Let me start by saying I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing. Three years ago I thought it might be nice to have a few basil plants on my balcony. Fast forward to two months ago, where I found myself carrying 300 lbs of dirt up 6 flights of stairs to fill a 8'×3' raised garden bed. Yeah, I have an obsessive personality. My name is Ryan, nice to meet you.
My outdoor space is a 20'×10' rooftop style balcony in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint. I got lucky when I found the place, although I might not have realized it at the time. My rent is reasonable and although my actual apartment is just a small studio, the outdoor space increases the size of the apartment by almost 50%. In the summertime is like having an entire other room. Now that you have an idea what my living situation is (Oh, I'm single. What's up ladies?), let's talk about growing shit.
The Veranda garden, in part, started as a conversation piece. It was something I was able to talk about when people ask me that obnoxious small-talk question: "So what's new?"
"Actually, I'm growing a garden."
To give you some context, I am probably the last person you'd expect to find talking about urban gardening. I am covered in tattoos, drink a lot, and cuss more than my grandmother would like. So understandably, most people either walked away from that response assuming it was a joke, or engaged me half-interested in a conversation about how my tomatoes were doing. Either way I had finally found out a way to deal with that question on my own terms, which I was quite proud of.
I soon realized that the garden was also a great way to relax in the morning. I was never really a "morning person," but after being forced to wake up and water the garden on a daily basis before the soil dried out from the summer sun, I found myself actually enjoying it. The city can be insufferably loud and oppressively hot in the summer, but during the first hours of the day when you are watering your plants, everything seems tolerable. Any kind of zen nonsense aside, there is no doubt that the way you start your day sets a definite tone for it's remainder. And I'd much rather spend my first waking hours sipping a coffee half naked while talking to my plants about episodes of The Wire than sitting in traffic or pressed up against some dude with a shitty mustache and filthy mandals on the L train. I bet that guy doesn't even know that you can grow radishes from seed to harvest in less than a month, 16 per square foot. Poor jackass.
Additionally, it became an opportunity to prove to my father that I wasn't a complete failure. Hahah, ok. I'm not going to get carried away here. But in all seriousness, this year I am hoping to supplement every meal I make at home with food from my garden. And that is very realistic.
(One of last year's harvests)
(The Veranda- Spring 2009)
The Veranda* garden has expanded quite a bit over the past couple of seasons. Last year I had everything in containers. Most root vegetables and herbs were in long planter pots, and most of my other larger plants were in 12" round pots. For the most part everything went pretty well, but I did run into some problems. The biggest issue was powdery mildew. We got an excessive amount of rain and it plagued my squash all year. It ended up not bearing any fruit, and my cucumber plants eventually ended up succumbing to it as well, which was a shame because so far I've found fresh cucumber to be the best fucking thing you can grow. Seriously, slice up a fresh homegrown cucumber, toss it in a vodka on ice with a little soda water and tell me you aren't drinking straight up summertime in a glass. Or at the very least a damn tasty drink. God, I fucking love cucumbers. What were we talking about? Oh, powdery mildew. Yeah, I guess I need to try to keep water off the leaves this year.
Did I mention I don't really know what I'm doing? Because I don't. But that didn't stop me from building a relatively large raised bed this year. That's right, 36 cubic feet of freedom. Freedom to arrange, grow, and eat whatever silly little plants my heart desired. Unfortunately, the fact that I don't really know what I'm doing lead to me filling the beds with fucking GARDEN SOIL. In case you don't know, (don't worry I clearly didn't) garden soil is meant to be used in existing ground. Not in containers. You know, like it says CLEARLY on the bags. "NOT FOR USE IN CONTAINERS." Apparently it doesn't drain as well and is much more dense than potting soil, or any kind of mixture that you would use in containers. I tried amending it with peat moss and pearlite and I am hoping for the best. Lesson learned, I suppose. So far I haven't had any problems, but it is early. We'll see.
(Veranda- Spring 2010)
Another difference between this year and last is that this while last year I bought mature seedlings from a garden center, this year I started everything from seed. I've realized that while direct sowing is fairly straight forward if you time it properly, starting seeds indoors is a little more difficult, and both are definitely more time consuming than buying seedlings. That being said, it is rewarding watching them grow from a little dink of a plant to something you can actually eat, and it is way cheaper in the long run. It really becomes a matter of trial and error, and can depend on a number of factors (temperature, sunlight, length of germination). So seeing that in general I rarely learn from my mistakes (credit card debt, snowboarding injuries, dating history), I think it is going to take me a while to get the hang of it. Basically what I've learned so far is this:
1. Label shit. Seriously. It is very easy to forget what seeds you planted where, especially if you have no idea what each plant looks like when it's 2 inches tall and has 2 leaves. (Hint: they all look the same.)
2. Grow 3-5 times more seeds than what you plan on actually using. Some won't survive, and you are going to run into problems. You can always give them away to friends. Oh, Jane's birthday is coming up? "Here's a basil plant I started just for you. It doesn't matter if you don't have room for it just keep it near a window and DON'T let it die because it is a very meaningful symbol of our friendship."
3. Don't let seedlings stretch too far. Pot up if you need to (smaller to bigger as needed duh just as it sounds), and bury them up to their first set of true leaves to keep the stem strong.
4. Don't listen to what anyone else tells you. (I mean you can, but don't listen TOO hard. You'll understand what I mean.)
5. DON'T PUT GARDEN SOIL IN YOUR CONTAINERS!
Okay, that's all I've got for now. I seriously encourage anybody with ANY kind of space, no matter how small it is, to try to start growing a garden. Even if it's just one container of herbs on your windowsill. It is rewarding beyond words. At the very least you'll have something to talk about when someone asks you "so, what's new?"
(Early Spring 2010 Harvest)
*(I call it a veranda. The proper name for the space has been an ongoing debate amongst my friends, but a rule has been established that in order to be allowed on the Veranda, you must call it a veranda, and therefore I will be addressing it as such so the reader can experience it the way any other invited visitor would.)