Tuesday, June 21, 2011

start a mini farm in your windows

we harvested our first three snow peas last night! what a wonderful way to start the solstice! they were amazingly fast too, i planted those from seed on mother's day. i don't think there's anything more satisfying in life then enjoying the fruits of your own labors: the veggies you grew from seed, the sweater you knitted, the cider you brewed, the wonderful cat you raised from a baby, the relationship you nurtured and saw through hard times. anything you had a hand in creating from scratch fills you up in a way that nothing you buy or passively consume ever could. growing your own food is a revolutionary and primal act that sustains your basic needs without any outside interferance needed.
want to grow things but you live in an apartment with no balcony? i feel your pain. some cities have community gardens but mine doesn't. even if it does you would need to either visit every day to water in the warmer months or set up some kind of drip irrigation system on a timer. not all community gardens will allow that and it's a bit expensive and fiddly for a beginner. you could ask your landlord to use the roof but that's still a pain in the ass and lots of buildings wont allow it. you could pirate garden by adopting a piece of land close by that no one is loving and just plant there whether the owner likes it or not. i approve of this but haven't had the guts to try it yet and you need a water source close by. be sure to ask any friends who have yards if you can landscape it for them and share the harvest but in the absence of that we have windows. and boxes therefor.
our apartment is blessed with lots of south-west facing windows that get solid sun for a good 6 hours a day and then indirect sun for the later afternoon and evening. we also have two more west facing bedroom windows that get more like 4 hours a day and indirect for the rest of the time. it's important to take note of how much sun you get and at what times. this decides what you can grow. most veggies require at least 6 hours. if you get less then that you'll be better off with lettuce and other partial shade lovers.
assuming you get enough sun, you have to find plants that are compact unless you want your living room overrun with squash vines (which i also approve of, but it's not very practical) and if your windows don't open at the bottom your plants will have to put up with a fair amount more heat and dryness then they would on the outside sill (which you should do if possible, you can even skip watering when it rains).
i'm a believer that beginners should be set up to succeed. you can experiment more when you have a handle on the basics and won't assume you're just not a gardener if one of your plants doesn't do well. i suggest making the best use of your space that you can. all our windows have boxes and i also have a table acting as a plant stand at the same level as one box and i'll be transplanting into some hanging planters to go more virtical. don't overwhelm yourself, but don't only plant one thing either. three big boxes are a good start. make sure they are in places you see every day. our bedroom planters get neglected much more then the ones in the living room. get soil that retains a good amount of moisture since boxes dry out quickly, and if you can get or make compost, all the better. one of the most important things i've learned as a gardener is to stop fucking fiddling so much. these are living things. by definition, they will never be perfect. they don't have to be and they will still be wonderul. so your peas are curling around your zucchini plants a bit. is everyone still alive and happy and producing? then so what? so your thyme is overgrowing your mint more then you thought it would. eat more thyme and let it go. both these things are happening in my garden right now, btw, and it's still beautiful and healthy and productive.
here are a few easy plants that you shouldn't have much trouble with:

*lettuce! start from seed and get a loose leaf variety instead of a tight head type and you can extend the harvest all spring, summer, and early fall by eating the outside leaves only of big plants and the whole thing of little plants your thinning out. i planted quite densely (way closer together then the pkg says) and have been trying to thin out as they get too crowded. in this way you "eat your way to equalibrium" until you just have a few full sized plants. we didn't keep on top of it very well to be honest and fairly soon i think i'll just harvest the last scrappy ones and plant fresh. lots of these varieties go from seed to table in 45 days or less so it's no trouble to replant if it's not going so well, even if that's in mid july. they will also put up with partial shade as they get a bit wilty in tons of sun. make sure they don't get too dry. homegrown lettuce actually has a distinct flavor instead of the water-filled heads you find wrapped in plastic at safeway, and it doesn't just decompose in the fridge since you pick right before you eat.

*tomatoes! get little seedlings as soon as they appear in your stores. starting from seed is fiddly and you have to do it really early. this is the first year i'm trying it and it works, but it's not beginner material. make sure you get one that's labled "patio" or "bush" so it's a compact and well behaved little plant. i recommend cherry tomatoes since they produce an insane amount of fruit for the size of the plant and most will keep producing all summer as opposed to only having one harvest of big fruits. they like lots of sun and soil that will retain some moisture since they hate drying out completely. if you think you don't like tomatoes, try them anyways. the ones you grow yourself are a completely different creature from anything at the grocery store. they're sweet and rich and complex and juicy. they're my favorite vegetable to grow, hands down. don't get too fussed with the million tips and tricks and instructions online, none of that is really needed. only stake them up if they're falling over, give them plenty of sun and water and good soil, add a sprinkle of used coffee grounds if you like, and let them do their thing.

*herbs! these are SO expensive if bought fresh but so much tastier and healthier! again, start with little seedlings for most things, make sure they get plenty of sun and water but some like to dry out a bit between soakings. herbs are often a little masochistic. they really like being harvested too, the more you pick, the more they bush out. most do best if you pinch off right above a pair of leaves, which will then each become new branches. i highly recommend basil, rosemary, oregano, mint, and thyme for being super easy and abundant but grow what you'll actually eat since you'll have a ton of it. towards the end of the season you can do one last big harvest and dry it for winter really easily. you can fit at least 3 types of herb in one good sized window box.

*peas! i like snow peas but any type of bean or pea grows quickly and easily. start them from seed with good sun and soil that will hold moisture. they're very forgiving and can be trained to grow up the window if you get a vine type instead of a bush type. i strung fishing line back and forth across the window as a trellis and now we have a living curtain. if you pick the pods as soon as they're ready the plants will keep making more. stop harvesting and they'll assume they're done and stop producing. i'm going to let a few fully mature at the end of the season to save for next year's planting. they also have the advantage of putting nutrients back into the soil so the next thing you plant will do even better. you can plant a fair bit more densely then the package says, mine are only about 4 inches apart and doing fine. they'll grab anything close to them so if you want to be able to move around their neighbors then watch them closely.

there's a whole world of other easy plants out there. be sure to plant things you'll actually eat, don't just go crazy with everything that will grow in your conditions. don't buy the cheepest soil you can find, you get what you pay for. if your area doesn't have a proper plant nursery (mine doesn't) then check hardware stores, florists, farmers markets, etc. the best places around here are two dollar stores who also sell flowers and a little neighborhood market that has a greenhouse out back. the best sources i've found for planters and soil are those dollar stores as well but our local rona is fairly pathetic.
i never feel like i get to take credit for my garden, to be honest. i didn't do an awful lot of work. it was the plant that grew the peas, not me. it's an everyday miracle that i can put seeds in soil, add water, and have food in under two months. it amazes me every time. i feel the same about the transformation from apple juice to alcohol with just the addition of sugar and yeast, the creation of clothing from yarn and sticks, the birth of mammals from the start of two cells. this is why creativity is good for your spirit. it fills you will the awe of life and connects you to the world around you. grow some greens and you will also nurture your own heart and soul with gratitude and joy.

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