The Kids

22 May

I’m a country mouse living in the big city.

Fire Escape Garden '08, Day 1

Each spring, as the blossoms bloom and the most tender vegetables make their appearances at the greenmarket, I curse my decision 10 years ago to move to the asphalt jungle; my fingers begin to itch, they yearn to dig into dark, rich earth, to coax wee seedlings into becoming strong, happy food-giving plants.

Fire Escape Garden '08, We Add the Raddichio

So last year, when we decided to move to Bay Ridge (which in a lot of ways is a bit of the country, or at least the suburbs, in the city), I was determined to have a garden apartment, whether it was actually on the garden level or not. I bought some plants and containers and turned our fire escape into a teeny, tiny, plant-laden patio. One of my neighbors even got into the spirit and gave me some extra pots.

Fire Escape Garden '08, The First Tomato

Things went alright. Even despite being hit by a tornado, and ravaged by winter-fearing squirrels, I got a few peppers, but that’s all. My herbs failed completely, and I only discovered that I had produced one itty bitty tomato as I was pulling the plants out of the ground in October. But you know what? I learned a lot.

Fire Escape Garden '08, Future 'Mater

This year, I’ve gone all organic. I bought my plants at the greenmarket and got some organic soil. I’ve got my liquefied worm poop fertilizer, a kind gift from Abby at Good ‘n Planty. Each pot has a thick layer of broken up styrofoam in its base, recycled from my stand mixer‘s packaging, to promote drainage and to decrease the weight of the pots. I’ve mixed sand and gravel into the soil since things can get a little damp out there on the ole fire escape. I’ve planted only in high containers in an attempt to foil those stupid friggin’ squirrels.

Fire Escape Garden '08, The Second Tomato

And, just because I’m completely obsessive, I’m taking pictures of “the kids” every day so I can monitor their progress. Man, I’d be one scary mother to another if my “kids” were actually real.

Fire Escape Garden '08, Many Future 'Maters

So far, things are going okay. I’m worried about my thyme. It has a fungus. Oddly enough though, the lemon thyme is thriving. I’ve got some beautiful, incredibly happy radicchios from Silver Heights Farms in a pot with lettuces bred for containers that I started from seed. I might split some of them out into bigger containers this weekend. I’ve also just added three heirloom peppers and two kinds of basil from the same farm, and my sage, though growing slowly, seems content.

Fire Escape Garden '08, The Third Tomato

But “the kids” I’m most excited about are my tomatoes. I don’t care what those parenting guides say, I pick favorites.

Fire Escape Garden '08, Clearly I'm Obsessed

They’re just generic patio tomatoes, but they are so happy (they even came with a few worms in the pots). They’re blossoming their patookis’ off and, to my continuing astonishment, have already produced three fruit! The minuscule ‘maters are green, but getting bigger every day. I’m gobsmacked.

Fire Escape Garden '08, Three Kinds Of Peppers, Two Kinds Of Basil

Every morning I wake up, pour a glass of iced tea and head into the dining room to see how “the kids” are doing. Opening the window and leaning over the sash into the crisp morning is one of the most singular joys I’ve experienced in my years of living in New York. I can hear the birds and the neighbors’ dogs and oftentimes, a morning greeting from Fred, but then there’s also the roar of the express bus passing by, or a plane overhead to remind me that I’m still in the city.

Fire Escape Garden '08, Have I Mentioned That the Raddichio Like It Here?

So no cooking this week, just ramblings on future food.

Any other urban/container gardeners out there that would like to share their tips, tricks and stories? Please feel free to leave a comment.

Fire Escape Garden '08, Day 18

P.S. It’s the Brooklyn Bridge’s 125th birthday this weekend! If you’re in town, there’s festivities galore. If you’re out of town, raise a toast to the world’s most iconic bridge on her momentous milestone.

27 Responses to “The Kids”

  1. Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) May 22, 2008 at 8:01 am #

    Go ahead and cut back your thyme — could be that the fungus is not below the soil, but just on the leaves. You don’t want it to spread to other plants — and the thyme is hardy and will come back just fine.

  2. Heather May 22, 2008 at 10:04 am #

    Oooh, someone else who treats plants like children! Best of luck for the growing season!

  3. Helen May 22, 2008 at 10:56 am #

    I am exactly the same, every morning I go out to my balcony and look at how my mini urban garden is coming along, very satisfying! I also had the same experience last year, managing to yield a not very impressive 3 tomatoes! This year though things are going strong. I’ll look forward to seeing how yours develop too and we can compare!

