Growing Edibles 80 Feet Up

A content balcony gardener relaxing with his crops. Photo: Andrew Lightman

First-time gardener (and Hill Rag managing editor) Andrew Lightman spends about half an hour a day tending potted herbs and vegetables on his eighth-floor balcony. “I cook constantly and love the idea of making something,” he says. “Part of my relationship with food is buying from people I know. The garden is an extension of that.” Lightman grows over a dozen varieties of edibles and closely observes their progress. By jumping in feet first and being willing to learn along the way, he has gained tremendous experience. “It was a lot of work at first, but I am surprised at how much fun it is,” he says.

Lightman has harvested greens for dozens of salads including arugula, kale, and purslane. He’s plucked over 100 cherry tomatoes from just two Tumbling Tom plants, plus raised strawberries, hot peppers, and herbs like the Indian tulsi basil, rosemary, sage, mint, thyme, and two kinds of tarragon. Sounding more like a seasoned farmer than a novice, he says he’ll pull up his tomatoes this fall to make room for winter greens, later adding onions and garlic for a spring harvest. He has tried seeds as well as plants purchased from local garden centers and Eastern Market. Succession planting keeps the harvest going in any garden but especially on a balcony with finite space.

In addition to the edible benefit, Lightman enjoys the vastly improved view of the balcony from his living room. Lush green foliage and deep, cobalt blue ceramic planters at different heights bring the living world into his apartment. It’s beautiful, relaxing, aromatic, and flavorful. How did he put his plans into motion? What might you learn from this example?

 

Three Elevated Edible Garden Basics

Rules.If you’re an apartment dweller, whether a renter or a condo or coop owner, there are probably rules. Even if you’re the type that prefers asking forgiveness rather than permission, some of these rules address your safety and that of others. Prohibitions against drilling trellises or plant supports into masonry buildings are common. Wind is a safety factor too, so you’ll want any trelliswork or pots securely resting in place and not balancing on a railing. Some buildings have rules prohibiting the mere sight of your garden above the railing, while others are fine with abundant greens on full display. If you bend any rules, avoid getting your cucumbers busted just as they reach maturity. And remember, legal DC pot growing must occur within the walls of your dwelling.

Site Analysis. This is a two-dollar term for observing your space throughout the year at different times of day. When does it get sun, and what differences might there be within the space? Though Lightman’s garden faces east, he learned that the southeast side receives more sun than the northeast side. In response to this micro-climate condition, he keeps his basil and mint on the sunnier side and his kale on the northeast side where it gets needed shade earlier in the afternoon. He is fortunate that his balcony is open to the sky, meaning his plants receive precipitation from above. If yours has a ceiling, your plants will be more dependent on you for watering.

Wind affects plant health. Plants like cooling summer breezes just as people do. Air circulation reduces unwanted fungal growth in summer. Too much wind, especially in fall and winter, can dehydrate (desiccate) the leaves. Generally summer wind comes from the south, while dryer winter wind comes from the north and west. However, your building, balcony height, and neighboring buildings will influence the wind you receive, so beginning to notice wind more specifically will help you know how to place your plants and keep them hydrated. Download a free smart phone wind meter app and a free compass app if you want to get scientific, or just for fun.

Access to your site is part of site analysis. Does your building have a freight elevator, or any elevator? How will you transport your materials to your building? Do you need friends to help? Will you pay for delivery or rent a vehicle?

Design. Design flows from site analysis and also your personal needs and preferences. Consider seating, views to accentuate or screen, how you will move around your balcony garden, and what you want to eat/grow.

With balconies and roof decks consider how much your new garden weighs, remembering that wet soil weighs more than dry soil. There are different container mixes you can use to reduce the weight of traditional bagged potting soil. Learning how to estimate soil quantity, no matter what your soil mix is, will be helpful. Simply calculate your surface area in square feet and multiply that by planter depth (in fractions of a foot) to obtain cubic feet. Then divide by 27 to arrive at cubic yards, which is how soil is usually sold. Finally, what size will your plants be when they grow up? Lightman is learning how big mature edible plants are. Hint: We all underestimate.

 

Ten Easy Pieces

Lightman consults with designers and garden writers like Derek Thomas and me, plus garden centers like Frager’s and Ginkgo Gardens, so he didn’t buy too many books. You have the Hill Rag, the Internet, and books plus the Capitol Hill Garden Club (http://capitolhillgardenclub.org/), which can help you find garden sitters when you go on summer vacation.

Your installation and maintenance garden checklist might include:

1.     Planters (see Gardener’s Supply Company, Self-Watering Pot Reservoirs, and this article on self-watering planters, http://theselfsufficientliving.com/self-watering-pots-containers/) – Watch for local planter sales as this may be your biggest investment. Keep planters off the floor for drainage, air circulation, and to protect your floor surface.

2.     Planting medium (soil or soil mix) – Investigate lightweight mixes formulated for containers.

3.     Plants and seeds – Try both. Growing salad greens and cucumbers from seed is easy and fun.

4.     Water – See item 1, or else be prepared to water daily, which can be labor intensive.

5.     Tools – Some folks use spoons. Others like trowels, pruners, stakes, and nice garden gloves.

6.     Fertilizer and soil amendments – Lots of options here, from liquid, organic, and powders plus Soil Moist (www.soilmoist.com/) to retain moisture between watering.

7.     Trellises – Many options exist including built-in planter trellises from Green Screen (http://greenscreen.com/)  and stylish Lattice Stix (www.latticestix.com/).

8.     IPM (integrated pest management) – Lightman did a night-time ladybug release to control mites that were eating his cucumbers. You can buy them at Ginkgo Gardens. Read the directions first.

9.     Recordkeeping – Some people do and some don’t. If you like keeping tabs, the “Perpetual Gardening Record Book” from Cabin Tiger (www.cabintiger.com/) is lovely and easy to use.

10.  Books, friends, and other helpers – Gardens, like children, grandchildren, or pets are endearing and full of life lessons, both practical and metaphoric. Make some room in your heart and mind for yours.

Even if you lack the time, space, or inclination to create a totally edible balcony or roof garden, you can always start with one bush tomato or cucumber plant and a pot of basil. You’ll know that the Hill Rag’s managing editor and I will be cheering you on.

 

Cheryl Corson is a local licensed landscape architect working on the Hill and beyond. She has gardened on fire escapes, rooftops, city streets, and farms. Contact www.cherylcorson.comfor design assistance.


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