Growing succulents in the window box on the fire escape portion of my rooftop garden has become a tradition — most likely because they are just about the only plants that can survive the intense sun, heat, and drought. The deck is fully exposed to all sorts of harsh conditions but the fire escape area takes it to another level with black metal railings that absorb the sun’s rays throughout the day. And of course I had to go and make it worse by installing a galvanized metal window box to boot.
I try and mix up the plantings every year with the one requirement that the plants can survive. Plants that make it through both the summer and winter are given an easy retirement in less sunny pastures. I was shocked to discover a lavender from last year’s box still kicking it this spring.
From the Front:
Clockwise from right front: Sedum reflexum ‘Blue Spruce’, a sedum that keeps coming up all over the place, Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’, Sedum acre ‘Golden Acre’, Sempervivum, Sedum spurium ‘Dragon’s Blood’. Hidden Behind: Sempervivum and Sedum album ‘Coral Carpet.
From the Side:
Previous Boxes: 2005, 2004.
Future Boxes: 2007
Two sets of lettuce seeds sown at the same time; the first grown under a plastic take-out container “cloche”, the second grown without.
Here it is with the cloche on.
I keep hearing that fancy, mega-expensive containers are one of the current trends in gardening this year. To which I reply with a big fat WHATEVER. You can keep your fancy-schmancy urns and leave all of that quality junk for me.
I found this discarded orange crate while walking through one of Toronto’s “nicer” neighbourhoods. Crates are just tall enough to accomodate leafy greens or herbs with shallow root systems. I decided to fill this one up with a crop of mache. Mache is the de rigour green of the uppercrust and a good choice if growing lettuce feels like a waste of time and space. The succulent leaves make a delicious salad (especially good with figs and blue cheese) but fetches a hefty sum at your typical Whole Foods.
Little work is required to prep your crate for growing. The bottom of mine had large spaces between slats and required some kind of coverage to hold soil in. Alternatively, crates with solid bottoms will require drainage holes to let water out. I laid an average-sized plastic shopping bag inside the crate and cut a bunch of small holes with a pair of scissors to make drainage. The key here is making a vessel that will hold soil, but adding drainage back so your seedlings aren’t swimming during a heavy rainfall.
Next, I filled up the crate with good quality container soil. A cheap container plus cheap soil, equals too much cheap! When it comes to container soil you get what you pay for. Your best bet is usually with the mid-ranged priced soils. Avoid the Miracle Grow stuff if you can. Fill your container to the top and tamp it in with your hands. You want to remove the air pockets and make a respectably flat surface. Don’t go crazy with it — a level is not required.
Once you’ve got your soil in place, cut around the edges with the scissors to remove the excess plastic bag. Pour a handful of seed into your hand and spread it thinly, and evenly across the soil surface. Don’t worry if you have too many seeds as you can remove excess plants later. Add another 1/4″ of soil on top of the seeds and water everything in well.
Leafy greens prefer cool weather and shadier spots. Plants will bolt in hot weather which means that they quickly go to seed and become bitter. How much sun is too much depends on your conditions and the time of year. Mine are currently placed in a sunny spot on my rooftop deck because the daytime temperatures are in the light sweater to spring jacket plus long sleeve shirt range. I will move it to a shady spot when the heat picks up. Water your container everyday. Soon you will see little tiny plants emerging. Here are what mine looked like today 15 days after sowing. Mache can take as much as 20 days to emerge from below the soil so don’t give up if yours take their sweet time. Be patient!
Other suggestions for your crate:
- Rouge d’hiver lettuce
- Red orach
- Kale (grown as baby kale only)
- Thyme – lemon, lavender, orange, silver…
Phase 1 of “Project Deck Garden 2006″ was enacted yesterday afternoon. It was inspired by a sunny day and a headache that wouldn’t quit, which not surprisingly, was abated after a few hours in the fresh air. I won’t bore you with the details as Phase 1 involves large helpings of gardening’s lesser joys; clean-up, pot shifting, and organization. Instead I will list the enjoyable activities:
- Planting the “fancy”, or as I like to call them, the ‘Not 99 Cent’ pansies I bought last week. You know you’re shopping at a chi-chi garden store when they give you a paper bag for a couple of pansies.
