Despite living in a tiny apartment with no south-facing windows, I am determined to grow and forage as much of our food as possible. Unfortunately, the most straightforward approach – having a garden plot of my own – will have to wait for an open spot in our local community gardens or for me to get up the nerve to ask my neighbors about borrowing a section of their yard.
In the mean time I have been tinkering with container gardening with varying degrees of success. The first lesson learned was that even our southeast-facing window does not provide enough sunlight in late fall to keep sprouts alive. Much hee-hawing later and I finally decided to supplement using a metal reflecting lampshade and a warm-spectrum CFL. This allowed the basil, cilantro, and spinach to grow more than an inch tall, but has resulted in strangely crisp and dry leaves and the tallest basil plants I’ve ever seen (now more than two feet tall). Part of the problem may be my lackadaisical approach to watering or possibly my insistence on not buying any special fertilizers for potted plants. The watering I can work on, but I feel quite strongly that the whole point of growing my own food is to be self-sufficient, so I won’t be buying any soil supplement any time soon.
Now that spring is on the horizon and I have garden on the brain, I’ve finally decided to try a rather extreme approach that should solve a number of issues simultaneously. The motivation comes from the fact that we still don’t have a good composting system worked out. As much as I would like to have a dedicated worm bin, there just isn’t room for it in our tiny kitchen-living-dining room. Pouring over some permaculture books from the library last week, I saw a reference to composting in place by adding veggie scraps directly to potted plants. This is something I had tried in my California garden plot in various ways, either by putting veggie scraps on top of the soil as a sort of mulch or burying them a couple inches deep to speed up the process. But I had never thought to try it in container gardens, mostly because one doesn’t usually have worms or much life of any kind when starting from bags of potting soil. What I had forgotten, however, was that I had planted a bit of chives from my parents’ garden into my otherwise lifeless soil and somehow at least one worm has survived! After burying some sweet potato peels a few days ago, a quick peak under the surface shows a couple baby worms wriggling around; I couldn’t be more excited!
Veggie scraps have been hidden under the soil with a light mulch layer of fallen basil leaves and (unsalted) pistachio shells.
I’m still not sure how this system will work in the long term. Will the soil be too dense for container gardening? Will it start to smell or provide a home for an (unwanted) ant colony? How many containers will I need to use up all my compost as worm food? How will it work with small seedlings compared to my basil monstrosities? My hope is that this system will allow me to buy less potting soil to begin with and require no additional fertilizers in the future. A tall order to be sure, but the only way to have a truly sustainable apartment garden.