  4. Julia May 22, 2008 at 11:11 am #

    I have my first urban container garden going on this year and I know the feeling, of going out to water the plants in the morning and looking at them thinking, don’t think look just a teeny bigger? There are a lot of lessons to be learned when it comes to gardening, and I wish I knew more about what I was doing, but that takes time I guess. I feel guilty because I didn’t go all organic with it. Mostly because it hasn’t been convenient to lug New York City pay dirt from Union Square to my apartment. I’ve got tomato and pepper plants just waiting to be planted for the reason that I can’t decide how/when to get more potting soil for them. Do you know any places to get organic potting soil in Brooklyn?

  5. Lilian May 22, 2008 at 5:15 pm #

    Just a passing thought….I scrolled over your pics of tomato plants and a familiar scent overcame my scent memory for a long moment. I don’t have a garden anymore, but that familiar tomato plant smell just never leaves you. I live in Louisiana and we have them already at the markets, but homegrown beats them all. The rest of your efforts look great, too.

  6. Will B May 22, 2008 at 7:46 pm #

    Lots of water and just a bit of lime for the big tomatoes! And if you like really hot, tasty jalapenos, try some of those ‘marble chips’ (limestone) that everyone uses for landscaping. I had a few plants years ago and just about replaced the soil with the limestone – wow! And what flavor! Now if some warm weather will ever show up…

  7. Christina May 22, 2008 at 9:39 pm #

    Ah, it was many years before I had real earth to plant in (and even now, the space I have is just on loan), so I have had lots of experience growing food plants in containers. Even know, with a little space, I still find it limiting, so I grow my pole beans and a couple tomatoes in pots on my balcony. Here are some of my best tricks for growing in containers:

    1) Remember that tomato plants need root space that is approximately as large as the plant is–that means if your plant is three feet tall, the best pot size is three feet deep. I know that is difficult on a balcony, but I do have a trick that works pretty well. I get old trashcans, the rectangular, tall kitchen trash cans and drill holes in the bottom. Then, I get a 3 cubic foot bag of organic potting soil and, using a garden trowel, slash a few holes in the bottom. I set the whole bag, plastic part and all, inside the trashcan, and cut off the top. So, I end up with a trashcan lined with a plastic bag filled with soil. Then, I plant a tomato in it (nice and deep, of course). This gives lots of room for the tomato to grow AND, as an added bonus, at the end of the year I just pull the whole bag out and dispose of the used (and often no longer healthy) soil.

    2) You can buy liquified worm poop, but it is just as easy to have your own. Have you considered worm composting? It doesn’t smell AT ALL and you can even keep the worms under your kitchen sink. I’m serious.

    3) Tomatoes and peppers don’t need too much nitrogen, but with the stress of living in pots, they will need plenty of potassium for healthy roots. Liquid seaweed is a great fertilizer to use occasionally to keep them nice and healthy.

    4) In pots, tomatoes and peppers often experience quite drastic fluctuations of water availability. Sometimes they’re flooded and sometimes they dry out fast. The fluctuations in water can occasionally lead to blossom-end-rot (BER). To help combat BER, make sure you have plenty of calcium. You may even just throw your egg shells in the freezer, then when you have quite a few of them, send them through a whirl in your food processor to grind them to a nice dust. Incorporate that into the soil, or just apply regularly before watering. It really does help.

    Tell us more about those peppers. What kinds did you choose? I can’t wait to see how your garden grows!

  8. Christina May 22, 2008 at 11:18 pm #

    Oh, and, if you want any mache (corn salad) seeds for a pot of greens, do let me know. I have plenty to spare.

  9. ann May 23, 2008 at 5:58 am #

    Lydia — Yeah, that’s what I’m hoping. I talked to a plant lady at the greenmarket and she said to resist cutting it back for a few weeks to see if any of the creeping branches take root. We’ll see!

    Heather — Same to you! I wish I had space for chickens like you. Man they’re awesome!

    Helen — So fun! I love the internet sometimes… The fact that you can keep tabs from London on my garden in New York and vice versa is so neat.

    Julia — I’m in a very different part of Brooklyn than you, but I got my soil in Manhattan. My suggestion would be to grab a friend or two and go to Saife hardware on 7th Street and 1st Avenue (I think, I always get the avenue wrong). The bags aren’t too heavy and the walk to the 14th St L train isn’t too long of a walk. Buy some sand to mix into it too, to promote drainage if your growing area tends towards dampness. I’m excited to watch your plants too!

    Lilian — Oh I love the smell of tomato plants. I just love it. I’m so glad the pictures were able to give you a scent memory. That makes me happy.

