Green thumb in a small space
August 22, 2007 6:46 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to grow some vegetables, but I live in an apartment.

I think it would be neat to grow some herbs and vegetables for myself, but my outdoor space is extremely limited. The plan, then, would be to build a smallish planter box and put it either on the fire escape or (if the landlord's ok with it) on the roof of the building. So, here are the things I'm a little stumped on:

-If it goes on the fire escape, the maximum footprint of the box would be about 18 inches square. Do you know of any simple plans for a box about that size? Tools and construction space are limited. How tall would it have to be?
-What plants can grow in that small of a space? Is there a good combination of herbs/veggies that can withstand some substantial crowding and still thrive?
-Is there something I could plant within the next two to four weeks that could thrive into the New England fall?
posted by backseatpilot to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I would google "container garden" or "window box gardening", or something similar. This site looks good. There are tons of sites that tell you how to construct one. On my balcony, I've had really great luck with several basil plants and thyme in one container (I've also had great tomatoes, but they need about a 12" pot). In terms of flowers, I've got geraniums, petunias, ivy, and others. I'm not sure about what to plant at this point, although basil grows like a weed and would probably grow well. You'll also have to figure out whether your area is sunny, shady, combination of both, etc. It's fun!
posted by la petite marie at 7:01 AM on August 22, 2007

There's nothing wrong with building the planter boxes yourself, but I'd suggest just buying some you like, lightweight ones with good drain management because you'll probably need to bring herbs inside over the winter. The weight of your planter can be a problem.

Beets and lettuces are good cool-weather vegetables that can be grown in containers. I don't remember how deep beets need to go; lettuces will grow in 8" of soil if you're planning on eating them young. With herbs, you can go pretty nuts on crowding without much complaint. My herb containers have thyme, oregano, and basil - thyme wants to crawl around a bit and will flop over the side of a container; oregano and basil grow up bushy. Chives and dill are good as well and don't need very much space.

Depending on what direction your fire escape sun is coming from and the configuration of the fire escape, you might be able to grow a number of pots on some shelves.

Gardenweb is the granddaddy of gardening sites, and you'll find plenty of square-foot and container gardeners there.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:06 AM on August 22, 2007

I'd stick to herbs as you could plant a (relatively) wide variety in a small space, and in a short time frame. Things like tomatoes and peppers or other veggies which you could plant in containers need a longer growing time than is now available.

I'd recommend mint, chives (we have garlic chives and they have a lovely purple flower which adds to the charm), basil as recommended above. Mint grows like a weed and tends to suffocate other plants, so I'd suggest growing it in it's own small container.

We had great luck this year with getting a store - bought basil plant and sticking it in a pot - maybe look into what's available?

You can buy plastic planters pretty cheaply in a home depot or gardening store if you dont want to buy, and plan for a more robust container garden for next year?

Last thing - I swear by this book : McGee & Stuckey's Bountiful Container: Create Container Gardens of Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits, and Edible Flowers - browse through in a bookstore to get some ideas that will work for your space
posted by darsh at 7:15 AM on August 22, 2007

Beets and arugula (rocket) are both good to grow. You can start them now and they will grow well into the cool. Beets are good because you eat the root and the tops, and rocket is good because it is very fast and you can pluck from it rather than harvest the whole plant. Kale, of course, can continue to live and be harvested even after snowfall, but one big kale plant would basically fill your box. You could have three smaller ones, though, or one kale surrounded by arugula, which would be harvested first and give way to the kale later. Cheap way to do this is get for free or for a buck a five gallon bucket or two or other plastic food barrel from a deli. Drill or hack a few holes in the bottom and put a tray for drainage.
posted by Listener at 7:18 AM on August 22, 2007

I'm got a tomato plant growing upside-down out the bottom of a cat-litter bucket hanging in my back stairs. Here's a photo from a few months ago. Here's instructions, although you'd want to start in the spring. I've got basil and oregano growing out the top.

It's doing pretty well, but the fruits are a little small. Next year I'll try cherry tomatoes.
posted by hydrophonic at 7:26 AM on August 22, 2007

Peas or snap peas are a great cool weather crop. They won't need much ground space, but to get the most out of them, you'll want something for them to climb up. YUM!
posted by advicepig at 7:30 AM on August 22, 2007

Probably too late to do herbs in New England because they like warm weather. But there are plenty of cool weather crops you can start now. I'd try radishes -- super easy, fast, yummy.

