July 12, 2010

Frustrations in urban container gardening, part 2

Posted in City life, Uncategorized tagged , at 8:40 pm by chavisory

In late March/early April this year, I was overjoyed to see little strong dark green shoots of peppermint starting to come up in my railing box from last year.  Even though I know that mint is a perennial, and an invasive one at that, the ability of such seemingly tender and vulnerable living things to thrive in a city like this never ceases to take my breath away.  Though there were a couple cold snaps, we were having a much warmer early spring than last year, and I was excited to try to grow a few more things out on the fire escape.  In the box of herbs, last year’s peppermint, English thyme, and basil.  In the next box, arugula/mixed baby greens, and strawberries.

And then the pigeons struck.

I had taken the boxes inside for a few days during a cold spell; the peppermint especially liked the warmth inside, and in a few days, the box was nearly filled with bright green stems a few inches tall.  I put them back outside when it was warmer again, came home from rehearsal one day, and to my horror, found almost all of them tattered, harassed-looking, or snipped off almost completely at the soil line.  The strawberry had been putting out a couple of huge brand new leaves, which were gone, and the arugula had been practically uprooted and looked battered within an inch of its life.

The pigeons didn’t do this last year…and I still can’t understand why this year.  When I first put in plants last summer, they did nip at them mildly for a few days, but then stopped.  So I was frustrated, but figured that they’d get bored of it this year as they had last year and stop.  I replaced the first arugula, which did soon perish, with four more robust looking plantings of baby greens.  The mint started to regrow, and I put everything back outside again.

And they did it again.  The greens just vanished, not pecked at but uprooted entirely, and the mint got bitten back down again, many of the remaining shoots tattered and broken.  The basil was picked at, too, but not damaged nearly so badly.

The one thing that pigeons don’t seem to enjoy is thyme.  It was not touched.

A confession here: Yes, I could get metal wire cages, or one of those plastic decoy owls…but, being usually pretty broke, I was reluctantly unwilling to spend far more money protecting these plants than I spent on the plants themselves, or the value that I was ever likely to get from them in harvest.  Looking online for cost-effective solutions, I found that supposedly, there is no natural pigeon repellent.  At all.

Unwilling to accept this, I thought “I’ll bet I could download an owl,” and sure enough, some Googling found several solid black owl silhouettes.  I printed one out and blew it up a little, cut it out and taped it to the window in front of the planters.

It looks really good, a little bit sinister, from inside–and even frightened one of my roommates one night.  And I held out hope for a few days that it was sort of working; I wanted to believe I was seeing less pecking damage over the next few days.

But from outside the window, I could tell that it was so much dimmer inside than out that this black silhouette was not very scary looking.  Still, I hoped that pigeons were more innately owl-aware, and this vague shadow might prove dissuasive.

Then my other roommate caught sight of this thing one morning while working at home.  She said this pigeon was the size of a chicken, and not apparently afraid of anything.  Shadow-owl fail.  My best option was starting to seem like catching this monster pigeon and wringing its neck.

The next thing I tried was a simple physical barrier–we have lots of clear plastic salad containers, so I set a few over the newly recovering shoots, in a way that would allow them both light and a little air.

This did prove a little more effective.  The covers proved just enough of a hassle to the pigeon hoards that they must’ve judged that the food value they were getting for the effort wasn’t worth it.  They could push them around, but after a couple of weeks, it looked like they’d actually gotten bored and more or less given up.  And the new shoots were getting too tall to be smushed under the covers.

But I was disheartened.  The thrice-destroyed mint was growing back much more slowly than at the beginning of the spring, I had one remaining little salad plant, and it looked so lonely that I couldn’t bear to eat it.  The strawberry has shown not one flower; I think I will probably not get a single berry this summer.

And then I made a pot of black-eyed peas one weekend.  I’d been craving them.  I soaked the pot overnight, as per package directions.  But it was a hot night in June, and in the morning, the whole pot of beans was not just softened, but sprouted.  Feeling like a gleefully experimental kindergartner, I took three of them, while I boiled the rest, and planted them in a little glass pot outside.  They grew so fast, the white shoots turning green in the sunlight and then flourishing unbelievably-sized leaves for such a short time, that I had to transplant them within a couple of days.  Within 48 hours, I couldn’t believe that these things had been dry peas in a plastic bag in the grocery store barely a couple days ago.

