This cold, rainy spring, as New York shut down for the Covid-19 pandemic, my thoughts drifted to the window boxes and kitchen gardens of France. They are among the great pleasures of spending autumn there, as I did for the previous five years, in homes rented through the sharing economy.
During that time, while living like a local and cooking in other people’s kitchens, I availed myself of their herb gardens – some of which looked like they hadn’t been tended in eons. There was mint growing abundantly behind a house in the Loire Valley; a bush-size rosemary plant near the terrace of an apartment in a medieval village of the Périgord; and thyme outside our rental on the edge of a vineyard in Alsace. During the month that my husband and I occupied a gingerbread-style house, in the Alsatian village of Turckheim, I was responsible for watering the cascading pink geraniums in the window boxes.
By mid-April, with our autumn travel plans in limbo, I began to wonder whether I could replicate this experience, in my tiny Brooklyn garden and on my narrow deck. In addition to herbs, I dreamed of growing tomatoes, like those we bought freshly harvested at French markets, as well as Romano pole beans – a flat, sweet member of the string bean family that we had come to appreciate during our time in Europe.
Considering my limited space, these goals were ambitious. Most of my garden, which measures roughly 16 square feet, consists of a brick patio behind my townhouse. I would need to rely primarily on containers. Still, the challenge might provide occupational therapy.
A Google search for the cascading flowers that I had admired in Europe turned up Larson’s Geraniums – a company in Woodstock, Connecticut that specializes in what are called Alpine geraniums. On May 8, the day those healthy little plants arrived in Styrofoam cell packs, there was snow in the forecast. (Traditionally, May 15 was the last frost-free day in New York City, but the date is now about one month earlier due to climate change.)
This turned out to be just the first of a series of setbacks that I would face, amid increasingly horrifying news reports, in my effort to plant a garden during the Covid-19 crisis.
“Definitely a challenging aspect for a container vegetable garden,” wrote Steve Masley in response to an e-mail that I sent him, with attached photos depicting my growing space. Masley and his wife, Pat Browne, are the owners of Grow-it-Organically, a Petaluma, California garden design and installation company that specializes in container gardening.
Conveniently, he had already published a list of the top ten mistakes that beginning vegetable gardeners make, some of which, let’s just say, I had learned about during past growing seasons – most notably overcrowding plants and overestimating the amount of light in a garden. “Any fruiting plant needs six hours of light a day to thrive,” Masley reiterated. Cherry tomatoes could do with about two hours less than that.
But like the good teacher who instructs without embarrassing the student, Masley did not otherwise discourage me. Instead, he offered workarounds for some of my profound impediments. Given the limited horizontal space, he counseled, garden vertically, and make the most of what is called interplanting: potting fast-growing vegetables with ones that mature more slowly, so “you get two crops from the same space.”
Thus, basil, which has short roots, could be positioned around the tomato seedlings, which would eventually grow taller and deeper. “Basil has these root chemicals that kind of communicate with the tomato plant and improve the tomato’s flavor,” he says. “They work perfectly in the kitchen together, too.”
Masley favors large pots (15 gallons for tomatoes, for instance) that can hold an ample volume of soil. “If a plant is big and healthy, it generates its own pesticides and fights off its own pests,” he explains. “Pests will key in on weak plants. Make sure plants get enough light and have everything they need in the soil.”
To supplement the terra-cotta pots stored in my basement, I mail-ordered inexpensive fabric ones from Spring Pot, which Masley recommended. They would need to be watered more often than the clay pots. But they were collapsible for easy storage and feather-light, even when full.
While many people spend money on fancy pots and then skimp on the soil, the potting mix “is the best investment you’re making,” Masley says. He prefers those that are organic, rather than enriched with chemical fertilizers. Otherwise “plants get everything they need and they kind of are couch potatoes – they don’t have to cooperate with any other soil organisms.”
Though Masley buys ingredients by the truckload and mixes his own, for container gardens he recommends FoxFarm Ocean Forest Potting Soil, which is widely available. For a preblended fertilizer, he directed me to Down to Earth Organic All Purpose Fertilizer Mix, and for my cherry tomatoes, Dr. Earth Home Grown Tomato, Vegetable and Herb Fertilizer. Both these fertilizers contain the main ingredients that he says plants need: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Where I live, soil is a subject of conversation and controversy. My house is built on what used to be farmland, but that was more than a century ago. There’s no denying that our dirt has become polluted with heavy metals since then.
