Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Cramp in My (Planting) Style

Hello all,

Well, the sun is here! (At least for a while.) My planting bug is definitely in high gear, and I thought I'd talk this week about some of the challenges I've faced with learning how to garden in town--in pots, on balconies, and in other places that kind of cramp my style.

I was lucky enough to grow up in the country, and we almost always had a large garden right out the kitchen door. Now I’m hitting a pretty steep learning curve trying to grow in small and less-than-ideal spaces. Currently I live in an apartment with an indoor cat that loves nothing more than to destroy every other living thing that enters our door. I do have a balcony, but it gets pretty limited light while simultaneously getting baking hot on summer afternoons. And (this is the hardest part for me) any time I do want to plant it takes an awful lot of planning: I have to buy potting soil and compost, which seems absurd somehow; I have to figure out what to plant things in; I have to adjust to harvesting just a few leaves of lettuce at a time, not baskets. I also have to think carefully if I plant anything that isn’t hardy, as it will have to live in my bedroom all winter, with almost zero light and constant threat of feline meddling. Blurg. So not ideal for someone who wants to grow things, and who tends to plant with spontaneity rather than forethought (I’m working on that).

Thankfully, there is a community garden in McMinnville. For a minimal input of money and monthly volunteer hours, I have access to a little less than 100 square feet of growing space. The soil is a bit tired and clumpy, and until very recently was quite swampy. Still, I grew a lot of food in that row last summer, all while working two jobs and leaving the plants mostly to their own devices. This year I’m hoping to do better—starting some of my own plants and hoping to extend my harvest with some succession plantings. I’m also itching to do some winter gardening (I really do love kale an awful lot).

In reality, and despite my wining, I have a pretty great situation for someone living in town that wants to grow food (a community row and a balcony?). Not to mention that we have a great farmer’s market all summer, so I don’t need to worry about growing gobs of stuff—I’m mostly growing because it’s fun and rewarding. Still, I’m struggling to learn how to do all of this. I thought today I’d share a few things I’ve been learning about gardening when you have limited time and space. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there, and if you have any advice for me (and others like me), I’d love to hear it!

Here’s what I’ve been working on:

The first thing I’ve done is to start an herb garden. Herbs are sturdy plants, fairly straightforward to grow, are less susceptible to pests and disease, and pack a major culinary punch. It only takes a couple of branches of fresh oregano to make a pasta sauce stand up and take notice, and a single sprig of fresh rosemary will perfume a bean soup. They also do very well in pots, and most are hardy enough that I won’t have to cart all of them inside come November. Currently I have rosemary, lemon thyme (delicious!), mint, oregano, and chives. I’m already planning on adding sage, as well as Moroccan mint, anise hyssop, chamomile, and lemon balm (for teas), and maybe lavender and nasturtiums. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep them all going, and even harvest extra to dry for the winter pantry!

Second, I’ve started some greens. Greens have shallow root systems, grow quickly, and don’t mind being in containers. Plus, there are an amazing number of varieties grow! Right now I have baby arugula, and I’m planning on adding small-headed romaine and some loose-leaf lettuces to the mix (my cat destroyed my first flat, so I’m starting over again). I might also add some beets and radishes for their leaves: they make great spicy additions to salads.

Third, I’m planning on rounding up some large pots to grow cucumbers and summer squash out on my balcony. These guys sprawl a lot, taking up space in my community row that I’d rather give to tomatoes, potatoes, and stuff for the winter garden. Luckily, I have learned that they don’t mind containers, and can be trained vertically so they don’t take up too much space. I’m excited to also add nasturtiums to the mix: edible and colorful and easy to grow. That’s pretty much the mantra for small space gardening, I think.

There is a lot to learn about small-space gardening. Luckily, thanks to the local food and DIY movements, there is also a lot of information out there. Almost all gardening magazines address issues of limited time and space; there are a number of blogs that are written by folks living in cities who are gardening on windowsills, balconies, and in their bathrooms; and, of course, there are a bunch of great books out on the subject. Below is a list of resources that I’ve been utilizing.

If you have any other resources (or hints or tips for us small-spacers), feel free to post them in the comments!
Happy growing!

Apartment Gardening, by Amy Pennington
(This author lives in Seattle, and is familiar with both our rainy climate and the challenges of urban spaces.)

Sugar Snaps and Strawberries
, by Andrea Bellamy
(Good advice for the vegetarian and vegan crowd in addition to the aspiring small space gardener.)

The Edible Front Yard, by Ivette Soler
(For those of you who have yards, this is the guide to making that space produce for you!)

Grow Great Grub, by Gayla Trail
(Another good starter guide to gardening in containers.)

The Heavy Petal Blog
(Great advice for urban gardeners of all types, including those who want to grow food and ornamentals.)

Organic Gardening Magazine
(At times fluffy and unfocused, but this standby has shifted focus to address an urban audience.)

Urban Farm Magazine
(A new publication out on food production in urban areas.)

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