Now that I have my seeds, the next step is getting seedling supplies. This brings me to a couple of things I need to figure out.
To risk the frost, or not risk the frost?
Frost dates are calculated by an area's last average frost. I am tempted to push all of these dates a week or so earlier in the hopes that it will warm up early this year. Last year, I know I started my seeds indoors ahead of schedule, and likewise planted them outside ahead of schedule, I just don't remember how early. As far as I remember, that worked out just fine.
The obvious con to this plan is tempting fate a little too much with fragile seedlings. Seedlings need light and their roots need warmth when they go outside, and nighttime low temperatures can really sting in the early spring. The pros to this are a longer growing season and a (slight) remedy for my winter restlessness.

One nice thing about containers is their movability. Theoretically, I would know about a cold snap with enough warning to bring the containers inside for a few days. However, the movability of containers is tempered by how much a container full of watered soil weighs. Furthermore, keeping the plants indoors also assumes I can keep the cats away from them, which will be interesting.
Something to think about; advice is totally welcome.

Moving right along to decision #2:

How many mini-greenhouses do I want to buy?For the uninitiated, mini-greenhouses are essentially plastic trays with lids that house disks of peat growing material. This is the easiest way to raise seedlings (in my highly tested comparison of peat disks to, say, dixie cups with potting soil), and in my opinion, it is totally worth the extra cost to buy the materials. Further, you can purchase additional disks and the trays are reusable, though I wish they were sturdier. Anyway, these greenhouses, usually made by a company called Jiffy, come in all shapes and sizes. My growing shelf will accommodate a big hummer that holds 72 disks that I can get for $12.99 with shipping from amazon.com. However, I'm not sure I need so much space. For the same price, I can get two 12-disk trays. I think I am leaning toward the 72-disk tray, not because I need all that space, but because it may give me some flexibility in positioning the disks in the interest of their lamp.

The other issue is cost: I may be able to find either/both of these items for cheaper at the Home Despot. However, when I made a trip over there a few weeks ago, their garden center was still in winter mode. When I called today, I got hung up on twice being transferred from department to department, so I don't know if they have greenhouses in stock or how much they cost. Anyone have an idea on the price of these bad boys outside of Internetland?

seeds ii

My seeds finally came in the mail! The crisp paper packets are tidy and promising, and when laid out on my desk, I am tempted to take our flirting-with-50-degree weather and run with it. However, in the interest of avoiding a seedling massacre, I will continue to plan rather than do.

So far, I have set up a tentative planting schedule. Many of the things I am growing this season can be direct-sowed (sown?) outside when it warms up, rather than starting everything indoors (like last year). Philadelphia's approximate last frost date is mid- to late-April, which I am going to call April 17, because it's a Saturday, and I know I have time to work on the deck on Saturdays.

The indoors-starts:
Eggplant - late February/early March
Tomatoes - early March
Echinacea - early March

The indoor- or outdoor- starts:
Chives - early March indoors, late March outdoors
Mint - early March indoors, after frost date outdoors

The outdoor-starts:
Lettuce - mid-March
Mesclun lettuce - mid-March
Chard - late March
Bee Balm - early April
Delphinium - after frost date
Basil - late April
Squash - Early May

As I look at this, I realize all these dates are a long, painful way off...



It's high time I tell you about all the container research I've been doing.

For Christmas I asked my family for some books on container gardening. My parents, avid gardeners for as long as I can remember, came through with some books from their personal collection (pardon amazon's wonderful cover images):

The first, Small & Container Gardening, is more a coffee table book (3 lbs and hardcover) than anything, with lovely photographs that are great for design and planning ideas. The book is divided roughly in half between small garden gardening and container gardening. The big plus on this book is its flower container designs. I'm not doing many flowers this year, but I do plan on having a prairie-themed pot with various grasses and flowers. I remember having purple coneflower, etc. in the garden when I was a kid, and many of the flowers I will have are bee and butterfly attractors, which can't hurt in a city with fewer pollinators.

The second, Gardening in Containers from Ortho Books, is a much lighter-weight reference that's heavier on actual logistics. Lots of good stuff here about fertilizing, watering, soils, and general care. Also, because it is aimed specifically at containers, it addresses a number of the different issues unique to location (rooftop and wind, balcony and light access, decks and heat). It also has a great section toward the end with brief descriptions of various plants with information about hardiness, size, etc. However, like the first book, this one spends a good chunk of time talking about garden design. All things considered, I don't mind the design sections, especially when they are paired with really good nitty gritty info.

The last of the three, Sunset's Container Gardening, is largely a pared-down rehash of the previous two books. Not much new here (how many times can the authors of these books recommend using an old boot as a whimsical planter?), and a lot less text. The book displays really stunning photographs of gardens, that unfortunately, will probably bear little resemblance to my deck. I am much more concerned with a productive, healthy garden than with color complements and echo effects. This book isn't bad, it just felt like a lot of the same information presented in a not-that-different format.

