July 11, 2010

Frustrations in urban container gardening, part 1

Posted in City life, Uncategorized tagged at 4:04 pm by chavisory

I like to believe that if the economy or food supply chain were ever to seriously, catastrophically tank, I’d be one of those hardy people who’d be able to grow or forage enough of my own food to get by.

Sadly, this hypothesis is not supported by the results of my efforts at fire escape container gardening this summer.

The location presents several not-insurmountable challenges: first, we’re north-facing, but with tall buildings on both sides.  I guess the resulting light situation would best be described as “part sun,” in that it’s fully sunny from dawn till about noon…and then it’s shady.  (I haven’t been able to sustain anything inside; the apartment is very long and narrow–what’s termed a “shotgun” apartment–and gets almost no real sunlight since we’re faced on both sides by adjacent apartment buildings across narrow alleys.)

Challenge #2: The landlord.

I had put out a window box and a couple pots the second summer I lived here, mostly of flowers.  Shortly, we got a letter from our management office stating that all objects had to be removed from the fire escapes, or they would be removed.  I thought I would be a little recalcitrant and see if they actually meant it, so I ignored about three of those letters.  They did mean it.  Disheartened, I didn’t try to have window boxes again for a couple of years, but finally, the demands of my mental health to have plants won out.

I thought I’d get smarter and put them up on the railings of the fire escape; that way, they’d have no excuse that anything was blocking fire egress.  So I got one box and a railing bracket, and as detailed below, battled the bizarro weather all summer to grow a few herbs.

Sure enough, about September, we got another letter from the landlord.  Remove all objects from the fire escapes.  This time I fought back, though.  I wrote a letter back to the effect that a.) there are no city fire codes that prohibit railing boxes, only boxes that block fire escape walkways, and b.) that there is no provision in our lease prohibiting railing boxes, so, therefore, please leave my stuff alone.  And so far, it looks like I’ve won.  I haven’t heard back from them, and my boxes haven’t been bothered.

Anyway…last summer was complicated in New York by very late cold weather (like, it didn’t really stop feeling like winter until about May), followed by daily torrential rain through July.  The peppermint did just fine; it’s an invasive weed that behaves much like kudzu and is almost impossible to kill.  The basil was okay–it will put up with a lot as long as it’s consistently warm, being a Mediterranean plant.  The sage did not do okay.  I actually did not detect any growth from the time I planted it until it died in November.  Sage is a dry weather/desert plant, so although it was warm, eventually, I think it was just in a state of near-drowning almost constantly, and couldn’t recover.

But somewhat happy with what I did get–a lot of peppermint (which mainly went into Firefly sweet tea vodka lemonades) and basil (snipped over fried eggplant with tomato sauce, or on top of egg/cheese/tomato sandwiches)–I wanted to try to expand this year into some of the 12 feet or so of railing space I still had and try some more varieties of produce.

I wanted to go for baby eggplants, but the sunlight situation, I thought, probably wouldn’t serve them well.  I had always shied from tomatoes in window boxes because of their tall gangliness.  Some other commenters over on the Possum Living blog suggested that lettuces working surprisingly well for containers without consistent sun.  And I had had good luck with strawberries in my Midwest backyard as a teenager, despite woefully neglecting them.  So I settled on some arugula mix baby greens, and an alpine strawberry plant (I just got one, because they send out runners like mint does, so I figured I’d have a whole box by the end of the summer from one plant.)  For the herb box, there was plenty of peppermint coming up again (it’s a perennial, which will return year after year), and I added basil again, and thyme.

And then came challenge #3: The Pigeons.

I have never hated pigeons before this summer.  People call them flying rats that eat trash, but I couldn’t blame them for doing their ecological part in cleaning up the mess that humans make of this city.  People accuse them of carrying like 120 different diseases…but I was at a loss as to how that makes them more disgusting than humans.  And I’ve always found them pretty, especially here–we don’t just have the standard gray ones, but all shades, patterns and combinations of white, black, brown and violet–and even sometimes unnervingly intelligent.

And then they destroyed everything.

{To Be Continued……}

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