Sunday, August 15, 2010

Balcony Gardener: August 2010

I was pretty apprehensive about apartment-hunting in Berkeley.  Here's a town of pick any two: "less than $900 per person per month," "less than a half hour walk to campus," and "doesn't look like something you might find in downtown Detroit."  My roommates and I picked the first two without much hesitation, and to tell the truth, the inside of the apartment doesn't even look that bad.  (That the outside bears a striking resemblance to the Dekalb County Jail better illustrates this point.)

Worse, though, if you want to include "at all resembles a real house" in that list, you're looking at tacking $100 and/or 15 minutes onto the above.  The only amenity that my apartment has that even comes close is a small balcony, about 8 feet by 6 feet.  My roommates and I have crammed everything we can onto it to make it feel just a little like a real backyard.  We have a bit of "garage," a storage area for large and unwieldy items that just can't go anywhere inside the apartment, including one roommate's bike.  There's a little "back deck," including a grill, a few grill tools, and a bag of charcoal.  My other roommate uses it as a smoking lounge.

And proudly sitting on the balcony rail is my attempt at a garden.

From left to right, I have cayenne peppers, a repotted Easter lily from last April, and a whole lot of herbs.  Those multicolored glass contraptions are as-seen-on-TV Aquaglobes, which I bought on woot, $3 for a 4-pack.  I figured at 75 cents apiece, why not?  The garden gets about five or six strong hours of sunlight a day.  It's a west-facing balcony, so the light hours are biased to the afternoon and evening, from about 1 pm to about 6 or 7 pm, depending on when the evening fog rolls in.  I refill the Aquaglobes that need refilling (most notably for my hanging flowers, which you can't see but are located below the peppers) every day; on Saturdays, I give everything a more traditional watering from a can spiked with a little Miracle-Gro.

I started the peppers back in February in one of those covered dirt grids and moved them to their current location in March when they'd outgrown the tray.  They didn't do much in the way of growth until April or May, when daytime temperatures finally unstuck from the low 60s.  I thinned to about seven or eight plants in June right before they started flowering, and now that it's August, I have a couple dozen peppers in varying stages of maturity, with the biggest being about three inches.  Some appear to be stuck around an inch or less, and I think that's probably an unfortunate consequence of their limited root space.

Probably the biggest surprise is the recently regrown Easter lily.  I bought it for six dollars in March, it bloomed, and I had some nice flowers for a few weeks.  Then they all fell off, and I was stuck with what looked like a bootleg miniature palm tree, until those leaves started to yellow.  The thing was pretty unsightly at this point, so I read up on if you could actually do anything useful with a dying Easter lily.  Apparently, if you cut off the old plant and re-pot the bulb in a few inches of soil, it magically grows again. Sure, I thought, like this will work at all.  And to my pleasant surprise, it did!  I now have not one but two fledgling Easter lilies coming up from the old bulb, grown to an inch or two.

The herbs I have are rosemary, oregano, cilantro coriander, and basil.  Nothing too exciting here--they're all transplants from store-bought plants.  The rosemary is a little slow-growing but appears healthy.  The oregano is growing incredibly well and quickly, having gone to flower a month or two ago.  What used to be cilantro is now towering (and dying) coriander, with most of the seeds having matured and now drying in a paper bag inside.  And finally, there's my basil problem.

This is the third basil plant I've had here.  I tried growing a batch from seed back in early spring, but all the seedlings sprouted and died.  Attempt number two was a small plant from Home Depot in late spring that turned yellow and died.  The one I have now is at least living, but what started out as lush, dark green leaves are lightening, thinning, and falling off.  I don't get it--I've had a lot of success with basil back in Georgia, and it's not like it's particularly fastidious as far as herbs go.

One more thing--it's not necessarily east to see in the picture, but I have a mystery fifth herb in the garden.  It came with the rosemary plant when I bought it, and I figured it was just immature rosemary.  Not so--it's actually thriving, but it's certainly not rosemary, whatever it is.  It's small--both in leaves and in height--and it's produced a few purple flowers.  Based on the leaf shape and size, and the slightly lemony aroma it gives off if you rub it, I'm leaning toward lemon thyme, but that could be entirely off-base for all I know.

Lessons learned from this month of balcony gardening:

  • Don't trust cilantro.  As soon as you see flowers show up, get rid of them, unless you want coriander.  I do like coriander, so in the future, I'll probably let one cilantro plant go to seed and valiantly fight to keep the other two as cilantro.
  • Sticking a bulb in the soil, even after it's already produced one plant, actually has a chance of working.  Give it a shot!

Questions for other balcony-gardeners out there:

  • Is it possible to grow good basil in the circumstances I've described?  I've grown basil in containers before, so I don't think it's that.  If I had to guess, I'd say it has to do with the relative lack of light, or the relative coolness.  Or maybe I'm just doing something horribly wrong.
  • If I decide to abandon my basil-growing, what's a good replacement herb?
  • Would thinning the pepper plants further, to say three to five plants, give me bigger peppers?  It seems like maybe it would because of greater free root volume.
  • Do I actually have lemon thyme, or something else entirely?  Is it even edible?  Am I going to puke then rip out the tiny leaves in retaliatory rage if I try to eat them, or will they be delicious?
  • Currently listening: "I Woke Up in a Car," Something Corporate

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