For lettuce, do loose leaf rather than head lettuces. Try planting some mesclun mix very thickly in a pot (don't follow the spacing recommendations on the seed packet) and harvest it as it comes up. Mmm, baby lettuce!
posted by footnote at 7:34 AM on August 22, 2007

You could try bucket gardening (.PDF)

You should also search for "balcony gardening". There's a balcony gardening forum at Garden Web.

You could make your own self-watering Earthbox (PDF), based off of this concept. Or you could buy a bag of triple mix, put it on your balcony, rip it open with a knife and plant your seeds in there. Plants don't need much: good soil, water and sun.
posted by KathyK at 8:38 AM on August 22, 2007

Seconding darsh: I own the book The Bountiful Container. It's a fabulous book specifically on growing edible herbs and vegetables in containers. It's perfect for the apartment dweller.

It covers everything from simple herbs to growing peas, tomatoes, and potatoes to small fruit trees and berries. They also recommend plants that do well together in a single container - some of their combinations are lovely and very inspired. (But always useful and edible.) They give great advice on what does and does not do well in containers, what planters to use, what soil to use and when to plant, how often to water, etc. I love that all their advice always focuses on the container gardener -- no trying to figure out, does this apply to me?
posted by warble at 9:23 AM on August 22, 2007

Consider hydroponics, which is ultimately a little less time-consuming, gives you a bigger yield per square foot, and is much less messy than traditional container gardening with dert.

A couple of waterfarms, is a classic fire escape pepper/tomato grower in 1'x2' of space. Emily's Garden is a classic design that will give you space for six good sized plants.

If you want herbs, year round, check out the Aerogarden, which is a very advanced, self-contained artificially lit garden, that's being marketed towards hydroponics neophytes.
posted by toxic at 10:27 AM on August 22, 2007

Starting anything now means either little or no harvest in New England. I'd plan something to bring in about October.

Tomatoes are very resilient, and I've gotten fruit (though not much) in the dead of winter. Go with a cherry variety and it will do just fine moving inside over the winter. Try to stake it a month or two before moving. It will hate being moved initially but it will bounce back. In an 18 inch pot I wouldn't grow more than two plants. One might be ideal and once it's going, maybe sprinkle a few basil seeds in the pot. This advice assumes you just want to tinker with this, and aren't trying to maximize production.

I do this almost every year and in the dead of winter, just the smell of tomato from touching the plant is a bit heavenly. And the February day I eat those little ruby window box jewels, it's better than sex on a bear skin for forgetting the misery of the season.
posted by Toekneesan at 11:03 AM on August 22, 2007

Sprouts are crazy easy to grow in a windowbox. You can, in fact, grow 'em in a little tofu (that shows my millieu) container or one of those Glad plastic things.
posted by klangklangston at 1:39 PM on August 22, 2007

Also, you may look to see if there is a community garden nearby. I was super surprised to find that there are eight community gardens close to me (Arlington, VA), where you pay a small fee ($30-40, depending on if there is water available) and get a tiny plot to tend for the summer/fall.
posted by gemmy at 4:46 PM on August 22, 2007

I've been wanting to try this potatoes without a garden method -- and this site says you can plant potatoes in November. Apparently, the trick is adding enough compost that the soil constantly stays warm, but not so much that you scorch the plants. Sounds a bit tricky to me, but it might be fun to try after you bring everything else inside.
posted by salvia at 1:26 PM on August 23, 2007

You might find this thread useful - I asked a similar question about gardening in an apartment. For what it's worth, I gave it a try this year and had very good luck with bell peppers (still ripening now), and so-so luck with tomatoes, which grew just fine but developed some kind of fungus.
posted by lindsey.nicole at 8:42 PM on August 26, 2007

Sorry, posted too soon - here's the link. And wanted to clarify that the peppers required far less dirt than you'd think - a rectangular planter was just fine, and fit on my windowsill. If you try herbs, oregano and parsley have worked out well for me, and mint is pretty hardy.
posted by lindsey.nicole at 8:45 PM on August 26, 2007

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