Urban gardening: Balcony to table

Annie Novak maintains a 6,000-square-foot garden in Brooklyn - surely you can tackle a window box.
Annie Novak maintains a 6,000-square-foot garden in Brooklyn – surely you can tackle a window box.

Your lack of closet space certainly hasn’t stopped you from shopping. So why let your lack of outdoor space stop you from enjoying sweet pleasures such as fixing dinner with sprigs of basil from your own window box? Annie Novak, urban farmer extraordinaire — she’s the co-founder and farmer of Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, a 6,000-square-foot organic vegetable farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn — shows us how to get started.

Start with the three essentials

Don't start with tomatoes, as they're more sensitive.
Don’t start with tomatoes, as they’re more sensitive.

1. Sunny spot
“Regardless of your space, it’s light that plants need to grow,” says Novak. “That’s how they make food.”

2. Deep pot
“For balcony gardening, the first thing that people need to know is that plants ideally live in about 18-inch-deep soil,” says Novak. “So you don’t want to grow stuff in a yogurt container. You want to get a proper pot. The shallower the vessel the more evaporation and moisture loss in the soil, and the more stressed out the plants’ roots will be.”

3. Good dirt
“Buy a potting soil that has a compost blend in it,” says Novak. “I do not recommend chemical fertilizers in your potting soil for the very simple reason that it’s like having a cup of coffee — it gives you an energy boost for a minute and then after that you crash.” Keywords to look for when buying your soil: compost, humus and any product that comes from the ocean. “A lot of bags will say, ‘has seaweed in it’ or ‘enriched with lobster meal.’ Almost any of those are going to be really good fertilizers that are added naturally to your soil.”

Next, pick your corp

Once we have our sunny spot, good soil and a deep pot, what are some easy vegetables to start off with?
“Tomatoes are not! I find it fascinating that people always plant tomatoes because tomatoes are actually more prone to bad care,” Novak says. “If you’re a first-time gardener, it’s not an easy crop to take care of. I hear so many complaints from people who are like, ‘My tomatoes never make tomatoes!’ And I say, ‘Yeah, well, there are nine things going against you.’

“This is the logical way to think about it. The first thing all plants do is grow a root, and then they grow two leaves, and then after that they start growing more leaves. And once they have enough leaves and sunshine, then they’re like, ‘OK, we’re set with our sugar, let’s make flowers, fruits and seeds.’ So if you’re an apartment gardener and you’re growing in a stressed environment, you want to grow plants where you eat the leaves, because plants are going to foliate no matter what you throw at them.”

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New to gardening? Novak recommends growing:
• Basil
• Mint
• Kale
• Lettuce
• Chives
“I’m a big fan of chives. It’s really hard to kill them,” she says. “When you cut them all the way back they just come up really thick all over again, and the flowers are delightful.”

Tips

Start with seeds
“One of the best reasons to grow your own food is so you can grow a purple carrot instead of an orange carrot,” says Novak. “I like to grow things from seeds, because when you buy the seed package you’re choosing from a much larger range of varieties, like 13 kinds of mint, which is exciting. In the food we eat, we’re losing so much diversity — and it sounds cheesy, but the privilege and power of growing your own food is you get to be the person who keeps these amazing heirloom seeds out in the world.”

Be responsible
“If you have a terrace or a balcony, make sure that anything you put out there is heavy enough and positioned enough so that it will never fall off,” she says. “With a rooftop … you need to have safe access, you need a parapet that’s the right height, and then containers that are big enough that they won’t blow off the roof.”

Tomato fever
“If you are fixated on tomatoes, start with cherry tomatoes,” she says. “There’s one variety called sun gold. It’s a beautiful tomato, it’s one of my favorites for gardening with kids.”

More from Novak
Annie Novak is one of three gardening experts teaming up with Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day for their Grow Inspired program. This month, watch a short film series dedicated to outdoor living and learn more about her efforts by logging on to www.mrsmeyers.com.


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