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Google Alert for gardening
July 21, 2007
Free your inner gardener almost anywhere
Herbs, vegetables and blooming plants can be grown in small spaces; author tells how it’s done.
Years of wearing out the asphalt, plodding between a fluorescent-lit office and a Formica-laden apartment, can make city dwellers feel more than a little removed from nature.
If your last dirt-beneath-the-fingers experience was being splashed by a bus driving too close to the sidewalk, it might be time to remember the therapeutic properties of gardening.
But for urban residents who fear that their minuscule or nonexistent yards rule out gardening, be encouraged: Big ideas can sprout in small spaces. Here are a few suggestions.
The container garden
Getting a diverse plant mix is key to creating an eye-catching potted garden, whether rooted in an easy-to- water hanging basket or in a window planter on public display.
Ellen Zachos, an instructor at the New York Botanical Gardens and the author of “Down and Dirty” (Storey Publishing, $30), advises taking the “thriller, filler, spiller” approach to gardening in containers, for multiple levels of interest. The thriller should be a dramatic vertical plant, like an upright cactus, that sets the horticultural scene. Lush vegetation such as Creeping Jenny, that flows over the front of the container, serves as the spiller. And the filler is everything in between: mid-sized flowering or leafy plants, like lobelia, that draw the eye from the thriller to the spiller. Make the container look lush by planting tightly, with leaves intertwining and bulbs, if used, almost touching.
Tip: Water until the water pours through the holes in the container’s bottom to ensure that roots grow all the way down.
The water garden
Ponds and waterfalls give a peaceful feeling. A small-space landlubber can re-create that serenity in a barrel or clay pot with a watertight liner. Like their earthbound cousins, nautical plants perform differently based on whether they’re placed in the sun or shade. For sunny areas, canna blossom into bright flowers, and elephant ears put out equally brilliant leaves, which also sprout in the shade, with a bit less color. Water hyacinths make a purple-blossomed floater for water-level planting; papyrus and horsetail shoot above the water, even in shade.
Lined baskets, plastic tubs, dishpans or clay pots will hold plants within the larger water display. Check with a local gardening specialist to determine ideal underwater depth for each plant. Bricks or stones in the outer container can boost individual plants to the correct height. A fountain providing the tranquil sound of moving water is a great addition to a water garden set up close to an outlet. For more freedom in placing the garden, try a solar-powered fountain.
Note: Water-bound perennials need to stay frost-free in the winter. They can be zipped into plastic bags and stored in a cool location until green spikes start to pop out in the spring.
The herb garden
This container favorite has it all: elegance, fragrance and flavor.
Most herbs respond well to transplanting and can be purchased in a starter pot to be moved to a container. Parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil and chives all work this way. Cilantro, however, is averse to transplanting and must be started from seed. Most herbs can grow placidly side-by-side in the same container. The more aggressive mint and oregano are exceptions and need their own pots to prevent them from crowding out more delicate spices. A little basic arithmetic is required for raising healthy herbs. Each plant generally needs 6 inches of growing space, so divide the container accordingly. A 36-inch container can hold six herbs, for example. When planting the herbs, leave an inch or two of space between the top of the soil and the rim of the box, as the soil may rise slightly during watering.
Tip: It may drive sales people crazy, but check the herbs’ roots at the garden center before buying. They should be white and unbroken. Don’t buy a plant if its roots are brown or smell woody. Herbs crave natural light, so consider growing them in a box outside the kitchen window. That way, they get their sun while staying accessible for spur-of-the-moment culinary needs.
The grow-bag garden
The down-home favorite that most city folks assume they have to forgo is the vegetable garden, but growing tomatoes as sweet as the ones from your mother’s back yard is possible with the help of grow bags. These are simply bags of soil set up on concrete side yards, apartment terraces or any other place where there’s no natural dirt. Tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant and peppers all work in grow bags, as do herbs. The bags also can be useful for planning when you’re deciding where to establish a permanent garden. To set up, make a tepee of dowels, or put up a tomato cage for growing support. Then plant carefully.
Make sure the roots are not exposed, but don’t bury the plant so deeply that the stem gets suffocated. Cut holes in the bags to let excess water drain, because frequent watering is needed. A drip-irrigation system can ensure that plants get enough water while minimizing the amount of time you spend watering.
“I know the irrigation system can sound like a big investment and hassle,” Zachos said, “but starter kits are inexpensive and can free up so much of your time.” Finally, if the bags’ garish colors clash with your earthy deck chairs, surround them in black garbage bags to tone them down and trap heat. At the end of the season, cleanup will be easy: Just throw out the grow bags or dump their contents in a compost heap.