Together, these three books got me thinking and planning, but their authors have a different aim than I have for my garden. I probably will not spend a lot of time swapping out decorative plants through the spring, summer, and fall. Although I hadn't really considered planting more than one plant in each container (and I may end up doing one or two that way), I am not too concerned with looks. These books' emphasis on flowers and visual appeal comes at the expense of attention to edibles. The most I get is a few pages on the wonders of kitchen herb gardens and a bit about fruit trees, but very little is mentioned about other fruits and vegetables. So, I asked the internet.

Users on amazon.com came through for me again, recommending McGee & Stuckey's Bountiful Container. Despite it's cheesy-sounding title, this book is a goldmine of information about container edibles; I can't say enough good things about it. No photos here, just a number of illustrations, and a whole lot of text. The book is about a third planning, care, and maintenance, and the rest is a vegetable-by-vegetable (and fruit, herb, and edible flower) reference.

The logistical stuff covers everything you need to know as a
newbie, including things not covered in the other books: necessary tools, realistic planning and expectations, detailed soil composition information, DIY and inexpensive containers (with no mention of the stupid boot)... everything. The meat of the book, the reference section, covers almost every edible you could conceivably grow in a container, with a proper dose of sass: "You know you can't grow a full-size jack-o'-lantern in your containers; don't even try," but they will also tell you about miniature and dwarf varieties that will thrive in containers. Most importantly, the reference section gives really valuable information about required depth (probably the biggest issue I've had with containers), and points you toward varieties that are easy to care for, and productive, in pots. The authors of the book certainly are concerned about visual appeal, but their information is well-suited to my gardening philosophy: use whatever ugly containers you can find for free, and hope that you get some good food out of the whole thing.


homemade light bed

One of this year's garden challenges will be how to grow the seedlings themselves. Last year, I had a warm, sunny window to set up a mini-greenhouse (akin to this) away from the reach of my curious kittens. In the new apartment, I have no such luck. Sure, I have sunny windows, but they are very not-warm, and all of them are very cat-accessible. So, I looked into how to set up an artificial light bed, and realized that, with a few modifications, my kitchen cart would work well. Taking advantage of the very un-January-like weather today, I did a little installation. Here's how you do it:

- Some sort of cart (I imagine just about any type of shelving would work)
- Ruler or tape measure
- Under cabinet light fixture (I got this one for $9.95 with bulb)
- Power drill
- Screwdriver
- A plan

Step 1: Get a kitchen cart. Step 1.5: Get the cart out to your deck. Step 1.7: Get your cat to help

Step 2: Assemble your supplies.
Note: Isometric schematics help, but only if you are an ex-architecture student looking to relive glory days.

Step 3: Turn cart upside-down
Step 4: Measure
Step 5: Drill, install

Step 6: Plug in; grow things!

I like to think of myself as a lot more handy with things like this than I actually may be. In that vein, a few other pointers: do not underestimate your ability to drop a screw into the irretrievable abyss under your deck. Twice. Also, drill bits are hot. I knew that. Above all, make sure that when you buy your fixture, that it is long enough to span between whatever your installation points are. Despite my careful isometrics, I failed to keep that last rule in mind. If you look at that third picture, you'll notice that I cut it pretty damn close. Oh well, it's stable. Whatever.

My big concern right now is whether the single fixture will produce enough light or if I need a second fixture. I plan on using Jiffy trays again this year, and elevating them up closer to the bulb with books or something at first, and then lowering them as the seedlings grow. I am also considering papering the area around the fixture with aluminum foil to increase reflectivity. Anyone have any advice on lumens to seedling ratios?

Perks of this project: Assuming you already have a shelf to spare (on a bookcase, in a well-ventilated closet, etc.), the entire cost of the project was the fixture itself. Granted, the Home Depot sells under-cabinet fixtures from $10-$200 depending on the type of light, but I am operating under the assumption that my plants won't prefer LED over fluorescent tubes. Likewise, the cart-light doesn't take up any additional space in my 1-bedroom apartment, minus a few canned goods that will be displaced for a few months.

The only unresolved issue is how to keep the cats out. I suppose I could always fashion some rudimentary removable walls out of cardboard boxes. And for all their stupidity, both cats respond very well to the spray bottle... an issue for another time! My seeds still haven't arrived, and I haven't been able to find Jiffy planters in stores yet. Don't they know it's time?!?



I ordered seeds from TinySeeds a few days ago. Tiny Seeds carries primarily Botanical Interests seeds, which I have seen just about everywhere from national chain hardware stores to independent nurseries. Their selection is pretty good, and their prices are much more reasonable than other more well-known seed catalogs (hat tip, Thembi).