I have no idea what the time to maturity of peas is, but they’re now little bushes and still rapidly growing.

Figuring I better get something to salvage the rest of the space in box number 2, I finally got a tomato plant, whose pungent and toxic leaves I thought would be less likely to be found acceptable food by the pigeons (I admit, the smell of tomato plants has always been one of my favorite smells).  So far, so good; they don’t seem interested.  The variety is “Mr. Stripey,” which I’ve never heard of before; I’m sort of excited to see how they’ll come out.

So it’s been an experimental but not very productive summer.  Since most of my now-successful plants went in so late due to false starts, I don’t know how much if anything I’ll get by fall–maybe a few handfuls of peas and tomatoes.  Maybe enough mint for a cocktail; it’s all grown back again, but nowhere near as tall and robust as it should’ve been by this time of year.  The basil is just starting to get bushy, so I’ll have it with some pasta or eggplant.  The thyme alone is doing wonderfully.  I like snipping it over grilled lamb or pork chops, or just on tomatoes with a little salt.  I had good results earlier this year with a rosemary-infused simple syrup I devised, which I think I’ll try next with thyme, to use in some kind of drink with Hendricks gin and berry herb iced tea.

That sounds like a good plan for August, no?


  1. Sarah O. said,

    Mr. Stripey is one of our favorites. Its an heirloom, so you won’t get as much as a hybrid plant. Our plants get very big, probably 6-8 feet, so I’m curious as to how they will handle a window box. If you do get fruit, make sure to pick it. They are very watery and if you leave them on the vine they rot. We made this mistake one year, expecting them to turn red, which they never do. They’re more pink and yellow.

    • chavisory said,

      Huh. I got it because it was the healthiest looking tomato plant that the garden shop had left, so I figured it wouldn’t be unpleasant to be surprised with what came out. If it actually gets that tall I may have to let it trail down the railing bars of the fire escape instead of staking it up….

  2. Emma said,

    “…I had one remaining little salad plant, and it looked so lonely that I couldn’t bear to eat it.”

    You’re so cute. ❤

    Yes, it does sound like a lovely plan. I accidentally scorched most of my plants by leaving them outside when I went out of town. The sage and chives made a comeback, but funnily enough the mint looks about the worst! I still water them though and hope for the best.

  3. Michal said,

    I’ve never had pigeon problems, just cat issues. Before Maggie,I grew lavender, basil, and thyme in my window. She loved to eat the basil (oh, she had the best breath during those months) and rubbed against the lavender all the time. I tried growing catnip to get her to leave the other herbs alone. Total fail. Eventually, Maggie had eaten/rubbed/attacked the plants too many times for them to recover. Since then, I just haven’t had the heart to try to grow anything.

    • chavisory said,

      I know, I hadn’t had any significant pigeon problems in previous years, so I just couldn’t understand why they couldn’t get enough this year. But probably they wouldn’t like to eat lavender either, since it’s so strongly scented….I tried rosemary several years ago, but our space doesn’t get enough sun for it to thrive.

  4. Mina said,

    I just planted some seeds for tomatoes, basil, and bell peppers. Four years ago, I had basil in a window box that did so well, they actually flowered. Continuously. But then when we moved there wasn’t a place with enough sun to maintain them and they perished underneath the giant oak. I had one solitary, sad little green bell pepper that year and couldn’t bring myself to eat it, only admire my tiny bounty. I’ve never tried tomatoes, but I am confident–now that I am a mother of a very healthy and flourishing child–that I can also do the same for a part of nature that requires, comparatively, almost no care whatsoever. A piece of wisdom (that I have not yet put into use, so mind you it’s someone else’s wisdom ;-)–if the tomato plant gets too big for the window box, you can turn it into your own “topsy-turvy” planter. Just go to your favorite cyber-place: Google and you will find lots of tips. That’s where I’ll be in, say, about a month or so. Good luck, I am jealous of your basil as we have a somewhat inappropriate relationship every time I get a whiff of it. Love. Adoration. Call it what you will.

    • chavisory said,

      You can do tomatoes! From growing them as a teenager, I can say that aside from needing to be staked, tomatoes for the most part will be okay even under the most appalling neglect.

      I clipped a bunch of thyme tonight and used it on potatoes, and in a drink with iced berry tea and Hendrick’s gin. 🙂

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