WORDS & IMAGES: NIKITA ANDERSON
These days, many of us live in small spaces. We flock to cities and more densely populated zones in the name of finding success, whatever that may mean to us. While we thrive intellectually, we lose our connection to the earth, to gardens and farms and the glory of dirt underneath our fingernails. It’s an easy thing to miss in a city. I was living in Moscow (18 million people, one room apartments stacked on top of each other), when I reached a crescendo in missing the earth. My partner and I tried our hand at growing an indoor edible, sorrel. It was scraggly, over-crowded, and under-lit (I had no idea what I was doing), but it was ours, and I loved it. Since then, my skills as a container gardener have grown immeasurably, but I’ll always be grateful to our little sorrel plant for guiding the way.
The great thing about a container garden is that you can work with what you have, any time of the year. It’s never too late to start growing indoors, and it’s still a prime time to grow a container garden on your balcony. No matter what amount of space you have to work with, you can grow something edible and something to be proud of. I have a balcony, and for my outdoor plants I tend to follow the guidelines for my area (you can find a list of what to grow when depending on your geographic region here). These guidelines are generally due to the temperature, so bear in mind you can move your plants into the shade if need be (I have some kale and carrots in the shade on my balcony now, although they’re way past the standard season for Boulder), or even grow them indoors. Virtually any time of year you can grow a wonderful bounty of lettuce, herbs, root vegetables and tomatoes in a sunny window indoors.
In growing food, it’s important to remember to limit the amount of plastic that comes into contact with the plants. A lot of more affordable, first-hand planters are made of plastic, but mixing sun with plastic is inviting all the petrochemicals into your soil! Instead, get creative with what you use. Greens and herbs grow beautifully in old cans.
For larger plants, like tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots, use old rice sacks, canvas shopping bags, old holiday popcorn tins, or bathroom trash cans. You can often find these second-hand, or perhaps have them sitting around somewhere unused already. With any found/second-hand container, make sure you hammer a few holes into the bottom for drainage. It also helps to ask for advice at your local nursery or farmers’ market. Tell someone what you’re planning, and seek advice choosing the right seeds. A lot of plants have heirloom, miniature varieties, like cucumbers, squash, carrots, tomatoes and more. Knowing which seeds do best in small spaces will really help you maximize your yield.
Some tips for potential problems:
1. This may seem obvious to experienced gardeners and farmers, but spacing is your friend! I have made the mistake more than once of trying to put more plants than can reasonably fit into a container, hoping for a higher yield. This is a frustrating mistake and you’ll end up with weak, scraggly plants (my peas were over-crowded this year, and the results were disappointing.), and your yield will be minimal. Most greens and herbs do well with one plant per can. Keep peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes, etc. in their own rice-sack-sized container. You’ll be glad you did.
2. Even on balconies, birdies come to munch on your garden! After Kale Devastation 2k16 (it was almost entirely eaten by birds one very noisy, chirpy morning), I took some shiny wrapping paper I’d saved from a gift, cut it into ribbons, and tied it along my balcony. When it flutters in the breeze, it shines in a way that keeps birds away.
3. Grow food from old food! There are a few that have quick turnaround, like tomatoes, potatoes, celery, and onions. Others require more patience, but if you plan on having a potted plant for several years, it’s perfectly reasonable to sprout an avocado pod or grow a pineapple plant from an old pineapple head.
Right now I am growing two tomato plants, two cucumber plants, lavender, kale, carrots, basil and an avocado pod. It’s simple to get started, and watching plants grow from seed right in your sunny window is so satisfying. Get planting, container farmers!