- I then proceeded to cover the ‘Not 99 Cent’ pansies with several water bottle cloches (I’ve graduated to 4L bottles) as the flowers had all been snatched off. For years I’ve been blaming raccoons and squirrels but it turns out the thieves are my beloved starlings! WHY? Are the generous quantities of seed not enough? Can’t bargain with the birds. And incidentally the pansies do have a nice flavour.
- I planted two kinds of peas: a dwarf variety called ‘Tom Thumb’, and a sugar/snow variety I am trying for the first time called ‘Carouby de Maussane’. I decided on these instead of sweet peas as the flowers are purple and the peas are edible.
- Greens Galore – Mizuna, red mustard, several different lettuces, orach, purslane, and mache. I planted up just about every container that is currently empty, including some that will hold hot weather veggies since I’ve got nearly six weeks before the transplants go in and I will just remove some of the lettuce at that time. I’ve got a lot of seeds to use up. However, I just realized I’m out of arugula seeds! Ack!
- Radish Challenge 2006 – I can’t recall planting radishes this early in previous years which may say a lot about why I have rarely succeded in growing a decent, edible radish. The rooftop deck is windier than a ground floor garden, but it also gets very, very hot. The season is always a bit accelerated up there, resulting in lousy radishes (but early tomatoes!). This year I will grow a decent radish if it kills me. [Shakes fist in air]
- Carrots – I planted just a couple of the ‘Purple Haze’ in the container where the beans will go as an experiment. It really is impossible to think about this variety without singing the song… or imagining dudes with tie-dyed head bands dropping liquid acid onto their eyeballs. Just saying.
And then Davin showed up to help and informed me that in the tradition of bizarre, unexplainable things that happen around the street garden, someone had left a plastic wrapped cauliflower in the garden as a gift. But it seems, in an even stranger twist, that in exchange, they took the large paper bags that were holding the compostables that were waiting to be put out for city collection. Yes, they left the plant bits sitting on the sidewalk, but took the completely dilapitated and unusable bags. Huh? I REALLY have to get on making those signs I’ve been meaning to make since 2000.
Another seed order arrived in the mail from Greta’s Organic Gardens. I need to get on these asap as time is ticking. The bulk of these are tomato varieties I am testing out on the rooftop this year.
- Tomato ‘Golden Delight’
- Tomato ‘Principe Borghese’ – A paste tomato
- Tomato ‘Gold Nugget’
- Tomato ‘Black Seaman’ – An early variety.
- Red Pepper ‘Fatalii’ – I HAD to get them!
- Red lambsquarter
- Shungiku – There was a problem with the order. They accidently sent me hot peppers (a chili) but the replacement is on its way. I won’t use these hot peppers as I have a few other varieties on the go. The first Canadian to ask is welcome to them.
- Purple Millet ‘Purple Majestic’
Can you believe I have one more small order on its way? Yikes. And now I have to get some arugula! Yeah and did I mention the seeds I impulse-bought off a rack last week?
- Nicotiana ‘Indian Peace Pipe’ – These are by far my favourite nicotiana. They are huge (5′ tall) with fragrant, elongated blossoms.
- Marigold ‘Lemon/Tangerine Gem’ blend – I grew these last year and was so impressed, I’ve been promoting these like crazy since. They are incredibly prolific bloomers, the flowers are tiny with lacy foliage. And they really do taste like tangerines and lemons! They did really well in containers on my hot rooftop but keep in mind that the plants get to be quite large and rotund.
- Quinoa ‘Brightest Brilliant Rainbow’ – 2006 seems to be the year of hippie plants. Pretty and edible. I can not resist.
- Nasturtium ‘Mahogany’ – I have tasted enough nasturtiums to know that the red ones have the best flavour.
So they’re not very stylin’, but these self-watering planters made from junked pop bottles are pretty handy for the well-intentioned but forgetful gardener. The bottom watering system keeps cuttings and seedlings on the right side of moist without the discipline (and hassle) of routine dampness patrol.
There’s more talk and experimentation with this concept in the forums.