Like last year, I plan to raise most of my garden from seed. This year, however, I plan on planting more flowers, many of which will be easier to buy as transplants later on. The seed list, which may expand later, is as follows:

Basil - Genovese (Organic)
Chives - Common

Eggplant - Black Beauty (Organic)
Zucchini - Black Beauty
Cherry Tomatoes - Sugar Sweetie (Organic)
Lettuce - Crisphead Great Lakes
Lettuce - Mesclun Baby Greens mix (Organic)
Swiss Chard - Bright Lights

Delphinium - Butterfly Blend
Bee Balm - Dotted Mint
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea)

The seeds should get here in a few weeks. A number of these guys should be planted outside a few weeks before the last frost date, minimizing the amount of space I have to devote to raising seedlings indoors.

A brief word on organic gardens: I am not a staunch organic-ist. At the supermarket, I will buy organic if the cost and quality are similar. When it comes down to it, though, I would much rather put the time and extra expense into purchasing locally when it is an option. I much prefer the idea of keeping local farmers viable by purchasing produce in season at local farmers' markets, when I can.

I hold the same sort of logic when it comes to raising my own vegetables: I will raise my garden organically when possible, and as sustainably as possible. However, I don't think that organic is an all-or-nothing proposition: I do what I can on the budget I have. Container gardens are notoriously starved for nutrients, and balanced organic fertilizers are expensive and hard to come by. However, homemade, effective options exist for pest control, and I will utilize them whenever possible.

In the end, my herbs and vegetables will not be certified organic. They will, however, be as healthful as is possible. And, as a side benefit, how much more local can you get than just outside your bedroom door?


january cabin fever

It is January in Philadelphia. It is cold. It is frequently dark.

It's time to start thinking about the garden.

Last summer marked my first true foray into gardening. While spending a year off before graduate school working in a mind-numbing retail job, I realized I lacked a certain sense of productiveness in my life. So I started a garden on the back steps of my apartment (left). Perhaps as much a way to make peace with the miserable Washington DC summer weather ("Gross: it's 95% humidity! Well, at least my vegetables are happy...") as a constructive hobby, my back-steps garden certainly gave me something to look forward to after work each day. My daily beeline to through the apartment and to the back steps to check on the plants sometimes trumped a substantial greeting to my boyfriend, Hank, but he (graciously) rarely mentioned it. Most of all, it gave me an opportunity to cool down from my bikeride home, take a few decompressing breaths to end the workday, and to assess what kind of fun botanical developments had happened that day.

I grew an assortment of vegetables and herbs last summer: eggplant, cucumbers, bush beans, and some pretty weird bell peppers, as well as basil, oregano, and catnip, and an ill-fated dwarf sunflower plant. With the exception of the catnip and a gifted bell pepper seedling, I grew everything from seed. I also grew everything in containers, because I had little access to a real yard. Overall, it was a learning experience. Some veggies were more prolific than others, some far more substantial than others, but no matter what, a baseball-sized eggplant grown from your own garden is way more exciting to eat than any purchased produce.

Last August, Hank and I have relocated to Philadelphia so I could begin my graduate studies at Temple University. The new apartment has a 10'x10' deck on the third floor with some solid afternoon sun. I will, of course, have to use containers again, but my workspace is much larger. The real challenge this year will be finding time to keep the garden going while up to my neck in PhD coursework. However, I trust that the garden will provide the same kind of fulfilling diversion as it has in the past.

In addition to the the pleasure of the harvest, I found that gardening complemented my other hobbies: photography and cooking. This year, I would like to add a fourth to that mix: writing. Last year's project was largely trial and error, guided by some much-needed advice from the more veteran veggers in my life, my parents and my then-next door neighbor. This year, with a bit of experience under my belt, I at least have some semblance of a plan. The last month of winter break has given me time to research, as well.

My hope is that this blog can serve not only as a narrative of my own experiences eking out crops (can I call them that?) from my concrete jungle of a city block, but also as a record for myself: what worked, what didn't, etc. Likewise, I am on a meager graduate student budget, so finding creative, inexpensive solutions for city gardening is something I hope others may find valuable. Or at least humorous: you may have noticed I recycle cat litter buckets as planters. There will be more of this. Also stay tuned for how I plan on getting many large bags of potting soil from the Home Depot to my third-floor apartment without a car or elevator, but hopefully not without Boyfriend, Lifter of Heavy Things.

Garden planning begins long before the end of winter is in sight, a thankful thing for people like me, who are more than ready for longer days and warmer weather. Philadelphia's last frost date is sometime in mid-April, but I plan on starting my seedlings indoors in the next few weeks. Next on the docket: building my own seedling nursery.