Non-gardening city dweller in search of cheap and easy access to basil.
March 19, 2013 11:12 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to turn a piece of my apartment into a garden. Like, an herb garden. Probably. Help.

I have this front...porch...thing on my 2nd floor apartment. It's about, oh, maybe 8 square feet, kind of trapezoidal, covered in tar paper, not especially level, has poor drainage, and is currently kind of gross. I only have access through a window (no doors), but I am allowed to be out there/put stuff out there/stand there without dying.

I think I would like to fill it with dirt and make a garden happen in it. This would need to theoretically be removable without requiring a tremendous amount of work (I rent, but am here for another year at least), and I would like to spend no more than $50 max making it happen.

I live in Chicago, rendering this unusable many months out of the year.
I have never gardened/raised plants from birth in my life.
Every plant I have ever had has died, died, died.

1) Is this doable?
2) What do I need?
3) How (and when) do I start?
4) What should I grow?

posted by phunniemee to Science & Nature (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I would recommend container gardening, since that works well for herbs and is easily removable. Herbs do require a lot of sun, though. Buy starts, not seeds.
posted by Safiya at 11:17 AM on March 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh, I should add: the porch thing is unroofed and gets lots of sun!
posted by phunniemee at 11:18 AM on March 19, 2013

Best answer: I'm not sure I understand what the porch thing is (windowsill/ledge? enclosed room? sunroom?) but regardless, I'd imagine the easiest thing would be filling a few large pots with dirt and planting in those.

You can either buy herb plants at a grocery store/garden center or start them from seeds. If starting from seeds, you'll want to get one of those growing kits with little peat pots or similar, again at the grocery store or garden centre.

I just planted basil, thyme, oregano and rosemary the other day since those are my favourites, but just about any herb will grow well in good-sized containers with enough sun.
posted by randomnity at 11:18 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh and make sure your pots have drainage holes in the bottom or they'll get waterlogged and die, and you'll also want to water pretty often especially during the summer, since containers outdoors will dry out really quickly. Otherwise you shouldn't have to do too much.

Sounds like an ideal spot to plant an herb garden, actually!
posted by randomnity at 11:23 AM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Keep your pots watered but not over-watered so they are NOT standing in puddles but do not let them dry out.
The pots you buy the plants in will have advice on their care and feeding.
Good luck!
posted by lungtaworld at 11:24 AM on March 19, 2013

Response by poster: This is my porch thing from the outside. The walls are about 2-2.5 feet high.
posted by phunniemee at 11:31 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nthing "use pots and put the pots out on the tar thing rather than dumping dirt out there. You never know what kind of bad effect the tar paper could have.

But that said - if it gets a lot of sun, that's good. But basil is kind of fussy; I'd try the woodier herbs like sage, rosemary, oregano, and thyme instead. Those can do with less watering and are a little easier to maintain.

And seconding getting baby plants and replanting them rather than starting from seed.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:33 AM on March 19, 2013

Best answer: I would do pots (buy square or rectangular pots so they fit together) on a table or riser that gets them up closer to the top of the walls. It looks like it might be shady down on the surface for enough of the day that you'd lose a good bit of light.

And yes, buy small plants not seeds. A lot of grocery stores will be putting them out 2/$5ish about now.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:36 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Pot gardening for sure. If you want it to be pretty, buy a nice piece of astroturf to put over the tar.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:36 AM on March 19, 2013

Best answer: Sounds perfect for herbs. You can should be able to get a good selection of pots, dirt and starts for $50 at any Walmart or similar. It's a smidge early to put them out yet. Get a good potting mix with fertilizer in it and just start a new garden every spring, though I get chives and thyme through the winter in pots with nothing but neglect and I'm in the same area as you almost.

Honestly herbs are super easy if you get direct sun, bung em in a pot, keep soil moist but well drained trim herbs off with sharp scissors as needed. Chives, mint, thyme, basil, rosemary are all super easy, lavender might like it out there.

With the edging around the garden, you might want to lift the pots up on a low shelf (some wood and bricks) shelf so they don't' get too shaded. I'd put a seat out there and sit and have coffee every morning surrounded by plants.
posted by wwax at 11:37 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a total brown thumb, but have successfully grown basil here in Calgary, with even worse weather (and on a north-facing balcony). The thing that you want is a self-watering container, like an Earthbox. You can pour water into it until it's full, and it prevents overwatering (which in turn prevents underwatering, since you can just dump in water whenever and not worry you're drowning your garden). It's the only way I've ever been able to keep anything alive for more than a month.

They can be made fairly easily in a couple of hours if you feel even remotely handy. You need two big plastic bins (Rubbermaid type things), an old yogurt container or something like that, and a piece of pipe for the water, along with modest tools. $50 is a reasonable budget for one mid-sized bin, including dirt and plants. This link has a PDF that I used ("dual tub design").
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:38 AM on March 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Sounds like a perfect spot for a repurposed pallet garden. Deals with drainage and space. Basil grows like a weed and is infinitely useful (until you get tired of pesto). Cilantro, mint, rosemary, sage are all addable to just about anything.

