The humble beginnings of my garden, planted in mid-June within two wooden drawers set on an old coffee table and a second “layer” made from a planter I already had. The plants are, from left, salad burnet, lemon balm, eggplant, lavender, longevity spinach, green onions and African spinach.
I’ve always wanted my own garden, but since moving out on my own, I’ve always lived in an apartment.
My vision of a lush and elaborate garden full of healthy foods became a more acute aspiration after I committed to eating more organic fruits and vegetables, which – in case you didn’t know – are more expensive than their nonorganic counterparts.
Earlier this year, I saw a tutorial for a small garden made out of an upcycled dresser drawer. The guide suggested a complicated method (involving tools I didn’t have) of attaching legs to what was essentially a wooden box deep enough to give plants space to grow. Dressers tend to be cheap at thrift stores, especially if you only need the drawers themselves to be in good condition.
So, deciding on the easiest and cheapest option, I found a dresser with study wooden drawers for about $10, purchased a run-down coffee table for another $2 and set them up against the edge of my screened-in balcony, where I hoped they would get the most sunlight and rain. Because I wanted the most organic and healthiest plants possible, I consulted Jai McFall at Organic Living at 13064 Indian Rocks Road in Largo (call 324-4435 or visit organiclivingforall.com).
McFall hosts workshops on the weekends – usually 11 a.m. on Saturdays and 1 p.m. on Sundays. Many of them are free and teach everything from herbs and fruit trees to how to make teas. Of note, there’s a free workshop on what crops to grow in this area during the fall Saturday, Sept. 13, 11 a.m. to noon.
I didn’t want to grow plants from seeds, so I bought some seedling plants: longevity spinach, African spinach, salad burnet, lemon balm, eggplant and lavender, which isn’t edible but I thought would add some nice color. McFall stocks only plants that will thrive in the current weather conditions for this area, which makes it easy. I did check that none of the plants needed to be pollinated, since the screen on my balcony would prevent this from occurring.
Armed with good soil and some organic plant food, I returned to my balcony and set to giving my plants permanent homes.
The lemon balm, a leafy plant with a lemony kick, and the salad burnet, whose leaves have a crisp cucumber-like taste, both betrayed me by failing to thrive. I don’t think they got sun and/or water. The salad burnet withered entirely, possibly due to a final blow when my cat mistook its growing space for a new litter box. The lemon balm just never grew much bigger than its original size. I have more hope for a tiny offspring that sprouted next to it.
The African spinach is by far my star plant, growing three times as tall as the others and duplicating itself in a seedling once already. The eggplant took some time to get going, but now is progressing nicely. Its broad leaves are edible, even before the vegetable begins to grow.
Since starting the garden, I’ve added some green onions and a leek, gleaned from my organic produce purchases. These plants are usually sold with their roots still attached. If they are still fresh, you can cut off the roots – I left about an inch for the green onions and 2 inches for the leek – eat the tops and coax the plants into new growth with a few days in water before replanting them. It’s incredible how fast they start growing; sometimes it seems like you can almost watch new centers poke out from the older, spiral layers.
Both new crops are successfully advancing my goal to make less produce purchases in the future.
More and more of those without traditional garden space are turning their patios into gardens. I asked Urban Horticulture Agent Theresa Badurek at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension office in Tarpon Springs how successful other apartment-bound residents have been at cultivating gardens in small spaces.
“Many people who live in apartments and condos grow vegetables and herbs in containers,” she told me. “As long as they have a full sun location and provide adequate water this can be quite successful.”
My balcony gets pretty good sun, I’ve discovered. Remembering to water my little garden is sometimes a challenge, but less so now that I enjoy reveling in how tall my plants are getting.
Badurek also suggested joining a community garden, of which there are several in Pinellas County. This was an option I had considered before, but my schedule doesn’t allow for a consistent amount of daylight hours to commit traveling elsewhere to tend to plants.
The extension offers a “Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide” that can help those new to the area with recommended varieties, planting and harvest times, spacing and more. Download it at edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/VH/VH02100.pdf
“Using this information will get your garden off to a successful start. A great garden starts with a great plan, so be sure to plan ahead of time using this information,” Badurek said.
The cooler fall weather is a good time to start a garden in Florida. Don’t let your limited space stop you from achieving your garden dreams.