Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Bloomfield Balcony Gardening, Part 1

When I decided to move from Phoenixville, one of the things I knew I absolutely had to find in Pittsburgh was an apartment that had space to garden.  I was looking for a real backyard ideally, one with grass and sunlight and space.  But I would settle for a sturdy balcony that faced south, which is the direction to face to get maximum sunlight hours, because I could settle for a container garden.  I ended up in Bloomfield, thankfully, facing south.
The view from my balcony
It's certainly not fancy.  There isn't a blade of grass that is on the property of the row home where I live.  But my balcony has room for containers, and kind of a great view, in its own way.
Way off in the distance, to the right of the tree in the middle, you can see the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning.
View of the neighbors
The balcony actually wasn't very sturdy, though.  It was falling apart.  I was looking forward to attaching large planters to hang off the deck railings, but there was really no way it was going to hold any weight without collapsing.  The thing was eaten by carpenter ants, I think (please do not get me started on why I think that).  I begged my landlord to look into it, because he's a handy guy, and decent to boot.  Finally, one Saturday morning, a small crew swept in, tore up the deck and railings, reused aspects of it, and rebuilt the rest with new wood before I'd even finished sleeping until noon.  Best part?  The new railing ledges are wide enough now to hold planters without using those deck railing bracket things.

I'm a gardening newbie, so I did what I always do: I got books from the library and read them.  I loved Grow Great Grub by Gayla Trail.  The Edible Balcony by Alex Mitchell came out in February, and I already had it reserved from the library; it was enormously helpful and inspiring.

I actually bought myself a cheap greenhouse and an even cheaper light to start seeds indoors.  I would have been happy to start them on my kitchen table without a greenhouse, but my cat cannot leave anything well enough alone, and nothing would have survived.  So I figured the $40 greenhouse was worth the expense.  I got myself some peet pots and seeds and soil and I was ready to go!

I started many, many tomato plants -- 1/2 brandywine, 1/2 sweetie.  Some basil, cilantro, zucchini, marigolds, wildflowers.  They all were fine with being transplanted outdoors except the zuccs.  I actually began regretting starting the zucchini indoors almost immediately.  They shot up so quickly that I felt sorry for them because they just didn't have enough room!  When I planted them outside, they died within days, but that was OK, because I knew I could plant some seeds outside and they'd be fine.  Zucchini are irrepressible growers.

After a bunch of reading, it seemed clear that sub-irrigated planters were the way to go.  I bought three Garden Patch GrowBoxes. The beauty of these things is that they're built in such a way that there's a compartment of water on the bottom, which you fill, and then a compartment of soil above it, where you put your plants.  But then, there are two parts of the soil compartment where the soil drops down into the water area -- it's as if you packed soil tightly into a square-shaped colander, and then put that colander into water.  Not to mention that the whole bottom of the soil compartment is like a colander.  It makes it so that the roots of your plants can just reach down and take as much or as little water as they want.  They literally grow through the bottom and dip into the water, greedily.  This means that you cannot over or under water your plants (unless you fail to fill your water reservoir every few days).  You can also leave it alone for a relatively long time and it'll be fine.  And, you can plant different things that require different amounts of water in the same large box.  It's pretty damn cool!  And the plants love it, as you'll soon see.

Even this diagram doesn't really show explain smart this thing is.  If you look IN the water in that picture, you see a box.  That box is the section of soil that has walls like a colander in the water, but it's part of the top.  Really clever.

I have some regular planters as well.  Someone on Freecycle gave me a whole bunch of those 5 gallon kitty litter containers.  Another Freecyler gave me a drill, which made me feel awesome (I have a really professional, expensive drill, like I was a real toolman!).  I bought some spray paint and a drill bit at Home Depot, and I spray painted some of the litter containers and drilled holes in the bottom. 
You can see a kitty litter planter painted blue on the left where I've planted sunflowers.  There is cilantro in the middle and some flowers on the right.  This was probably about two months ago, much has changed since then.

Please come back to read part 2 tomorrow!

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