By Nancy House |
Who says it takes forty acres and a mule to grow some of your own food? With a balcony, fire escape, or even a sunny windowsill, home gardening is perfectly accessible to the urban dweller. All you need are seeds, some basic gardening equipment, and this container gardening guide to get started.
My great-grandmother Conchita was an accomplished gardener. She raised chickens, grew lemons, and had a yen for planting every seed she encountered. She lived in New York City her entire life. Her Washington Heights apartment, as my mother remembers it, was a jungle of citrus, avocado, and coffee plants, colorful embroidery, and enticing cooking smells. By understanding the basic preferences of the plants she grew, she was able to keep things happy in a tight space.
With a sunny windowsill and one of our garden starter kits, your apartment can be producing crops of herbs, wheatgrass, or salad greens in no time. The main consideration with indoor growing is maintaining an appropriate moisture level. Because the amount of soil involved will be smaller, and (presumably) it doesn’t rain inside your apartment, it’s essential to water your plants several times per week. Spritzing them with water helps too, and will deter common leaf-dwelling pests like spider mites, which thrive in low-humidity settings.
Of course, you don’t need a kit to have your own indoor garden. Start with easy-to-grow plants such as parsley, cilantro, lettuce, and dill. Planted in a small container of potting soil and kept well-watered and in a sunny spot, your little garden will be producing in no time. If you find you don’t have a window with enough natural light, try a grow light to help things along.
Bigger, high-maintenance crops such as tomatoes and bell peppers are possible with a patio, balcony, or fire escape. For an especially hot and sunny area, choose crops that like having their roots as warm as possible. Tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers all evolved in the tropics and don’t mind hot temperatures. To keep them from baking, choose a lighter-colored flowerpot one gallon or greater in size. Tomatoes and peppers should each have their own pot, whereas crops like cucumbers, basil, or even green beans can share space with one another. Check the back of the seed packet for crop spacing information. Cold weather crops like spinach, lettuce, or kale might be possible in the fall or early early spring, but in summertime they’ll likely wilt in the heat. Again, attentiveness to water is key. Plants can dry out pretty quickly in the hot sun.
Keep a plant’s natural growing habit in mind when choosing your set-up. Plants with a sprawling habit such as tomatoes and cucumbers should be grown near a railing or trellis, or in hanging baskets, for best results. Anything that grows on vines needs support.
For a shadier balcony, you might try this easy trick. Take an entire bag of potting soil, and lay it flat on a low table or bench. Carefully cut one entire side away, exposing a wide, flat expanse of dirt. Sow your seeds — lettuces and other greens are ideal — and enjoy your very own easy-care salad garden. Keep well-watered for best results.
A few things to keep in mind before embarking on your container gardening journey. Most importantly, some plants are just plain wrong for container growing. I’d steer away from root crops, pumpkins, sunflowers, melons and squashes. Bigger, bushier crops like these may find container growing too constricting, and fail to produce. Even for crops that grow well in containers, the fruit size may suffer. Cherry tomatoes I grew in hanging baskets one year produced well, but the tomatoes were about half the size of typical cherry tomatoes.
With the above tips, you’ll be well on your way to growing so of your own food in no time! Doing so reduces your reliance on the grocery store and long-distance trucked vegetables. And there’s nothing to beat the pride you’ll feel sitting down to a fresh homegrown salad.