Notes from an Apartment Gardener

This has been an unusual spring for reasons that need not be recounted. One month ago we took a step in the direction of optimism with the start of our porch garden to take hold of some control in our lives. Despite Mother Nature’s mood swings with exceptionally warm days and bitter nights of frost, our hopeful seedlings have been growing towards the light. It still seems like a beautiful mystery to witness the transformation of tiny seeds into bright green leaves and blooming flowers.

The first challenge in our apartment garden is our available space. There is one windowsill in the bedroom window to prop up our seed trays for natural light and a 4-foot x 8-foot porch space to plant the container garden. We also have an ongoing war with the squirrel population defended by wire fortresses staked through containers. IMG_1817

While grow-lamps and heat pads are good ideas for adding warmth to seed trays, the kitchenette counter space and dining room table were already occupied territories. Thus, a vertical plan was concocted for two eager gardeners without the proper materials, tools, or experience to build a rack but who could easily assemble a small shoe rack that was generously on-sale at the supermarket. Instead of purchasing another round or two of individual seed trays, we repurposed plastic containers by slicing triangular openings for water drainage with an Exacto-blade.

Note: Chemical leaching from plastic containers that sit in the sun is a concern. However, recycled #’s 1, 2, 4, and 5 plastics are food-safe because they have low toxicity levels so the amount leached is very small. If they are safe for storing food, then they are safe enough for growing in it. If you have concerns, you can always make containers out of paper. Molding paper or newspaper around the bottom of a jar makes for a pretty sturdy pot to start seeds.

The result of our indoor space was a tower of seeds propped against the windowsill that was “MacGyvered” by balancing the shoe rack atop a drawing clipboard, 4 chopsticks, and a filing cabinet. (Thank you, Derek Jager, for your ingenuity in this endeavor). The tower gave us room to continue growing seeds in our plant nursery that were not quite ready to go outside and start a few new seeds like Lavender, Parsley, Oregano, and Tomatoes.

The fight for space on the porch has been an ongoing saga with the neighborhood squirrels. Unfortunately in this war, you’ll win some and you’ll lose some. The squirrels scale a 3-story building for the scattered seeds that drop from the messy eaters at our bird feeders. Some of our wire contraptions had to be removed because they confined plant growth and damaged leaves. The squirrels have no regard for the well-being of our container plants by stomping through and digging holes. They also leave their droppings behind as evidence that they were here on the attack.

Netting was attempted to fence in the space last summer but it proved to be a hazard for the birds. I took down the feeders temporarily to eliminate the food source much to the dismay and confusion of our sparrows, cardinals, and chickadees that fluttered around the porch in a panicked frenzy. The current status of the squirrel war is that it never will end and I must accept that the porch space, though rented by humans, must be somehow shared with wildlife. I protect our sprouts as much as possible with wire and canvas and then just submit to the chaos by cleaning up after both our allies and invaders.

The porch plants have been in a delicate balance with the spring thunderstorms and my watering can. I try to keep them moist like Goldilocks in the Three Little Bears who prefers her porridge to be “not too hot and not too cold, but just right.” Unfortunately, I made a rookie mistake in the seed spacing of my tulips last fall. The yellow bulbs flowered beautifully in the planter a few weeks ago followed by several pink, red, and even purple tulips!

First, they bloomed, then they drooped, wilted, and dropped their petals. Apparently, you just can’t fill a container with tulip bulbs and cheer when they surface. The bulbs need to be evenly spaced 4-6 inches apart and need room to really grow some height, even in a container. I tried rescuing my tulips that were struggling by transplanting half of them to another container which only brought shock to their systems and encouraged more petals to fall. They were the first flowers to bloom but will be the first to go this season.

A hopeful turn of surprising events has been the announcement of reopening the community garden program with the Michiana Master Gardeners. While the garden is now available to those who signed up, group members must use social distance on their lots and bring their own garden tools. In preparation for the summer garden, I have been learning about growing vegetables through a Michigan State University online community course titled “Smart Gardening with Vegetables 101” and preparing my garden plot soil at the garden site.  I approach this opportunity with great enthusiasm and hope to be better prepared for the adventures ahead. More to come from the beginnings of our community garden experience!

There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.” – Janet Kilburn Phillips 

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