Experiments in urban gardening


The early days: arugula sprouts in the pot; the tray is half arugula, half flowers. In the windowbox, the peas have just sprouted.

I live in Brooklyn now, and once again have a one bedroom apartment all to myself (halleluiah!). Money’s tight, but I’ve been building up an assortment of plants again. In San Francisco I had lots of plants, and even got a couple of them to flower. It helps my mood to have plants around.

This time, I’ve added a few food-source plants, as an experiment. I’m interested in urban farming and the idea that cities and towns, and even households, can become more self-sufficient. I thought it would be interesting to see if I could grow something edible in spite of that.

It’s hard to find a way into the world of gardening, at any scale. There’s so much information and advice, a lot of it contradictory or extremely complicated. Grow lights, peat pots, technique, zones, fertilizer, timing. I thought I would just jump in, in a small way, and then see what the issues were. At least I don’t have to worry about pests and weather, though summer heat and/or air conditioning might be a problem.

I knew space would be an issue, as I don’t even have a balcony. I dedicated two window sills and about a two by three foot space below one window to growing things.

Light is also an issue. I can’t afford a fancy setup with grow lights and all of that. At least, I’m not making that kind of investment until I know it’s worth it. Instead, I got a 40-watt CFL full spectrum bulb, a huge thing that luckily fit into a desk lamp I had, and set everything up near my east-facing living room windows.

I wanted something easy and quick to grow, that adapts well to a container, and that doesn’t require anything complicated like a frost to germinate. Arugula looked like a good crop to start with. It meets all my criteria, plus it’s nutrient-rich, and I love it, so I ordered some organic seeds online.

The self-watering seed starting tray is easy enough to use, and the seed packets have instructions on them. Arugula seeds want to be planted in only ¼” of soil, so I dug tiny holes with a fingertip, dropped the seeds in, and lightly covered them. I included some flowering plants, too, as a test and in case the food plants didn’t work out.

Arugula, April 23, 2012

My first arugula crop, today

The packets say a week to ten days to sprout, but mine sprouted within two days. I felt like a magician! This was immediately encouraging. They grew quickly. I added a second CFL grow-bulb, but I need more if I’m going to grow much more than this.

I knew what size pots they needed, and I had soil, but google wouldn’t tell me how big they had to be to safely transplant. I still don’t know. I had eight plants, and put two each in pots, the other four in a window box. You’re supposed to separate them, though I couldn’t find a definitive number of inches. I’m going to try to sow the next set of seeds more closely together, so I can have more plants and a bigger harvest.

They did pretty well, for a first crop. They sprouted on March 19, and as of today, April 23, I’ve harvested leaves from all the plants now, four times, about a handful each time. They are absolutely delicious. You just wait until a leaf is two or three inches long, then snip it off near the bottom with scissors, rinse, and enjoy. According to google, these plants are probably nearly finished at this point. I wish they had grown in more fully, but maybe that’s all I can expect from eight plants. Not bad for my first effort.

Arugula pizza

Lunch - home grown arugula on a gluten-free mini pizza. Yum!

My baby arugula plants were doing so well that I went out and bought a second window box, and started sugar snap peas in it. Again, they sprouted so quickly, I was thrilled – and a little scared. I reread the packet and noticed that this variety can grow to a height of eight feet. Did I mention I planted them in a window box?

For a few bucks, I bought a couple of garden stakes that are four feet high – a nice apartment compromise, I thought – and some garden twine. I had a short stick-like object – the top section off a cheap poster frame that didn’t work out, actually, which I was glad to recycle – and I fastened that across the top of the stakes, which I had stuck into the soil at either end of the window box. Then, following a suggestion I found online, I tied long segments of the garden twine to the top piece, so that they dangled down and almost touched the soil.

By the time I got all of that set up, a couple of the plants were over two feet high, basically leaning against the window and starting to fasten on to each other with these creepy hair-like grasping tendrils they grow, so it was easy to gently wrap a piece of twine around each plant. The plants are happy to be supported that way. Honestly, these pea plants are growing so fast, it’s freaking me out a little bit.

Sugar snap peas, I hope

The arrow shows how high they've grown - just over two feet. Yikes.

They’re supposed to flower at some point, and then the blossoms “fruit” into peas. I think they’re self-pollinating, so it should be okay that they’re indoors, but we’ll see. Could be that it won’t work, but I’m already pleased with the way the plants look against the window. This is all an experiment anyway.

One end of my living room is starting to look like a mini farm. I’m happy with my success so far. Once the peas were growing, I ordered romaine lettuce seeds and planted them, and they’ve sprouted, too. This week I’ll receive basil and Swiss chard and get those started, and then I think I need to stop ordering for a while. Wouldn’t want things to get out of hand. Though I hear spinach is easy to grow…

So far, I’ve spent less than $75 on everything, including seeds, soil, pots, seed starter tray, fertilizer, and lighting (those bulbs are expensive). I consider all of this an investment. Each seed packet contains plenty of seeds, plus I can try to collect seeds from the plants I grow. The fertilizer will last me a year, at least. The bulbs should last a while. The pots will last forever, unless I break them. The soil, apparently, is good for five years, but I’ve got another experiment going on with compost. It’ll get cheaper the more I grow… unless I buy that grow-light setup I’m eyeing on Amazon. I’ve created a spreadsheet of costs and produce, so I can see if this project is worth the time and money.

I hope to keep things growing throughout the year. I’ll be sprouting a new set of arugula soon, ready to replace these plants when they’re finished.  But really, I’m just so happy to have lots of plants again. I’m delighted with the prospect of even small amounts of delicious, fresh, organic produce year round right here in my apartment.

2 Responses to “Experiments in urban gardening”

  1. absurdbeats Says:

    You’re a better gard’ner than I, Mizz C. I bought basil already sprouted and stuck ’em in a window box (which I secured using a spring rod in the window track and wrapping a bungee cord around it), and am now anxiously awaiting for. . . something.

    I dunno if they’re going to get enough sun—tomatoes are clearly out in this apartment—but like you said: it’s an experiment. Hopefully a delicious one.

  2. soundofrain Says:

    I think basil needs a lot of light. I bought a basil seedling last year and killed it immediately, somehow, probably too much water. My basil from seed is doing well, though – I need to post an update!

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