Friday, March 30, 2012

Urban Gardening: Part I

Last fall we helped move our dear friends Colter and Julia from one rental to another. While Colter and my husband, Jeff, were focused on trying to fit as much furniture as possible into the U-Haul, I was (I am almost ashamed to say) focused on Julia’s magnificent pot-patio cucumbers.
            My cucumbers colossally failed last year. Even companion planted amongst beans, radishes, and turnips, and despite vigilant watering and de-bugging, their vines shriveled and were lost in the surrounding foliage. Was it too much sun? The pH of the soil? Some pest yet unknown to me that invisibly attacked? I racked my brain—I had planted these varieties before, under similar conditions, and they thrived—what was different?
            I had struggled with these questions all summer, and when I saw Julia’s cucumbers I realized my self-examination and reproach was—well—irrelevant. As the wise denizen of a rented space, yet avid gardener and supporter of self-sustainable living, Julia had grown her whole garden in pots. Her efforts were extremely successful. My efforts, in a permanent space, were not so; why was I torturing myself over soil pH when that was a factor I could control for success through potting rather than planting?
            When I was living in London and earning my graduate degree, I had a balcony garden consisting of a few herbs and bulbs in oblong boxes, through which I strung a laundry line. Not that impressive, I know, but it cheered me up while I hung up the whites and darks to dry. At that point in life, I was looking forward to the someday-garden; it occurs to me that I could have had the now-garden then if I had really thought about temporary planting.
            Julia’s model, for me, exposes not only what I could do with pot gardening in my farmhouse, but moreover the possibilities open to an urban gardener. Pot gardening actually opens up a world of opportunities for the city home grower: for one, unlike a permaculture gardener, the pot makes the gardening zone almost irrelevant. You can take your pot inside and out, for sunshine and rain or for warmth and shelter. The following are just a few ideas on how you could turn your city dwelling into a gardening paradise.
Preliminaries: If you’re going to have an urban garden, composting is really important. Make your own by poking holes in the lid of a big, dark colored (black if possible) coffee can and placing the can (lid on) in a sunny area where it will get hot. Hot compost decomposes fastest because the heat helps break down the organic matter. What goes in compost: any veg or fruit waste (carrot peels, apple cores, onion skins, etc.); eggshells; coffee grounds (these are AWESOME for plants. You can actually put them right in the pots with the plants), and wood ashes (like from a fireplace). What does NOT go in the compost: any kind of animal scrap: no bones, fat, skin, tablescraps—you get the picture.  Also, cigarette ashes are toxic (obviously). Shake it daily. This quickens the process. It’s ready when it looks like dirt. Mix roughly one part compost to six parts potting mix for plant nutrition. Don’t use it if you can still spot recognizable food remnants. Or, if you’re continually adding to it, use a tablespoon to spoon out soily parts. Occasionally in the meantime, and through the holes in the lid, you can pour the compost “tea” into potted plants as fertilizer. Not too much (it’s potent).
Container Gardening:  If you have a full sun area such as a balcony or space beneath a skylight, I recommend tomatoes. They really really need a lot of sun and are prolific if happy. Heirloom varieties are cool looking, prolific, delicious, and impress your friends. Buy seedlings unless you have a lot of time and patience (order these online from a local nursery). Cherry varieties don’t really produce a lot of food, but are pretty. Run-of-the-mill Beefsteak or Big Boy are fine, but nothing special. Only grow Roma if you plan on making sauce—not as tasty. Choose a good three to five gallon container and stake the plants up vertically with long sticks or dowels and tie them upright (using zipties works best). Plant the seedling in the center of the pot. Around the plant, sow (only a few) carrots or plant basil. They make each other healthier and tastier.
            Cucumbers also need full sun but almost no space if you provide it with something to climb on. (You have to deliberately train them to whatever that is.) And they can be a really attractive vine. Pickling varieties are crisp and grow fast. These can be grown pretty easily from seed. Or, plant beans (also can be started from seed) in your cucumber containers. The bean will use the cucumber for support and they benefit each other.
            Many think that more substantial winter veg, like squashes, pumpkins, and zucchinis, can’t be grown in an urban setting because they’re so space consumptive. Not true. Just prune them. Start them from seed, give them something to climb on (this could even be a kitchen wine rack or pot holder—just make sure there is sun), and prune the vine to the desired height. Only allow the plants to make two or three blossoms, and watch then to make sure they mature and pollinate, then wait until the following buds bloom, nip them off, and EAT THEM. Squash and pumpkin flowers are delicious battered in olive oil or stuffed with onions, rice, and peppers.  Then the plant will only put its energy into making two or three monster fruits and it won’t take over your space.
            Sweet potatoes are super easy to container garden and can tolerate partial shade. When the vine dies it’s time to harvest. If you give the plant enough room you can get half a dozen medium potatoes from one plant. (Only plant one per container.) Plant leeks around the plant from seed—you will know when they’re ready because they will start to look on top like what you might buy at the store.
            There is also an added perk to indoor gardening—climate control! This means you can grow plants that might ordinarily be out of your gardening zone. If your apartment is reliably warm (sixty five degrees or so all year) try a potted fig tree, or if you have more room, a dwarf stone fruit like a cherry, peach, or plum.
            Finally, we must address the practicality of the process: the perk to urban gardening is that you really don’t have to worry about insects. Thus pest control is not a headache. The problem, however, is correlative: no insect equals no pollination. You may have to self-pollinate some of these in the absence of beneficial insects. Think of this as artificial insemination for plants. Quick lesson: just make sure, at some point, that the pistil touches the stamen and that pollen is transferred. You’ll feel a bit icky, but just wash your hands afterwards and watch a Disney movie. You’ll be fine.

Lots more small-space gardening discussion to follow, but not enough time to write it down yet. Stay tuned. 

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