In the next few weeks, I’m going to go through various ways of gardening without a yard and my experiences with each of them.
This week, we’re going to be focusing on a project I’ve had a lot of success with: salad buckets.
First, the back story:
About two years ago, there was a stretch when my boyfriend and I were living on about eight hundred dollars a month. Needless to say, we were eating a lot of ramen. We fucking hate ramen. We got the idea to start a garden out back and started eating produce we hadn’t been able to afford (biting into a home grown tomato is like eating pure fucking sunshine). It was then I realized that there are a lot of people out there like us who are (or were, now that we’re both working jobs that pay a living wage) struggling to provide and that the security of something as simple as a garden can bring a lot of joy and nutrition into a household. So I attempted to start a seed library/garden resource center.
A local college with a greenhouse program donated more than a hundred tomato plants (along with lettuce, cabbage, seeds, etc.) and a local food production company donated 100 food-safe plastic buckets for my foolish endeavors. Now there’s a lot of back and forth about plastic and food. Some say you can grow in any buckets, some say that it’ll leach chemicals into your soil unless it’s food safe. I prefer to err on the side of caution where food is concerned because being exposed to weird shit rarely ends in becoming a superhero.
Now all I needed were people to teach. That’s where the DCCG and the YMCA came in. I’m a member of a local community garden group that builds gardens at schools and churches and the produce goes to local soup kitchens and food banks. They’ve partnered with the YMCA for grants. They told me that many kids in their day camps are there on scholarships (in financial trouble) and that the letters sent in to get the children scholarships are heartbreaking. So I was now going to teach 100 kids how to garden.
The day of reckoning came and I was pretty nervous; kids are wily and unpredictable little beasts and this could end with either a bunch of salad buckets neatly sitting along the yard or their tiny leader smashing my glasses and screaming “SUCKS TO YOUR AS-MAR!” while I cry in the fetal position (can you tell I’ve worked in public education?). Thankfully, they’d broken them up into two days, so I was only in charge of keeping 50 kids engaged and excited about vegetables.
It went surprisingly well. I actually had to stop the kids from eating the lettuce before we even planted it. One little boy came up to me and told me he’d never tasted a tomato before, and asked me what it tasted like. Yeah. It was like looking into the eyes of the world’s saddest puppy. I did my best to try and explain what a tomato tastes like. How do you describe the taste of a tomato? My heart, she broke.
Aside from me trying not to cry all over the child who had never tasted a tomato, the day was a success; hopefully they’re all home now munching on tomatoes and home grown lettuce.
Salad buckets are incredibly simple to make and maintain, and if you’re clever about it, they’re nearly free. The first thing you need to do is find a source of food-safe plastic buckets. I like these better than traditional garden pots for several reasons: they’re cheap (if not free), they’re easy to handle and store, and there’s no risk of anything weird making its way into the soil. I got them from a local food production company (they were filled with deviled eggs at one point) but lots of local food chains and even cafes and restaurants will have them. My mom works at a regional grocery chain in the bakery and their frosting comes in 4-gallon food safe buckets. If you’re charming enough, they’ll probably spare the buckets from their fate of the dumpster and let you cart them off. There are two ways to go about altering them, you can either just drill a small hole in the bottom or use two buckets to make a self watering container. The self watering portion is a post in its own, so today we’ll just go with the wee hole in the bottom.
Next you need your growing medium. This can be anything from store bought soil to any clean top fill you can get your hands on. A note about scouting out dirt: take caution about where you source it since heavy industrial projects or areas of pollution are no bueno (i.e., don’t dig up your bucket of dirt directly next to the railroad tracks). You can also add some fully composted organic material, but if you’re using conventional potting soil, chances are there’s some already in there.
Finally, you will need your plants. Since we were planting in early summer we went with already started tomatoes and lettuce. Now that summer is nearly over, it’d be wise to start with greens. Lettuce, kale, etc. These should be sown thickly in the soil and watered a few times a week. One of the nice things about these greens is that they need less sunshine, and with our days just beginning to shorten, they’ll work well. You can harvest them as micro greens, or wait a bit longer and harvest full sized leaves for yummy fall salads. Microgreens are insanely expensive around here, so having some going on the balcony can save you some spendy grocery bills. Depending on what zone you live in, you can keep these going year round with a variety of plants. Since I live in zone 5 (the midwestern region) my growing season is starting to draw to a close, meaning things like greens and some root crops are what I need to be focusing on right now. Eventually all I’ll be able to grow is mache and maybe some kale unless I have some high tunnels in my yard.
Growing on a balcony means knowing the environment. If it’s blindingly sunny all the time there and you live somewhere warm, you can grow peppers, tomatoes, really anything you want. You can still grow lettuce and other shade-loving greens if you plant them around the base of a taller plant so they’ll be naturally shaded from the death rays. If your balcony is shady, greens are your best bet. There are a stunning array of greens to experiment with, and considering most packets of seeds are 3 bucks or less, you can not only expand your palate, but do it on the cheap. So get creative!