Got a Balcony? Grow Your Own Fresh Food in 2010!

BlogHer Original Post

My balcony garden makes me proud though all it produces is chard, since I've managed to serial kill all the herbs. The sunny SoCal weather has my chard plants -- which I planted in May -- feeding me through the winter, but I have a problem: I want more chard!

This is what I have now (I just harvested):

Siel's balcony chard

And this is what I want (except with mostly chard):

container garden

That's why I decided to pick up Fresh Food From Small Spaces: The Square-Inch Gardener's Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting after reading a glowing review in Grist. Unlike most gardening books, this slim volume from R. J. Ruppenthal's written with the city-dwelling organic balcony gardener in mind. Right now, I'm growing enough chard to make a decent side dish about once a month -- but Fresh Food says I could be getting 10 - 20% of all the produce I need from my balcony!

Fresh Food From Small SpacesWhich is to say -- I quickly learned I was doing a lot of things wrong. For one, apparently my Ecoforms pots -- though made of grain husks and biodegradable at the end of their use -- are not exactly the best containers for mass chard production. From Fresh Food I found out that "round pots are not very space-efficient. Even worse, they don't hold enough soil for a mature root system." This container issue alone means I'm getting like 5 times less chard than I could be getting!

Second, I'm not making use of a free, eco-friendly deterrent for slugs and snails: Coffee grounds. Apparently, if I'd simply sprinkled my used coffee grounds around the periphery of the containers, I would have been complaining a lot less about the slimy friends the last nine months.

Third, my soil could need more nitrogen. According to Fresh Food, chard's a big nitrogen sucker -- so I need to find a way to replenish the soil.

If you've never gardened before, Fresh Food will get you started without making all the crazy mistakes I have. The book begins by helping you figure out what you can grow in your space. If I'd discovered at the beginning of my garden adventures that balconies -- which usually don't have continuous sunlight -- are generally not well suited to growing fruiting plants, I wouldn't have killed so many tomato plants my first couple growing seasons.

Then Fresh Food goes selecting good containers (or even making self-watering containers yourself!), getting or making good soil, planning what fruits and veggies to have in your garden, starting seeds, and composting -- with instructions for creating a DIY worm composter. The book then shows you how to grow sprouts -- and even yogurt and kefir -- along with some yummy-sounding recipes for everything from kimchi to Vietnamese spring rolls. For the really adventurous, chapters on growing mushrooms, chickens and honeybees are included -- though I really can't see myself getting eggs from my city balcony just yet.

What I DO see myself doing: For one, I'm going to get seeds for bush peas, which are nitrogen fixing plants that don't require too much sun. I'll also start putting coffee grounds to use -- an easy change that'll hopefully keep slugs from nibbling on my chard. And I'll add on some rosemary and thyme to the garden ward off additional pests -- plus give growing basil another try.

To do all that extra planting though, I'll really need to get something other than these round containers that're stunting my chard production. Fresh Food recommends Earthbox, a $29.95 investment. I also want to finally start worm composting, and my city offers subsidized worm bins for $33.23.

Of course I'd like to get these supplies used, if possible -- so I set up RSS feeds for "Earthbox" and "worm composter" on Craigslist. If I don't have any second-hand luck by Valentine's Day, I'm buying them new and getting started on my bigger and better chard garden for 2010!

Green links from fellow organic gardeners:

>> Evangeline Heath Rubin at FarmApartment lives in a 1-bedroom apartment -- but has plans for three gardens this year: One inside her apartment, one on a neighbor's lawn, and one at a local adult day service center.

>> Jeannine Denholm at blogdowntown's rooftop gardening in Los Angeles: "My mini garden with its enviable Downtown skyline view has mint, basil, chives, onions, dill, lemon sage, oregano, majoram, three varieties of tomatoes."

>> Leslie at The Oko Box blog brags about her 100% organic farmed breakfast -- all grown and harvested on her property!

Photos top to bottom: Siel, roman.petruniak, Chelsea Green
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BlogHer Contributing Editor Siel also blogs at greenLAgirl.com.

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