    Will — That’s an interesting idea, the limestone chips! Thanks for sharing. I keep a huge old, uhm, vodka bottle, for watering the kids, but haven’t had to use it yet. Damn this weather! Hopefully it’ll start actually feeling like summer this weekend!

    Christina — God you are a font of planty knowledge! I’ve been contemplating the worm composting. Isaac is a wee bit skeptical… I think I’ll let it go for now. The liquefied worm poop should last the whole summer. I saw some seaweed recently, I’ll have to go home and pick some up, and I’ve got a whole bunch of whey in the freezer, just waiting to be thawed and used for watering once the weather stops being so drippy. The peppers loved that so much last year, but the egg shells are a fantastic idea! I’m hoping *fingers crossed* to avoid BER at all costs. It’s just so heartbreaking.

    The peppers are awesome, I’m so excited. I have two Bulgarian Carrot Chiles, which are also called Shipkas. They sound a little like habaneros, but much less hot. They’re thin walled and described as “fruity.” They’re heirlooms from Bulgaria, naturally.

    Second, I got Golden Greek Pepperocini. They’re supposedly a little smaller than regular pepperocini and are the ultimate pickling pepper. You can see why I was smitten with them

    Last I got Leutschauer Paprika peppers that are an heirloom variety first bred in Slovakia and brought to Hungary in the 1800s. I’m promised that the peppers are highly flavored and dry nicely. I’m so excited! If I get any peppers this year, I’ll be happy to save some seeds for you and send them to you. But, I guess I shouldn’t count my peppers before they’ve blossomed, huh? :-)

  10. Jean May 23, 2008 at 6:47 am #

    Great site. I love your photos. The details are amazing. I’d love to link to you. Others just have to see your site. Keep up the great work!

  11. Lisa (Homesick Texan) May 23, 2008 at 7:37 am #

    I know exactly how you feel! It’s so thrilling to see your chives sprout flowers or your basil explode from a plant into a bush. Yay for urban gardening!

  12. izzy's mama May 23, 2008 at 3:48 pm #

    I am thrilled to see your tiny garden. I have just started one too and Izzy and I planted a bunch of things from Silver Heights Farms. They have so many wonderful things. I am planning to post about it shortly. I have a beautiful yard but we can’t use our soil so we have raised beds. Looking at your pots inspires me to buy some of those as well.

    Hear’s to a bountiful harvest..!

  13. Anne May 23, 2008 at 6:13 pm #

    I’m so jealous! We don’t have a fire escape. Not even a window sill. I decided to adopt your beautiful teeny garden. So please keep me posted on our Kids’ progress.

  14. michelle May 24, 2008 at 11:08 pm #

    i also check my plants obsessively every day. i’m so jealous that your tomatoes are already fruiting! i’m going to have to give mine a pep talk tomorrow.

  15. Marie May 25, 2008 at 8:11 am #

    Is your fire escape in the shade of tree we can see in the garden? It sounds as though you might have too much shade for plants that love sun. Thyme is pretty pest-free, usually. If you do have shade, mint would be able to tolerate it, and parsley can cope, too. My tiny terace gets shade at its feet so I heaved all my herbs and the fig tree up onto the roof around it so that they get full sun. I’m running out of room!

  16. ann May 25, 2008 at 8:56 am #

    Jean — Thanks! I appreciate the kind words :-)

    Lisa — Yay indeed! I can’t wait to plant my peppers today.

    Izzy’s Mama — Raised beds are awesome. They’re such an ancient way to keep plants healthy and happy! I can’t wait to see how your garden grows!

    Anne — You crack me up sometimes. Since you’ve adopted the garden, does that mean I have to share the bounty? ;-)

    Michelle — Oh, I talk to mine all the time, perhaps that’s the key :-)

    Marie — Yeah, that tree does provide some shade, so yeah, the kids don’t get full sun all day long, but, since I got results last year, I’m hoping that they actually like it. They get about 8 hours of filtered sun a day, which is pretty good, but the biggest problem is the dampness. I have to make sure not to obsessively water them and to check the deep core moisture by sticking my fingers into the pots. Its a challenge, but worth it.

    The lady from Silver Heights told me it’s very common for thyme to get a fungus, but that most people don’t notice because it happens at the core, and that the creeping stems keep rooting so the damage is minimized.

  17. Mary Coleman May 25, 2008 at 8:16 pm #

    I live in a mostly shaded area and there is precious little full sun. So even though I have the room for a big garden, I do the majority of it in containers. Your garden looks lovely, and don’t worry too much about your thyme. They are hardy little things!

