Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dreaming + schemeing of pots


I have a few pots that I collected over the years. Mostly from houseplants that didn't make it when I moved from my dorm (that faced west and got plenty of afternoon light) to my old (sun-deprived northern exposure) basement apartment, aka - The Cave. (I'm depressed just thinking about it.) Part of the reason I decided to attempt this garden is that my apartment faces southwest.

It's glorious.

One pot is currently holding my lemon verbena, which is staying safely indoors this winter. I hope it'll revive this spring. Outside (under a couple feet of snow, but next to the door for warmth) is the sage and oregano. They were all I could find at a local garden center when I moved to my new place in August. I hope they'll make it through the winter.

I also have a couple tiny ceramic pots and one big pot - not a giant by any means - but it'll be very useful. I think I can put a few plants in it.

I also have the hard plastic liner from a cooler like this. (The hubby used the soft part for a homemade luggage rack for my motorcycle. He's so handy! Cheap, too. :D) It's pretty deep so I'll put plastic bottles in the bottom to make it lighter and not have to use so much potting soil. Plus, those bottles won't end up in the city incinerator. I think it'll be perfect for the other herbs. And I'm going to make a box to hide the cheap white plastic with some scrap pine lumber I have saved. The lumber is all 1x6x12", so designing and constructing that will certainly be interesting.

I also have a couple shallow dish pans for lettuce and salad mixes.

And there is a single hanging hook just outside the door - so I'll probably get some kind of hanging planter. I like this one, but I don't know if the hook is strong enough to support it. It would give me a lot of growing space though and be perfect for the strawberries.

When I get plants from the garden center I might just leave them in their black pots. Cecilia at Balcony Garden Dreaming recently posted a technique for wrapping black pots in hessian/burlap. I'll have to try it if I get the chance. Burlap has such a great texture! Or maybe I'll have some scrap lumber left over from hiding the big ex-cooler planter. Or I could spray paint them a glossy white.

I'm also going to be on the lookout for cheap containers. Once it warms up and garage sales start popping up I'm going to scour them for supplies.

But what about the rest of that long list of things I'm planning to grow? Well, I'm working on it. I've thought of a few different schemes, and it's looking like I'm going to have to spend a bit to get what I want - Quality, durability and safety.

Issues I have to deal with:
  • I have a limited area - the balcony is only 6'x8' and a good part of that is taken up by the grill and 2 chairs (and I'm going to add a little table after I paint it and the snow melts.) I will have some pots, but there isn't nearly enough floor space for everything I want to grow. So, to maximize space I want planters that hang out from the railing. That'll give me quite a bit more space since there are railings on 3 sides (20 linear feet.)
  • I cannot permanently affix anything to the deck or building wall according to my rental agreement. So no screws, nails or glue. I think zip ties and nylon rope are fair game though!
  • The railing is white metal and only about 2" wide. (Former tenants had a couple planters with metal brackets, but they left rust stains on the railing; I want to avoid adding to that.)
  • It needs to be sturdy so it doesn't blow away in a thunderstorm.
  • Veggies like lots of room for their roots, so I need something that can hold a lot of soil.

My first idea was to cut bags of potting soil in half and suspend them from the railing with a net of twine. Though not pretty, it'd be cheap, but probably wouldn't last very long so I'd have to redo the whole thing next year, if it even lasted one season.

I could buy window boxes, but while fake plastic terra cotta is inexpensive, it's super ugly, and they aren't very big.

One more idea -- Build them. This could work out for the best. I can custom build the size I need and make them wide and deep enough for vegetable roots. I do want to make sure they'll last and aren't made of something that could leach into the soil and be absorbed by the veggies (and then by me!) So, no regular timber (it'll rot unless I line it with plastic or something) or pressure treated timber (chemicals) or pvc (it'll leach).

So I'm left wondering what I can use.
  • I could use pressure treated wood that is arsenic-free, but is it as safe as it should be?
  • If I use untreated wood with a plastic liner - How would I keep the water that drains out the bottom from rotting the wood that way? Maybe seal the wood with polyurethane? Would that leach into the soil? Maybe polyurethane AND a plastic liner? What kind of plastic liner would hold up? GAH! My brain hurts! What do I do?!
  • Vinyl decking? Maybe, but I've only seen it come in 6" widths, and I want the planter to be 8-12" deep.

For tools: I have a hand saw, mitre box, a drill, and a hammer. Hubby might have a few things hiding out in the garage, but I think they're mostly for working on his car.
And I don't mind doing a bit of construction. I'm pretty handy and ingenious at that kind of thing if I do say so myself. ;)

I'm not concerned about a design. I just don't know what to build it out of.

