As a child I spent a lot of time in the garden with my parents: flowers with my mother, vegetables with my father. We moved a lot, and it was important (at least for my mother) that when we moved into a new house, the flowerbeds were there and waiting. Although not quite guerilla gardening, my mother and I would sneak onto a property, (before the move-in date) starter-plants and shovels in hand. When we moved in a month later, the garden beds were alive with color… I’ve since traded the suburban backyard for a city balcony, but despite the size difference there is plenty of space to grow food and flowers, if one is a little creative.
So, before the final leaves drop, the temperatures decline and the sunlight disappears, I thought to pay tribute to my balcony garden – surviving the changing seasons and rich with a variety of herbs, fruits and vegetables. This year was a trial-run: I moved into my apartment not before May and quickly went on holiday. Upon my return, the sun had disappeared from Amsterdam. However, the first sunny day, I hopped on my bike to the closest plant store to peruse their options: a few flowering plants, several types of salad and tomatoes. This later expanded to include peppers, strawberries, cherry tomatoes, a pumpkin and 10 different types of herbs (basil, mint, coriander, rosemary, chives, dill, citronella, oregano, lavender and thyme). I was in new-garden-bliss. My balcony ‘farm’ became a topic of conversation with family and friends (even if not their choice :)) and I found myself waking in the morning to see how my babies (my tomatoes, peppers & strawberries) were doing – if they were thirsty, needed sunshine or a bit of company. I enjoyed dirt under my fingernails, cutting fresh lettuce for my salad or adding herbs to potatoes, fish or evening tea. As the weather gets colder and evenings come quicker, I already look forward to next year’s garden. In the meantime, I watch the temperatures every night – covering my remaining tomatoes if needed.
My balcony has become a living laboratory, to learn how – in a small city space – to grow vegetables, berries, herbs and flowers with the right balance of sun, water and attention. (I should also mention I have a very patient flatmate. :)) It has been a place to put my research to action: how to reduce my climate impact via (very) local food production, and how much time/ space a garden requires. Of course, this was not enough to supply all my vegetables, but it did make a significant contribution. It was an enjoyable experience and I learned a thing or two along the way: how much water, sun or shade different plant types require, that one should trim tomato leaves, and lettuce and herbs should be kept short to prevent from going to seed or becoming too starchy. These are not enlightened lessons, but with a bit of careful attention and checking a garden blog or two, I enjoyed fresh produce all summer. In doing so, I found a way to balance the benefits of city living – reduced environmental impact (e.g. no need for a car, and city flats consume less energy) and improved convenience – and retain a connection to the natural environment, natural cycles and growing your own food. In the meantime, gardening is addictive. I’ve signed up for a neighborhood garden plot for next year; volunteered with a community urban agricultural project here in Amsterdam; taken a ‘composting with worms’ workshop, and signed up for a course on winter herbs. Did I mention how patient my flatmate is with turning our balcony (and soon windowsills) into an urban agricultural laboratory? 🙂