  18. Terry B May 26, 2008 at 2:54 pm #

    A great post, Ann. Mostly I am unaffected by the Green Acres gene, but there is something wonderful about harvesting fresh basil or rosemary from the porch or fire escape or yard. And happy birthday, Brooklyn Bridge! Being in the presence of that grand structure [well, and the rest of the city, of course] totally trumps any farming urges, as far as I’m concerned.

  19. ann May 27, 2008 at 6:39 am #

    Mary — Thanks. I’ve given up worrying about the thyme and turned my worrying attention to the tomatoes. They’re dropping blossoms like crazy. I’m hoping it’s the stupid, stupid weather we’re having and nothing more serious. Good luck with your garden too! Your tomatoes look so happy :-)

    Terry — Your comment literally made me laugh out loud last night, and I was still humming the “Green Acres” theme as I drifted off to sleep. To damn funny. Wonderful things like the Brooklyn Bridge and spotting a seriously fast and expensive racing yacht this weekend on a Hudson River stroll are the reasons why I’ll never leave New York, but someday, just maybe, I would like a little plot of land to call my own :-)

  20. Deja May 28, 2008 at 2:38 pm #

    I too am a fire escape gardener out here in California. I am just starting out. It was really a joke to begin with… I bought some seeds (tomatoes, strawberries, and basil) and planted in tiny pots. I never thought anything would grow, but low and behold! I ended up with thirty teeny tomato plants in a 3″ diameter pot! I had to kill them off and I was literally in tears trying to select them… my boyfriend laughed at me. I don’t have any friends who understand the connection one feels to one’s plants after watching them grow day by day. I am blessed with a full sun fire escape in an area that gets precious little. As of now my thirteen remaining Toms are just under 2″ in height and I’ll have to undergo another selection when they are big enough to transplant outside. My strawberry is absolutely precious, just getting her secondary leaves. And my basil is sprouting like crazy. I’ll keep checking in on all those wonderful tips for keeping plants in pots.
    Thank you all for sharing your experience, it is nice to know that I’m not losing my mind when I hum to my babies…

  21. ann May 29, 2008 at 6:52 am #

    Deja — AWH! I’m here for you! Your kids sound awesome! Good luck with the culling. Perhaps you can find someone that would take your orphans? Or maybe you could transplant them to little pots and give them away to your neighbors with care cards? That would be pretty neat. Please keep us posted on your successes.

  22. Julie May 29, 2008 at 1:08 pm #

    I put a bunch of basil in pots in my backyard and something has eaten every leaf off every one. I live in the inner-city so that pretty much rules out rabbits. I’m just hoping it was the work of a squirrel and not a rat. Hhhmmm…

  23. Sheila June 8, 2008 at 8:02 pm #

    Love your column and pics. You are a person after my own heart! I have a colorful urban garden planted in pots on my balcony, which overlooks the hills here in San Diego County. People who visit my apartment and balcony LOVE it. Some have said they covet my little “garden,” which is artfully arranged around a Tiffany table and two chairs. I’ve planted nasturtiums in large pots mixed with purple verbena. The complementary colors are gorgeous together. I’ve also planted nasturtiums with hot pepper plants, and the colors and shapes make a lovely mix. The nasturtiums, which I love mixed with tiny greens in tangy salads, have grown long runners which are encircling and “charming” the baker’s rack where I keep a number of cute pots with kitchen herbs, medicinal herbs and minature yellow roses. I also have a long rectangular pot that is home to a French lavendar plant, varigated thyme, and chives. Fresh basil and fragrant mint are a must, and I love using them in salads, pesto, pho and Vietnamese spring rolls. You can be gourmet on a budget by growing your own culinary plants, and watching the “babies” grow and bloom is so soul-satisfying.

  24. ann June 9, 2008 at 6:43 am #

    Julie — Sounds like it’s time to sprinkle your pots with cayenne and keep a sharp eye out for sneezing squirrels.

    Shelia — Oh your garden sounds fabulous! I’d love to have more kids out back and beautiful furniture and stuff, but I’m too worried about my fire escape losing the functionality for which it was designed :-) Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful garden with us. Sounds like paradise!

  25. Brooks June 18, 2008 at 6:28 pm #

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation :) Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Brooks.

  26. surajit June 26, 2008 at 6:25 am #

    It’s lovely to watch those photographs and woderful writing style.Though the place where I live now has not much space constraints but I have been a city dweller for more than twenty years. your blog gives a lot of simple joy.Keep up the good work.

  27. Liz Macklin June 5, 2009 at 6:57 am #

    Is it true that plants respond to love? I hope so. You’ll have a delicious harvest!

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