I live with my boyfriend in NYC. We have a pretty decent sized apartment (for NY,) but the best part of it is the backyard. Of course, the problem with our backyard is that it is entirely dirt free. Totally. Concrete. There's also a tin-roofed carport that blocks light from much of the space. Sometime last year a friend of ours got us a cheap compost bin that we set up in a corner of the concrete yard, but without a garden it was just an elaborate kitchen waste disposal system.
We really wanted a garden this year. We talked through a lot of options in the spring, including a brief discussion of building raised beds along the walls of the yard and filling them with dirt. It was the math (over $400 dollars just for the dirt in such a system) that dissuaded us in the end.
Then I found this book
, and it changed our gardening lives. (Seriously. It is an awesome book, and one I think any urban gardener should own. It goes beyond gardening, too, and has instructions on fermenting, sprout growing, and yogurt making. The focus is totally on those with a lack of space, and it's a boon to anyone living out of an apartment. But I digress.)
We decided to follow the guide in that book to a DIY earthbox out of plastic storage containers. Now, the book doesn't contain a step-by-step photo process, but does spell things out a little more clearly than I'm about to.
Step one- Early June. Assemble materials. We cut the lid of the container to fit inside it, about 1/3 of the depth up from the bottom, with a corner cut off the allow the pipe to pass through. We also purchased a pond basket from a garden center to sink into the bottom of the container. We made some legs for the lid out of scrap 2x4s to prevent it from collapsing. We used a length of PVC pipe for the watering tube. *NOTE* PVC has a tendency to leach chemicals. Next year we plan on replacing it with either copper or bamboo. Since this was an experiment, we went with the cheap option this time around (and frankly, I'm sure the non-organic super-market veggies are still worse for you.) The pipe is cut at an angle at the bottom to prevent clogging in case some dirt should get into the reservoir.
Step two- We put the lid-on-stilts contraption into the bottom of the container, and drilled a series of small drain holes right below the level of the lid. This will prevent the water from making the base layer of dirt all soggy. The goal is to make strong and hardy plants by forcing them to sink deep tap roots toward the hole in the middle. These drain holes also make it impossible to over-water. Ideal for the twitchy gardener!
Step three- We installed the basket in the middle of the container, and the PVC pipe in its corner. With a stroke of frugal genius, we taped part of a plastic shopping bag around the pipe to create a seal and prevent dirt from getting in. Then we filled the basket with dirt, and gave it a good water.
Step four- We filled the boxes to the top with dirt. This step is not cheap- nice, non-miracle gro dirt is expensive, and it took about a bag and a half per container. Then we planted seeds! Our experimental garden this year was a row of yellow wax beans in each container, with cucumbers as the other row in one box and okra in the other.
Step five: Give it a good water on top, wait for magic. We kept watering the top (aided by copious
amounts of rain this June *grumble grumble*) until we had some healthy little sprouts, then we switched over to watering through the reservoir only. Here's the naked little box under our topsy turvys (another fine investment for the small space garden.)
And then we waited. My BF has been topping up all our containers with compost periodically, and the plants seem to like it. Our composter looks like it wouldn't hold much, but we've been filling it for a year and a half, and the decomposition rate is really fantastic; it's still less than half full:
A few weeks later:
The beans totally loved the wet season. The okra was a little less happy, but once we started getting a little sunshine they perked right up. Not pictured is the box with the cucumber, which grew just a little more slowly than the beans. And the tomatoes seem to like the topsy turvy, huh?
Seriously, the beans have taken over, and the tomato is poised to destroy Tokyo with its massive size. The cucumber has about a million blooms, and the okra is growing into baby trees (no flowers yet, but its thinking about it.)
And we had our first bean harvest yesterday! About a pound of delicious beans came off the plants, and there's at least another pound that'll be ready to harvest in another couple days. And more that are still growing!
It was totally worth the cost in dirt just to see these miraculous plants grow from seeds to fruit. And it really proved to me that a small space is no excuse not to have a garden.
So. Um. That's my ESSAY. And thanks to anyone who actually read the whole tedious thing!