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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My Edible Window Garden

Foods are best when they are freshest, and you can’t find fresher foods than those you grow yourself. Not only are they fresh, but, properly tended, they are also free of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals.

If you don’t have a garden plot, turn a sunny windowsill into an herb garden or grow a pot of peppers on your patio. Many plants grow well in containers, from salad greens to strawberries, so Manhattanites and apartment-dwellers take note. You can grow fresh food in small spaces.

My Window Garden

I recently put two container gardens in my sunny, south-facing windowsills. One I planted from seed and the other from starts that I bought at the farmer's market.

(Note for New Yorkers: You can find a wide variety of herb starts at the Union Square Greenmarket. Recently I found some there for only $2 each.)

For my herb garden, I picked summer essentials like basil and dill, staples like rosemary and oregano, and varieties that can be difficult to find like lemon thyme and purple sage.

In my garden of  seedlings I planted basil (you can never have enough, especially if you like to make pesto), cilantro, edible flowers (they add such a special touch to salads) and greens. The edible flowers include nasturtium, borage and calendula. For greens, I planted spinach, kale, Swiss chard, purslane, sorrel, and mesclun.

Your Window Garden

To plant a window garden of your own, first pick your plants. In general, those that grow best in containers include chard, fennel, garlic, lettuce, leeks, onions, peppers, radishes, salad greens, shallots, strawberries and tomatoes. Edible flowers and herbs like basil, chive, cilantro, marjoram, mint, rosemary, sage and thyme also grow well in pots.

(Aside from strawberries, fruit is more difficult to grow in small spaces because even dwarf varieties usually require 15-gallon pots, as well as a warm climate, pollination, and pruning expertise).

For container gardens, some plants are best bought as "starts" (small plants that someone else started for you) because they can be difficult to germinate or because they need to be germinated in the fall for a summer harvest: lavender, mint, peppers, rosemary, sage, strawberries, thyme and tomatoes.

Other plants are easily germinated from seed within a week or two under the right conditions: arugula, calendula, chard, cilantro, dandelion, lettuce, marjoram, nasturtium and savory. Garlic can be grown from an organic peeled clove planted in soil.

Pick a pot that has good drainage and the right depth for your plants:
  • At least 4 inches deep: basil, chives, cilantro, most lettuces, radishes, marjoram
  • At least 6 inches deep: calendula, garlic, mint, mustard greens, nasturtium, savory, shallots, thyme
  • 8 inches or deeper: chard, lavender, peppers, rosemary, sage, strawberries, tomatoes
If you put multiple plants in the same pot, choose ones that have similar sunlight, soil and water requirements:
  • Plants that need full sun: basil, flowers, oregano, peppers, rosemary, sage, thyme, tomatoes
  • Light shade: chard, garlic, leeks, lettuce, radishes, spinach, salad greens
  • Mint likes moist and shady conditions, and it should always be planted in its own container because it will take over any pot
Dirt from outdoor gardens doesn’t work well in containers, so buy organic potting soil. Most plants grow well in general-purpose potting soil, but some need more acidic soils, so check before you plant.

You'll also need drainage materials to keep excess water away from roots and allow air to circulate. Rocks, seashells, and pieces of broken terra cotta pots all work well. My grandmother, who had the greenest thumb I've ever known, always added clean egg shells to her drainage materials. They break down gradually and slowly release nutrients into the soil. So I do that too.

Once you have handy the plant pots, seeds or starts, soil and drainage materials, you're ready to get dirty. Place the drainage materials in the bottom of the container so that they retain the soil but allow water to drain.

If you're planting seeds, fill the container with potting soil, pack it down lightly, and plant as directed (different seeds should be inserted to different depths).

If you're planting starts, scatter some soil over the drainage materials, allowing enough space to accommodate the roots and any attached dirt. Remove the starts from their plastic containers, place them in the container, fill any empty space with soil and pack it down lightly.

Water your new container garden generously, enough so that water comes out the bottom. Drain it thoroughly and place the pot in a windowsill.

Then give it good attention and see what your garden grows.

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