”Anyone in urban areas, especially if they have young children, should consider having their soil tested,” says Holly Noury, owner of …a little flower, a Brooklyn-based garden design business. And though container gardening has many virtues, filling a pot with organic soil doesn’t solve the problem that, “as it gets out of the bag, it’s being contaminated by everything in the air,” Noury says. Wherever your food is grown, you need to wash it well before eating.
Knowing all that, I decided not to test my soil and grew most of what I have come to refer to as “my cash crops” in containers filled with organic soil. When ordering these supplies and others, there were often delivery delays due to Covid-19.
Except for pole beans, which should be grown from seeds, I started most of my crops from seedlings procured at the Grand Army Plaza green market, held Saturdays about ten minutes by foot from my home. (We don’t own a car.) Evolutionary Organics was my source for several kinds of cherry tomatoes, as well as Ping Tung eggplants and pattypan squash. Scarborough Fields Herbs supplied most of my herbs. After each trip to the market, I worked like a field hand, planting what I had just bought.
In late May we purchased a bistro table and two chairs. This was not the vintage wrought iron set I dreamt of when browsing Craigslist, on and off, for the past several years. Desperate times called for a quick fix via the Home Depot website. One week later a carton arrived, measuring 26 inches square by 5.5 inches deep and weighing 50 pounds. Some assembly was required.
The set is made in China, of cast metal with a bronze finish. But it’s adorable, the chairs are surprisingly comfortable, and it has the look and feel of so many European bistro tables we have occupied. Until the merciless Asian tiger mosquitoes made an appearance one month later, we enjoyed alfresco meals under the crape myrtle tree that we had planted more than a dozen years ago. The garden, which seemed to unfold as if in time-lapse photography, was our floor show.
Unfortunately, the drama included my battle against urban wildlife. A few days after I celebrated the germination of the first pole bean, I noticed that garden pests had made a meal of its leaves. Declaring war on slimy night crawlers with the strategies Masley recommended, I tore out the ground cover whose migration from my neighbor’s property I had previously welcomed, and liberally applied Sluggo. When spider mites attacked my petunias and powdery mildew ailed my eggplants, I discovered the virtues of Neem oil – an organic insecticide.
Combating garden pests requires “a multifaceted assault,” says Karen Herrmann-Fishelson, who gardens in Cold Spring Harbor, New York and describes herself as a “successful amateur.” To deter the squirrels, who upend new plantings and might nibble on fruiting ones, she suggested I encircle the stems with inverted plastic forks and sprinkle on red pepper flakes – “like what you put on pizza.”
Herrmann-Fishelson, who’s been known to grow her own coffee beans and run what amounts to a foster home for the orchids that friends have given up for goners, also speaks with authority about growing culinary herbs. Upon her advice, I grouped drought-tolerant Mediterranean ones – oregano, thyme and rosemary – together in a window box outside my kitchen door, and planted multiple, separate pots of parsley and basil, which I use liberally.
While some folks on shutdown plowed through lists of the best movies and Netflix programs to view during their confinement, I was scanning Instagram for ideas about constructing a homemade trellis, and binge-watching YouTube videos on how to prune tomato plants.
“Those YouTubers are so upbeat,” says my sister-in-law Donna Bushman, who turned me on to her favorites, including The Rusted Garden and Epic Gardening. During her quarantine, in Hollywood, Florida, she has been researching culinary herbs that could withstand the low-light conditions, salty sea air and wind on the balcony of her apartment. “It lets me be creative. And if it works, I’ll have a wonderful herb garden,” she says. Meanwhile, “it keeps my mind off the fact that we’re incarcerated.”
Growing herbs and vegetables requires patience in the extreme, though. A newly planted garden, with properly spaced plants, “looks so pitiful with all the blank space,” Masley had warned me. But as the weather got warmer, I began to see progress.
By this week the pole bean vines were climbing, I had harvested Siam Queen basil to make Thai drunken noodles, and there were tiny green tomatoes aplenty. One variety, the effusive Matt’s Wild Cherry, was supported by an A-frame trellis I had rigged up using zip ties to secure fallen tree branches collected nearby, in Prospect Park.
Like others shuttered in their homes, I occasionally forgot what day of the week it was – they all seemed so much the same. But out in my garden, each dawn brought fresh promise.
With recent reports that the European Union will ban Americans from entering due to our country’s lack of control over Covid-19, my prospects for an autumn trip to France have all but vanished. I have a bistro table without the bistro; Alpine geraniums without the mountains; and the possibility of pole beans and cherry tomatoes in my future – if the squirrels don’t get to them first.
As we canceled reservations made many months earlier, we told ourselves that maybe, by next spring, things will be better. In my tiny Brooklyn garden, there is still a glimmer of hope.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.