using containers are effective:

  1. They enable us to practice “intensive” gardening method through maximum utilization of limited space.

  2. It is easy to practice “intercropping” (planting a variety of plants in one container) which ensures the health of plants due to diversity.

  3. It is possible to “conserve” both soil and water as containers prevent run offs of soil and excessive watering.

  4. Urban gardens “make use of urban wasteland” (vacant lots, brown fields, unused parking lots, and roof tops)

  5. Urban gardening provides “meaningful employment” for persons with limited skills and formal education.

  6. Establishing and maintaining an urban garden are very “inexpensive”.

  7. Urban gardens provide creative ways to “recycle” old tires and other containers that otherwise would be thrown into landfills.

  8. Churches and social service organizations can use urban gardening to “rehabilitate, create income generation projects, and provide therapy.”



The plastic wading pool is the most cost-efficient container available. A 4 – 6 ft diameter pool of 12 - 15 inches deep, provide a decent size growing area and costs under $10. They are known to last for more than 6 years in harsh climate regions like Chicago. The topsoil, peat moss, and manure that fill the pool can be bought for under $20.

Wading pools can be placed in any area that could not be used for conventional gardens, such as rooftops, black tops, along fences and railroad tracks.

On contaminated surfaces, such as brown fields, vacant lots and abandoned industrial sites, wading pools can be used to isolate the growing medium from contamination.


Take any wading pool and carefully drill Ύ to 1 inch holes every 12 to 18 inches around the circumference of the pool 2 inches above the base of the pool. These holes will drain excess water and the space above 2 inches from the bottom of the pools will hold excess water and keep the soil moist for a longer period.

Wading pools should be set on a level ground. Locate the pools in a sunny location before filling it with growing medium. Check for exposure to sun (at least 6-8 hours of sunshine is needed for most of the plants). Provide space between pools for paths for foot traffic. This space is needed to have access to the surface of the pools for weeding and harvesting.

Do not fill the pool with growing medium (mixture of top soil, peat moss and compost) all the way to the rim of the pool. Leave about 2 inches space from the rims so that water may not overflow and cause soil loss. You can add more growing media as the soil starts to settle and the depth decrease over the duration of growing season.

You can use either seeds or seedlings and follow the instruction on the seed packets and seedling containers for distances between the plants. Plants need space to grow and produce good yield and therefore it is necessary to provide sufficient space between various plants.

Add compost or a reasonable amount of organic or other fertilizers known for their safety periodically.

As the wading pools are above the ground they tend to dry up quickly. Therefore water the wading pool gardens as often as you see the need. You can stop watering when you see the water dripping from the holes on the side of the pools.

Weed as you see the need for it is impossible to avoid the growth of undesired plants in the pools.

Pavement Garden

Roof Top Garden

Vacant Lot Garden



Used tires are a great resource for creating a container garden in urban areas. Care should be taken to isolate the tire surface from the growing medium. This is easily accomplished by using a plastic liner as shown in pictures below.



Feed sack containers are the least expensive of all the containers described above. Due to the pores in them they are quite suited as containers to grow vegetables. Feed sacks come in different forms: burlap bags or woven plastic bags. They are good for one season and may have to be replaced every season.

To construct a feed sack container, pour the growing medium into the feed sack and close the open end using a twine or wire. Lay the feed sack on its side and cut 2”-3” square holes. Soak the growing medium and plant the seeds or seedlings in the holes. The following page contains photographs that illustrate the procedures for setting up a feed sack container garden.

Feed Sack Gardening

Fill Feed Sack with Growing Medium

Make Holes for Planting

Plant Seeds or Seedlings in the Holes

Tending Feed Sack Garden

Feed sacks can be placed along perimeter



The previous sections described three types of containers viz., wading pools, used tires, and feed sacks used in urban agriculture. There are a number of other containers that could be used in urban gardens. The following photographs show how wooden crates, bricks, barrels, and plastic pails with holes in them could be used to grow vegetables in urban areas.


We do hope that the narratives, pictures and diagrams will be of help to you in creating an urban garden using various containers. As you can see from the table shown below, the productivity of container gardens is quite impressive. This is due to the fact that the space is used intensively and the growing medium can be made to be of high quality.


A Few Suggestions For Innovative Uses Of Urban Gardens

  1. Urban gardens can be used for gowing medicinal plants for HIV/AIDS patients to increase their immunity. You can find relevant literature that suggests such medicinal plants on the Internet or in your library.
  2. By using picnic or elevated platforms, you can set a convenient container garden for the disabled and senior citizens.
  3. Your churches' social ministry groups can grow safe and quality vegetables on the churches' unused spaces and supply them to soup kitchens and homeless shelters.


For further information you can visit www.arts4all.com/elca/
You may contact us for further information at the following mailing address:

Job S. Ebenezer, Ph.D.
President, Technology for the Poor,


May God bless you as you obey God's commandment in Genesis 2:15, which commands us "To till the land and keep it."

Comparision of vegetable yield data between ELCA, U.S. and Wisconsin Farms

ELCA RoofTop Equivalent
U.S. National Farms*
Wisconsin Farms*
58,867 lbs/acre
17,527 lbs/acre
12,680 lbs/acre
Snap Bean
9,408 lbs/acre
4,725 lbs/acre
6,930 lbs/acre
37,206 lbs/acre
25,980 lbs/acre
Data N/A
Bell Peppers
23,600 lbs/acre
24,092 lbs/acre
Data N/A

*National & Wisconsin data from the United States Department of Agriculture

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