I'm totally jealous because my back patio gets basically zero sun. Getting a grow light for basil seems a little sketchy.
posted by supercres at 12:36 PM on March 19, 2013

You want the Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse Plant Sale

It's in the middle of May every year. Buy all the fun things you want. Get there early. Ask questions. Go home with lots of little plants and farm the rest of your summer. :-)
posted by a robot made out of meat at 2:23 PM on March 19, 2013

If what you want is basil, go ahead & plant some basil. It is pretty tender - you don't want to plant it outside till about Memorial day. And don't forget to water it - flowerpot sized containers need watering every day or two during the heat of summer.

I'd plant one pot from seed, and another from a 4" potted plant.
posted by mr vino at 2:50 PM on March 19, 2013

If that area gets a lot of direct sun then it will be very warm for most of the summer, not even cooling off at night since the brick will be radiating heat for hours after the sun is down. Heat-loving plants like tomatoes, peppers and basil can do very well in conditions like that, but things like lettuce and peas may bolt or bite the dust very quickly. Stay on top of the watering.
posted by jon1270 at 2:52 PM on March 19, 2013

Basil loves sun. I've bought basil plants at Trader Joe's - a container with 15+ seedlings that I transplanted. If you like tomatoes, cherry tomatoes do well in (large) containers.

To protect the tarpaper roofing, I'd use a pallet or some other base. Gardening is fun, and there's a lot of information on the Internet. It's very weather/latitude-dependent, so get local info. Seeds are cheap, and you can always re-plant, so try different things.
posted by theora55 at 12:06 AM on March 20, 2013

What I learned from growing herbs in containers with a predisposition for killing every plant I touch is the following:

- The bigger the pot, the better. There is no such thing as too big. Too small will lead to all sorts of problems.

- Basil and many other herbs bolt in hot weather. You need to pinch off lots more leaves than you think, starting when the plant is quite small, otherwise it will flower and it's all over. You should also assume it will bolt, so keep a rotating series of herbs going. I plant seeds and seedlings at the same time, and just when the seedlings are bolting, the seeds are ready to harvest. Then start again and plant new seeds well before the latest seedlings die.

- Pests LOVE container gardens. Or they love mine. I thought I was crap at gardening, but since having a real garden, I stopped getting anywhere near the number of pests I used to have. And/or the whole ecosystem sort of balances, and one type of pest kills another off before it kills my plants. But if you know you will have to deal with pests, you can be prepared. Decide in advance if you are a full pesticide person, or organic, and if organic, look into your options. Consider companion plants. (You can grow them in a second container next to the herbs). And consider covering your plants in some sort of fine netting, which will keep some of the pests out in the first place.
posted by lollusc at 3:12 AM on March 20, 2013

Oh, another thing you could try out there - baby salad greens. Just get a big horkin' pot, wet the dirt down, and sow the seeds in it; keep watering it, and the seedlings will come up comparatively fast. Keep things pretty moist and let them grow.

And then when you harvest your first salad out of it, sow some more seed and keep tending it all. You won't be able to do this every time you have salad, just when you've harvested one whole patch of plant, and then you'll just go salad-less while the new seedlings grow in. If you live in a warm enough climate you may be able to get a third planting down.

Or this says to not even bother re-seeding, just cut the plants off at the base and leave the roots there, and they'll probably re-sprout new growth. Greens like cooler weather, so you may want to start this now; you'll really have to step up with the watering over the summer, and maybe be ready to give them some shade during part of the day.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:20 AM on March 20, 2013

Also, I've had *no* luck bringing pots of basil indoors, whether I put them in a window or not. To make it through the cold months, you need both a lot of sun and relative protection from the cold, so you might need better insulation than your current windows might provide. Other herbs fare better, but basil loves Missouri summers, so plan accordingly...
posted by acm at 7:14 AM on March 20, 2013

Don't just grow herbs. Grow some pretty plants as well that will motivate you to go out and look at them and care for them and then your herbs will get the care they need as well (let's face it herbs, while fun to eat, are boring to grow). A plant you pretty much can't kill and that will multiply wonderfully is Sempervivum (latin for Always Living - a pretty good sign!) - house leaks. It can even overwinter outside. Just get a clump of them and put them in a largish clay pot and they will overflow it in no time creating a lovely cascade. They will even do well and look good once your clay pot is broken by the freezing and thawing cycle.

There is a good chance what you try and grow might just bake in the sun if your space is south facing. You might need some shade cloth and to be very diligent with watering - containers can dry out very fast. Also be aware that your water supply is treated with varying levels of chlorine particularly in the full heat of summer when the lake has a bacteria problem - I fill my watering can a day before I water my plants to give it a chance to dissipate. This also ensures the water is not too cold.

You will also want some airflow beneath your pots because you don't want to damage your roof. Things directly beneath pots tend to rot or degrade if they stay wet (the damp also attracts pests that will eat the roots of your plants).

A top layer of grit can help keep your potting mix damp by retarding evaporation but it also makes it harder to see when you need to water.
posted by srboisvert at 8:41 AM on March 20, 2013

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