City ways nurture a country garden

On a small deck opening off our top-floor bedroom, I have a garden. It's not elaborate, but a variety of vegetables, herbs, and a few flowers grow serenely in a hodgepodge of containers: plastic, square, terra cotta, round, rectangular. Nasturtiums dangle from a hanging basket lined with coconut husk; purple basil grows in a tall can that once held olive oil; and a frilly plant with daisy-like flowers rises out of a small strawberry pot, sporting a skirt of blue-flowered lobelia.

From below, tomatillos and peppers wave cheerily between the vertical posts of the railing, and a cucumber vine trails along the gutter. Behind them grow a few tomato plants, Swiss chard, different varieties of basil, beets, eggplant, and a dwarf apple tree with a hummingbird feeder suspended from one branch.

The harvest isn't huge - mixed salad occasionally, some herbs for cooking. I won't know for a few more weeks if there will be eggplant for a stir-fry or fixings for a batch of homegrown, homemade salsa. We enjoy the greenery, however, not just on our plates but before our eyes and rustling softly in the wind outside the open bedroom door on summer nights.

I'm also partial to the smell of damp earth drifting cleanly in the air after I water. And I like to stroll the deck planks - about five paces is all it takes - and admire the variety of color, form, and texture assembled in that small area.

What's odd about all this is that I'm growing a city garden in the country. The veggies on our bedroom deck aren't leaning over streets filled with honking cars or quick-walking pedestrians. The world I watch going by when I lean on the rail is populated by ponderosa pines, lichen-crusted boulders, mule deer, bunch grass, chipmunks, sage, and, occasionally, an ash-gray fox that has a den somewhere nearby.

Although there are precious few flat spots to till a garden in this steep terrain, the issue isn't a shortage of space so much as the neighbors. Planting a garden here is like opening a gourmet salad bar for the local wildlife. The chipmunks, rabbits, and deer have been quick to expand their tastes to imported herbs, exotic flowers, and fancy greens. Well-watered and succulent, these plants, I'm sure, are a welcome change from the tough and wiry native flora.

But since I'm not willing to share my crop, I started keeping my plants in containers on the large deck fronting the main floor of our house a few years ago. This kept out the deer, but the chipmunks and rabbits quickly mastered the stairs and helped themselves to haute cuisine.

The rodents didn't just steal strawberries, tomatoes, tomatillos, and lettuce leaves, but lopped down entire eggplant plants, chopped whole branches off geraniums, pulled up pansies by the roots, and even beheaded marigolds. Every morning I would walk out the front door to find limp new victims.

Though we could put up a tall fence around the house, I would feel like we were living in a compound, so late last summer I became a city-style gardener in a woodland setting. One by one, I carried the pots and their nibbled contents into the house, up the stairs, through the bedroom, and out onto the upstairs deck, which has no access from outside.

This past spring I lugged more pots, more dirt, and more mulch through the house, then wired a hose to the wall outside so I didn't have to carry water from the bathtub.

Nowadays, when I need some herbs or want to fix a salad, I head up to the bedroom instead of out the kitchen door. So far this year, I've picked two cucumbers, lots of lettuce and beet greens, a few hot peppers, and several pear-shaped yellow tomatoes. I'm ready to harvest basil for my second batch of pesto.

My hope is that, sometime later this summer, I'll walk out of the bedroom one afternoon cradling a glossy purple eggplant or two. I'm fond of gently squeezing the papery husks of the tomatillos to feel the little green fruits swelling inside. As long as the chipmunks and rabbits don't take up climbing, things are looking good for that salsa.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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