Sun, seeds and waterGarden centers are full of pots that range from serviceable plastic to gorgeous ceramic. Ignore them. You can find inexpensive containers at thrift stores, garage sales and estate sales. Poster "Snowy29" rescues pots from church Easter flowers; the resulting windowsill herb crops have paid for themselves "many times over."
You might be able to get larger containers free from a deli or bodega. Lieberman scored all the 5-gallon buckets he needed that way, and he turned them into self-watering pots for about $4.35 apiece. This article and video show how.
Regular watering is essential, because container gardens dry out quickly -- there's not much soil in there, after all. Without regular drinks, your plants will shrivel and die.
Certain crops need more sun than others. Tomatoes, one of the three favorites from the National Gardening Association survey (along with cucumbers and sweet peppers), generally need six hours of full sun. If your apartment doesn't get much light, focus on vegetables that need only partial sun, such as lettuces and spinach. Then find yourself an urban gardener with a southern exposure and propose a trade: mesclun for tomatoes.
Seeds versus seedlings is a continuing debate. Seeds are cheaper, and splitting a seed order with other gardeners gives you a nice variety. Walgreens recently offered five-for-a-buck seed packets, so watch those sales fliers. (And at the end of the season, watch the clearance racks. I found seed packets for 8 cents apiece last fall, also at Walgreens.)
There is a learning curve, so don't try to do everything at once. In other words, don't set yourself up to fail.
Don't be surprised, however, if your success with Sweetie Baby romaine or Cameo basil gets you all fired up. Tending plants can be addictive -- and so can the insalata caprese you serve to guests. You'll get bragging rights for having grown the tomatoes and basil on your own "balcony 40."
Plenty of resourcesNever gardened before? That doesn't matter. If you can put together a bookcase from instructions, you can learn to tend plants -- and there's tons of free info available.
A great place to start is the Cooperative Extension System, which operates offices in every U.S. state and territory. They're not just for large-scale farmers either; when I lived in Anchorage, the Alaska Cooperative Extension Service was an invaluable resource for folks who just wanted to put in a few zucchini plants. Read! "A Little Piece of Earth" and other container gardening books address the specific concerns of windowsill gardeners. Renee's Garden has a downloadable .pdf file about container gardening. The Cooperative Extension Service can be a good source of pamphlets, as can many garden centers.
Seed companies often provide how-to information on their Web sites and may answer questions from individual customers. Look for message boards operated by these companies, too, or by organizations such as the National Gardening Association.
Or, just ask other gardeners. See someone with a window box full of lettuce? Strike up a conversation. Apprentice yourself to someone in a community garden; the American Community Gardening Association has a searchable database. (You might also call the regional extension agent or the city parks department.)
A few more suggestions to turn your thumbs green:
- Watch your weight. Wet soil is heavy. Make sure you don't add too much weight to a balcony.
- Garden vertically. Build a trellis from scrap wood or rebar and teach those cukes or tomatoes to grow up instead of out. They'll get more sun and take up less space.
- Use hanging baskets. Put them where they'll get the most light. (And get used to ducking.)
- Rescue plants. If you see clearance prices on stressed seedlings, pick one up and repot it with a handful of compost. It won't cost much and you may luck out. A Smart Spending message board reader picked up wilting jalapeno pepper starts at Kmart for practically nothing. They came roaring back in his garden and produced more than he could use.
- Save seeds. If those heirloom tomatoes or peppers did well, hold on to a few seeds. Here's how to protect them for next year.
Save money todayHot reads: Wondering which personal finance books to choose? MSN Money's Liz Pulliam Weston highlights the best of this year's crop in "5 money books worth every penny."
Taxing times: Intimidated by piles of paperwork? If you're a senior or don't make much money, you can find gratis assistance by reading "Free tax help is waiting for you."
Buying friendship: When is a party not a party? When it includes a sales pitch. If you're feeling pressured by friends selling vitamins, candles, jewelry or other items, check out the conversation at "How to turn down relentless invitations," a Smart Spending message board thread that features tips on dealing with friends who want you to buy from them.
Published March 16, 2010