Anyone have ideas to help me along?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Shipment news #1


My seeds from Burpee shipped today! Yay!!! Lettuce and Stevia seeds are on their way. They'll ship the plants later when it's warmer. I'm getting so excited.

Stevia plants look so simple, unassuming and even a bit weedy, but they're DAMN TASTY!

I bought a box of Stevia sweetener whilst grocery shopping this weekend. I'll admit, it was an impulse buy and cost $6. Ouch. It's kinda weird... definitely sweet, but it has it's own subtle flavor and greenish color when dissolved. It's nice for adding to my morning oatmeal, though. And I really like it for impromptu lemonade. (squirt of bottled lemon juice + 1 packet Stevia + 12oz water) Haven't tried it in tea yet - I'm a little afraid of how it will affect the taste...

Definetly not practical for cookies though. Not at that price.

I can't wait until I have my own plants! I wonder how different the fresh leaves will be from the processed powder.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Empty balconies


Since I started this blog I've been seeking out other bloggers who also have balcony gardens. I had no idea it was so common! On the plains of Iowa space is so taken for granted that hardly anyone actually uses their apartment balconies. If they want a yard - they rent or buy a house. And since I'm in a college town there are tons of student's who don't have the time or healthy eating habits to warrant a garden.

I'm posting some pictures to give the idea of how under-used balconies are here. Most don't even have a chair for people to sit out and enjoy the outdoors. I think grills are the most common accessory. Sometime accompanied by a lonely tomato plant. But other than that I think they're just used by smokers in non-smoking buildings.

It's too cold (and my torn hamstring makes me too gimpy) to want to go take pictures. So I found some.

There is so much new construction.
I think the 3 main construction companies are just trying to out-do each other.

Holy shit! I think there might be a few potted plants on that deck. I don't have any pics of my deck posted yet, but this one is exactly like it in style and size.
Probably built by the same company.

Empty...but at least they have pretty trees.

Oh yeah, and of course a deck serves as the perfect storage solution. Not.
Especially for bikes. This isn't uncommon - especially since many apartment complexes don't include bike racks. Mine included.

Categorizing my garden


Maybe it's my slight tendency toward OCD, but I like things to be ordered. So I was thinking about how my not-yet-created garden could be labeled. I pulled the following images from all around the interwebs and photoshopped them for a touch of whimsy. It's also sort of how I'm seeing this garden in my mind. It's starting to take shape, but still rather vague.

Plus looking at all that green lushness made me happy. I'm so looking forward to spring!

Apartment Garden
A little green can go a long way

Victory Garden
ah, propaganda

Balcony Garden
a bit suburban, but cozy

Urban Garden
if only my landlord wasn't so conventional

Hanging Garden
Mine will only get maybe a 7' cascade before it'll get in the way of my downstairs neighbors, but oh I wish it could look like this!

Container Garden
almost doesn't look like they're growing in pots!

Vegetable Garden
a little hard to make out, but it's a quite efficient and utilitarian garden.
I want mine to be just as productive, but prettier

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Seeds + plant order


I was wandering around Target yesterday and thanked the garden gods that I hadn’t yet placed my online Burpee order – I spotted a kiosk of seeds! There were several that I had been planning on buying, so I grabbed a bunch since they were cheaper than their catalog/online counterparts. There’s probably less in a packet, but I don’t need much for my itty bitty garden anyway! And to make things even better there was also organic seeds. Woohoo!

Here's the plan so far:

From Target

Sean Conway - Organic (ok, ok - so the name caught me because my godfather's name is Sean Conway - but hey, it's organic! How could I resist?)
Garden Bean 1.69
Onion - Evergreen Long White Bunching 1.69
Cucumber – Muncher 1.69
Carrot - Chanteway 1.69
Cilantro 1.69
Chives - Common 1.69
Chives - Garlic 1.69
Nasturtium - peaches + cream 2.19
Nasturtium - tall mixed colors 2.19

Snow Pea - Dwarf Gray Sugar .99
Snap Pea - Sugar Sprint 1.89
Squash - Summer - Saffron 1.69
Squash - Winter - Spaghetti .99
Borage 1.69

Trowel .99
Cultivator .79

Total $25.24
Amount saved vs. online Burpee order - 8.50 (Awesome)

Online Burpee Order
Mesclun Sweet Salad Mix 2.95
Culinary Classics Herb Collection 21.95
Stevia, Sweet Leaf 4.95
Strawberry - Festival (Day Neutral) 14.95
Sweet Pepper Collection (6 plants, one of each) 19.95
Eggplant Fairy Tale - 1 order (3 plants) 11.95
Lettuce Gourmet Blend (Looseleaf) 2.95
Free Espoma Plant Food FREE (though I probably won't use it)
- $5 coupon
+$13.95 for shipping
Total $88.60 (More than I had hoped to spend, but the herbs and strawberries are perennials, so I won't have to get more next year.)

