Growing up in South Florida, my father always put particular care into his yard. He was not so much a gardener as a person who enjoyed landscaping with plants, and I knew the names of most common trees, shrubs and ground-dwelling plants by the time my age had reached double digits. (True story: The first time I went to California, I spent days walking around with my mouth hanging open because I had never been in a place where I knew literally ZERO of the names of the plants I was seeing.)
The yard at the house I grew up in was not especially large; the backyard in particular is mostly occupied by an in-ground pool. But there were lots of plants, and not just space-filler plants but plants with names and colors and purpose. Plants that came from particular places, plants grown from bulbs and cuttings and plants that carved up your arms when you tried to prune them. Plants were an inexorable part of my childhood -- to this day, when I walk into a garden center and get a whiff of fertilizer, it’s weirdly soothing -- and I took the space and opportunity to have lots of plants around for granted.
Leaping forward 20-something years to today, and I live in a condo on a beach. A windy beach. In New England. I have a tiny balcony, and when I say tiny, I mean it. My balcony measures about 5 feet by 7 feet, which I’ll admit, might not sound THAT small if all you’re just imagining a space to put a couple of chairs, but for my purposes -- gardening purposes -- it is miniscule. When I started container gardening in earnest several years ago, it seemed impossible that I would ever experience any success out there, especially considering the limitations of the sunlight I have available to me.
I’ve learned a lot since then, and today I look forward to spring and garden-planning not with chagrin at how many things I will plant for no harvest whatsoever, but with a good degree of confidence that I’ll get a bunch of food from my tiny balcony plot. (Let’s not talk about how I’m on my fourth round of cucumber seedlings already, because WHY DO YOU KEEP DYING? YOU DID FINE LAST YEAR. STOP IT.) I mostly grow herbs, tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, and peppers -- at present I’ve got five tomato plants, two cucumbers, two peppers, and 11 strawberry plants going, which sounds impressive on paper but once the tomatoes really start growing I am going to hate myself for having planted five of them (I usually do three). This year I also bought some onions for a lark, and to my astonishment, they’re TOTALLY doing well.
My success is not exclusively owing to my green-thumb genius, though. A few years ago I found out about Earthboxes and they kind of changed my gardening life. I had had middling success with tomatoes before, but it was always a struggle. Earthboxes changed all that. I don’t know why they work so much better than a standard pot, but they do. It could be garden sorcery for all I care. I am just happy with the result.
Basically, an Earthbox is a big plastic rectangle-shaped container. The bottom has a water reservoir so once my tomatoes and cucumbers really start exploding, instead of having to run out and dump water on them three times a day like they’re helpless infants, I can water every couple of days and not worry about them drying out or wilting. There’s also a system to the planting -- when you initially plant your babies, you also dig out a trench and fill it with fertilizer, which slowly feeds your plants all season long. This is great if you’re like me and can’t remember to write down when you last fertilized.
To be fair, there’s no reason why you couldn’t DIY a similar system yourself, and lots of people have made tutorials for doing just that. But lacking a garage or space to build crap, I’m happy to just buy them. I’ve got four right now, and am thinking I might add another two next year, as part of their green witchery is that for some reason you can get WAY more plants crowded in closer together in an Earthbox without having them choke each other to death.
While I’m very proud of my little garden, I do still occasionally stare open-mouthed at houses with vast expanses of yard and nothing growing in it. Homeowner, you have all that space and you’re just WASTING it on GRASS. I know this is unfair -- not everyone gives a damn about a garden -- but it just feels like such a tragedy to me. I realize not everyone gets as much out of tending some plants as I do. I’m doing pretty well considering my limited space, so I can’t really complain.
And for the record, Earthbox has never sent me anything for free, lest you doubt that all of this isn’t coming sincerely and authentically from my fresh-tomato-scarfing soul. I feel a great debt to the Earthbox people for those tomatoes. I mean, everything people say about fresh tomatoes really is true. Or, for that matter, fresh strawberries. What you get in the supermarket just can’t compare, in my opinion.
Do you agree? Are any of you obsessive container gardeners, and what are you growing this summer? Have you never eaten a fresh tomato right off the plant, still warm from the freaking life-giving sun? The first time I did, it was like a religious experience. This probably explains my garden evangelism today.