Urban gardeners get creative
In the city, vegetables and fruit grow in sidewalk beds, balconies, and window boxes.
Suzanna Dennis surveys the fruits of months of tender care: a vegetable garden of vigor, health, and bounty.Skip to next paragraph
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Five tomato vines form one tangled mass, belying the notion that congested vines are disease-prone. Hers are green and lush and full of trusses of ripening berries. Seven chili peppers are developing their fiery pods, four okra plants are blooming, and two tomatillos have already arrayed their papery lanterns.
A zucchini variety named Raven is sprawling nicely, and the miniature white cucumber plant is beginning to produce. Two vines of the heirloom muskmelon Anne Arundel hug the ground.
The bed also contains flowering annuals and perennials that Ms. Dennis started from seed.
All this can be found in the meager 9 by 5 feet of a sidewalk bed on Capitol Hill in Washington that, until Dennis transformed it this spring, held the rotting stump of a fallen street tree. "I saw this space lying fallow," she said. "I decided to turn it into a vegetable garden."
As waiting lists for community garden slots expand and the popularity of growing one's own food swells, land-challenged city dwellers have become increasingly inventive in their stabs at urban agriculture.
Christine Moschetti, who lives in a second-floor co-op on 16th Street N.W., has a series of window boxes sitting on the window ledges on two sides of her apartment. They grab that one commodity as precious as soil for the urban gardener: sunlight.
In an east-facing window box, she has an herb garden kept tame by constant harvesting. The herbs supply fresh flavors to her cooking all summer long.
Ms. Moschetti, the former director of a nonprofit organization for crime victims, can raise the window screen and harvest anything she fancies: garden sage, oregano, thyme, creeping rosemary, parsley and basil.
In another box, lavender is still in bloom. Inside, shade-tolerant houseplants hang next to windows; others sit on radiators. Moschetti's dining room table is full of baby staghorn ferns and other greenhouse plants, and the transition to the box outside is almost seamless. Sitting in this corner may be all the garden you need.
Suzanne Allan, an urban planner who moved last year from a house in Suffolk, Va., to an apartment in Washington, is raising vegetables and herbs on her sixth-floor balcony in five window boxes and six pots. Her inventory includes summer squash, cucumber, tomato, sage, basil, oregano, and chives.
There are certain advantages to this form of aerial gardening. In her garden in Suffolk, she had to contend with deer, turtles, and possums. Seventy feet aboveground, she doesn't even have squirrels, and there are no mosquitoes to worry about. Birds are still a problem, however.
Vegetables grown well in containers tend to have fewer pests and diseases because there has been no buildup of pest populations over the years. Air circulation tends to be better, too, reducing fungal diseases.
You pay a price for this, however, because containers dry out more quickly than garden beds. Ms. Allan's balcony faces west and gets the hot afternoon sun. She waters "every day, sometimes twice a day, which is not my ideal situation," she said.
In two of the rail boxes she has used a soil mix with water-retaining gel. "I do see a real difference" in water retention. "Next year I will use more of that."
Debra Brunk has small yards in the front and back of her rowhouse in D.C.'s Petworth neighborhood, but through intensive container-gardening on her rear deck and patio, she has managed to establish a productive fruit and vegetable garden layered on an ornamental landscape.