Garden! Any Way You Can

Another spring and another opportunity to do some gardening. Yaay!


I ride my bike past this building with its front stoop spilling onto the busy sidewalk of Adam Clayton Powell Blvd in Harlem. The gardener is just relentless about having a green space of his or her own. It comes equipped with hose. Splendid! I've observed the house plants and tropicals that come out when it is warm and disappear inside before the first frosts. Somehow I get the feeling that the "Rat Poison" sign is just to deter those with long eyes and even longer fingers.

What else can you do when you have a desire to grow something for food or for pleasure, to witness the wonders of nature at your own hand or to enhance your home or the environment? It may be a slow development or a sudden urge that can quickly grow into an obsession when you may desire to grow a tomato that is worth eating or just have something pretty to look at instead of cars, concrete or your neighbor's wall. When you don't have access to a backyard or a terrace or a shared outdoor space in your building, what can you do?

Garden on your window sill if you are prepared to fight your board or hope your neighbors below are reasonable about watering. Check out the tenant guidelines and seek the help of a professional for proper installation of window boxes. If I had my druthers, every windowsill in New York city would have a window box filled with flowers and herbs for cooking. Window boxes are a great way to attract birds. A couple dark-eyed juncos sleep in the English ivy hanging from one of my boxes. I've been leaving seeds out for them, cherishing the days before they fly back north. 

Window boxes are more attractive than and help the environment unlike air condition units. Occasional splattering water may be less inconvenient than units that drip all the time. Also, window boxes cause less hazard if installed properly. Observe the many air condition units supported by bricks and hope for the best.

Garden on your now-useless fire escape since sprinkler systems were installed in your building. Check with your building please. Garden at your peril!

Garden with whatever available light you are lucky to have seep into your apartment. Many house plants will thrive in low-light conditions and help chase the winter blues away. Try holding onto that Christmas poinsettia plant after the brilliant red leaves have dropped. Place it near the window with the most light. Water when the soil seems dry and wait. New leaves may appear in spring and as the days grow longer and light grows stronger you may be pleasantly surprised to find that you can avoid buying another plant for the upcoming holiday season.

Phalaenopsis orchid, Hoya carnosa and Christmas cactus on north facing windowsill

Join a community garden. There are tons around the city and probably one just around the corner from where you live. Many post the contact info along with rules, hours of operation, etc. Often, there is a waiting list and/or a small fee for a raised bed. Imagine growing peas, carrots, herbs and assorted flowers in your own raised bed, saving money and improving your health with regular gardening workouts and organic produce. Be patient. Adding your name to a list of gardeners makes for a stronger community garden and greater strength in fighting to retain and increase green spaces throughout the city.

Garden on your rooftop if you are even allowed up there. Check with your super or your board about access.  Consider drainage, weight, wind and sun exposure. Use light weight containers and potting soil with vermiculite. Be safe.

Liberate an abandoned plot. Many community gardens came into existence as the result of one or two determined and passionate individuals who took it upon themselves to beautify an eyesore, thereby improving the overall well-being of their neighbors and increasing property value. Maggie's Garden in Harlem is one such garden. Others community gardens share similar histories.

Adopt a tree pit and defend it like a bull from pit bulls and litter. Some people are of the opinion that dog pee is good for trees and plants and so they let their dogs freely water. Quite possibly they think that dog poop is good for the soil as well since it becomes 'manure'. Given this logic, why don't we all just add our pee and poop to tree pits? Uh, Go-ross!!!!! Dog poop and pee are as unhealthy for trees as they are for other dogs and pedestrians. Keep tree pits pee and poop-free and attempt to grow something to have a pretty thing to look at instead of bare, dried up soil surrounding most city trees. With minimal disturbance to tree roots you can plant ground covers like English ivy, creeping euonymus, phacysandra and liriope. In the process of beautifying the tree pit, you will decrease soil erosion and your attention to protecting and watering your new plant babies will benefit the health of the tree and yours too. Obvious care of plants and trees is often a deterrent to dog walkers and results in less likelihood of dog poop and a more beautiful street.

Become a renegade gardener. Let poppy and sunflower seeds (accidentally) spill from your hands and pockets into sidewalk cracks or edges near unused lots and see what may happen. Flick that tomato seed from your sandwich and hope it lands on a fertile spot. Soon there may be tomato plants popping up everywhere. I recently discovered an interesting 'weedy' plant growing in a public park. No doubt the efforts of some happy seed sower wanting to shock, amuse or share. Either way, the surprise of seeing such an unexpected plant in an unexpected place is often a lovely jolt. If it makes someone smile, then, whether by design or accident, the placement of this plant is a success.

Garden in your bathroom where the humidity level is good for many houseplants. Bathrooms are perfect environments for air plants like tillandsias and bromeliads. Ferns love bathrooms too, especially if there is some natural light. Also, plants like it when you sing in the shower.

Tillandsia in shells and crab claw

Grow stuff in coffee and soup cans. No need to worry about expensive containers. Grow parsley and sage in tomato cans. Forgive yourself for occasionally buying products based on the package design and then don't think twice about re-purposing that nice looking can. Choose wisely to complement your decor, of course.

Be relentless! Maybe one day soon it will be the norm to provide an outdoor space, balcony or terrace for every apartment. Why buy bunches of cut herbs that will rot since you only need one sprig of fresh celery for your spaghetti boullognaise, two teaspoons of chopped Italian parsley for your creamy mushroom sauce or a few leaves of basil for that bagel-tomato-cream cheese breakfast that you always seem to crave at midnight.  Let's hope that the city will soon provide greater incentives for architects to build more buildings like the Flowerbox building in East 7 Street. Maybe more urban developers will then turn their focus towards creating individual and private spaces to allow for growing whatever you want and with the bonus of attracting birds and pollinators closer to city dwellers.

To quote Maggie, "Growing things gives you a different feeling. It does something for the body, like it stimulates the body." I agree. In addition I say it stimulates the mind and makes you feel good to do something good, for yourself, for others, for the environment. Go ahead. Do good. Grow something!  
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