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May 28, 2012

Country Kids' Urban Gardening Adventure

My husband, appropriately, has the green thumb of a country kid, and the drive to work the ground.  Even as a small-town suburban kid, I grew up with a sizable chunk of land, and several thriving gardens, both decorative and vegetable.  When we lived in Richwood, Ohio, Chad put in an impressive garden in our yard, but when we moved back to the city for work (Richwood is over an hour away from Columbus, which made for a grueling and costly commute) the garden space was what Chad missed most.

Chad constructed several large plywood boxes and small beds for our porch area and added to these several pots for a really beautiful container garden.  One of the beds contains a trellis component onto which we're training Chinese wisteria.  The boxed bed portion contains native wildflowers and strawberries.  He made window-box-sized containers in which we initially planted violet tulips and yellow daffodils for the early spring start, but which now house some extra tomato plants.  Other home-made boxes contain pansies and marigolds and other native wildflowers.
The Urban Garden Starts:  photos from our early sprouts, in March, 2012

At Big Lots we purchased a tomato Topsy Turvey on a stand and strawberry and pepper hangers for less than $10 for the three simply because they were last years' models.  We started our herbs and flowers from seed in the grow light we received from a fellow FreeCycler last year--a coat of spray paint in hammered copper for the frame and deep plum for the trays, spruced the fully functional seed starter right up.  From other generous FreeCyclers we've adopted a 6-foot Ficus, a box elder sapling, and most recently, an assortment of heirloom tomato varieties, peppers, broccoli and some other wonderful selections!

Not everything is living on our porch in containers, however.  We reclaimed a neglected plot of former-flower-bed our apartment complex no longer landscapes.  Chad removed the weeds and trash and worked the surprisingly fertile soil into a 60-linear-foot vegetable garden strip, which we hope will produce a bounty of fresh herbs and vegetables plenty enough to share.

Chad had weeded and cleaned up and started to plant an additional rectangular bed, but one un-neighborly neighbor (to put it mildly) decided after it was all cleaned up that he wanted it for his own personal waste receptacle and threatened (drunkenly) that he would kill anything we grew there, so we moved our young veggies to the long bed.  True, that idiot got away with being a bully, but we can't police the garden all the time, and for as much of our own money and time as has gone into this project, we'd be beating our heads against a wall to get into a perpetual squabble with this guy.  Some people are just jerks, you know!

So far, the rest of our neighbors have been respectful of our communal garden, probably because they've seen how much work we (and by we, I mostly mean Chad!) have put into it, and how involved our four-year old daughter, Avi is in planting and watering.  It now features an impressive collection of tomatoes, peppers, squash, peas, lettuce, daikon radishes, many different herbs, broccoli, celery, sunflowers and more.
Our Communal garden well under way, this Memorial weekend, May 27, 2012


Because we're on a budget, a lot of inexpensive innovation has gone into our container garden and our flower-bed vegetable garden.  I'd like to share some of our tips!

Container gardening:

1.  Anything can be a container for a container garden.  Just because it's not a "flower pot" doesn't mean it couldn't be.  We turned two ten-gallon lime-green vinyl yard buckets were drilled and turned into planters for bearded iris and herbs.

2.  Look for rejected pots and containers--free cast offs from FreeCycle or Craigslist, or even useful goodies hiding in the dusty recesses of friends' or family's garages.  Chad grabbed a couple empty garden urns from Chad's mom's garage which now contain rhododendron--she no longer used them.  You can always spruce things up with a good cleaning and a coat of paint!

3.  Make your own!  For about $80 in 1/4-inch plywood, 2X2 boards, and a sheet of lattice, Chad built six beds and boxes, one of which is 3-feet X 6-feet and 10-inches deep, and which features a 4-foot high lattice trellis.  A coat of latex paint ($3 for a gallon, from the "mis-tint" section at Ace Hardware--the customer may have decided they didn't like the color after it was mixed, but the light wheat tone was a perfect neutral for our project) protects from the elements and looks finished.

4.  Save on soil-  for tall containers that house short plants, it's useful to add a filler if you don't need the full height to be potting soil. We recycled old newspaper and wadded up pages into loose balls to fill the bottom of the urn planters and added soil to the top half.

5. Make everything drainable-  Chad drilled drainage holes in all the containers which did not drain on their own.  Homemade wooden boxes are not water-tight, but anything plastic, vinyl or ceramic can probably be drained by drilling small holes in the bottom.  Most herbs and veggies like a good watering after a hot day, but in the off chance you might over-water, or to prevent a wash-out after a summer storm, make it easier on yourself and make everything drain.

6.  Mix and match and move-  Most things transplant well, so if you end up planting plants that just won't get along, feel free to gently dig up and move around.  We started with flowers with flowers and herbs with herbs, and have learned it's better to make pairings based on growing preferences.  Tall and skinny in the back, with short and bushy in the front is a successful mix--we now have herbs living in front of Irises, wild-flowers at top of the big, empty base of the Ficus pot, and have otherwise moved around plants as space and their own growing needs required.

General

1.  Pest control without the chemicals-  a colony of feral city cats butted heads with Chad at the start of the growing season, as they dug in our seedlings and sprayed yucky male cat urine (oh the ammonia! Ew!) all over--killing some of our starts.  But we didn't want to dump a bunch of chemicals all over our plants (if we wanted to eat pesticide, we'd just buy commercial produce!) so we looked into non-chemical alternative.  Our favorites:  No More Squirrel is a brand of all-natural pest repellant made entirely from cinnamon, rosemary, clove and some other plant essential oils which squirrels (and cats) do not like.  You could make your own version with the same essential oils.  Even more effective for the cats:  sprinkle a generous amount of dried red pepper flakes around the top of the soil or mulch.  

2.  Metal cage alternatives-  tomatoes and other vegetables usually require some help standing straight as they grow.  Metal tomato cages get rusty and are not efficient to store in apartment living, but buying them and throwing them out after the season is wasteful, not to mention costly.  An excellent alternative is using bamboo stakes (less than $3 for a package of a dozen a couple yards long at our Lowes) which can be cut with a mitre saw into desired lengths.  You can build a tee-pee-shaped cage or just stake plants onto a single pole, securing with a piece of twine, string, or hemp.  

3.  Save those shells!  Egg shells, that is.  Several plants like a soil rich in calcium, which you probably won't find in city beds.  Save your egg shells, crush them up and sprinkle around plants in the top soil, gently raking them into the soil with a hand rake or your fingers.

We'll add more as we go, er... grow, so check back for updates!  

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