Total so far $113.84

Plants I’ll get at the local garden center
Chives (if my seeds don’t grow well)
Jalapeno pepper

Friday, January 9, 2009

Where food comes from


I was browsing the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture website (part of the Iowa State University Extension program) and found a nifty little tool for Americans who wonder about where their produce originates. It gives the amount of a product that was shipped into or within the US in 2007.

I looked up a bunch of fruits and veggies I eat a lot of and the trend pointed toward California and Mexico with a little splash of Florida.


I live in the middle of the most fruitful soil on the planet and we're building suburbs on it instead of eating it - though not so much recently with the housing market in the toilet.

(BTW. I'm so amused at the name "Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture" since Aldo Leopold was chiefly concerned with wilderness preservation - of which Iowa has NONE, and that has nothing whatsoever to do with agriculture.)

I'm going to try to get my seed order to Burpee completed over the weekend - then I'll post some more detailed plans!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Benefits of urban agriculture / victory garden


Save money - and don't we all want to now that this recession is taking hold.
$2.65 - packet of seed beans from mail-order catalog - and I'd be wasting much of it since I don't have room for several big bean plants if I want to grow anything else.
$1.25 - 1 lb. bag of dry beans from grocery store. I'll pre-sprout them to make sure I get germination which is sometimes a problem with beans that aren't intended to be used as seeds (plus I'll only use a couple seeds and eat the rest!)
$1.40 - savings

Eat healthy - fresh produce has loads more nutrition than the stuff at the grocery store that was picked weeks ago and shipped hundreds (if not thousands of miles). Every moment after picking veggies and fruits start losing their nutritional value. The average food item travels 1500 miles. With that kind of distance between me and the farmer who grew it, it's hard to know how it was produced, and imagine the amount of time and fuel needed to get it to it's destination. I've seen apples from New Zealand at Hy-Vee!

Beautify - imagine red strawberries peeking behind their leaves, squash vines hanging down 5', a mound of orange, yellow and pink nasturtiums, and a veil of pea vines reaching high up on a trellis. And that's only the start to the loveliness I'm planning.

Reduce carbon footprint - because about 25% (depending on what your source is) of our carbon footprint comes from the food we eat. And a lot of our food is imported.

Security - not that I'm the gloom-and-doom kind of person, but there's a certain appeal to having control over having something to eat. Natural disasters and wars have disrupted food supply numerous times in the past and people have compensated by growing their own fruits and vegetables, even in difficult situations. I saw a presentation by Kenneth Helphand last year.

Safety - salmonella scares in Spinach, scallions, and jalapenos, OH MY! One of the reasons I gave up meat was to avoid disease and harmful bacteria. I can't stand the thought of it popping up in my veggies!

Therapy - few things are as soothing as greenery and I definitely need my share.

I hope more people start growing their own food - and realize that they can do more than get one lonely tomato plant and a couple pots of herbs - though even that's a start! I love this idea. I think it would be very inspirational to the American people especially since we're still optimistic about Obama.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Why I'm starting a garden.


Question: What's a 5 year professional Landscape Architecture/Environmental Studies degree get you in an economy where nobody wants to build anything?

Answer: squat

Other problems:
  • I spend all day at a desk job but I love the outdoors. (Though I do like my job)
  • I miss the taste of homegrown food (except when I get wonderful goodies from my grandma or my dad.)
  • I can never have enough plants.
  • I can't afford the quality local produce sold at the farmer's markets and I don't like the idea of supporting the trucking of food to IOWA (one of the most fertile places in the world) from all over the world.
  • I live in a 1+ bedroom apartment with my husband and the only private outdoor access is a tiny 6'x8' deck. And he's already claimed a bit for his grill!

Solution: Grow food. And grow it cheap.

This blog will chronicle me starting a garden in the teeniest of spaces, with the teeniest of budgets, and with an environmentally aware attitude. I'll share what I spend, how I did everything, where I got stuff, and if it was all worth it at the end of the season.