Watching the rain fall relentlessly outside, there’s no denying it: it’s mid October in the Northern Hemisphere. And while I love this season’s colours, it is equally apparent that my Amsterdam balcony garden will soon be tucked away until spring. But, I guess that is a big part of it. Learning (again) to understand the seasonal rotations of fruits and vegetables – something easily forgotten in the city, when we can purchase strawberries in January from almost any supermarket. Having a garden – even on a balcony in the city – helps one remember the seasonal variation of food and the (hard) work that goes into food production. And so, like last year, I want to pay tribute to my balcony garden that provided so much pleasure, learning, experimentation – and certainly tasty treats, throughout the spring, summer and early autumn…
This year, I started early, planting my first seed babies in late February and early March (even using my very own worm compost, also from the balcony!) My patient flatmate stood quietly as I took over the windowsills, with labeled egg carton containers: tomatoes, peas, carrots, pumpkins… It was a long and cold spring and so my seed babies lingered in the windowsills until mid-April, occasionally going outside for a few hours of sun. (Yes, I carefully moved the pots in and out to soak up the sun). Finally, when the warmer temperatures arrived, my garden took off. On 1 May I had my first balcony salad: spinach, radishes, edible flowers and onion greens. Delicious! Over the spring and summer there were many salads, becoming more colourful and flavorful as new ingredients were added to the menu: strawberries, nasturtiums, green & purple potted-peas, onions, carrots and my precious tomato babies. It was like Christmas all summer, to see what was ready for harvest next and how to plan my meals around my garden.
Still, there were lessons to learn. My garden was an experiment: how much food could I (realistically) produce on a 5×2 m2 balcony and how much effort would it take? After all, I (attempt to) maintain two jobs and travel frequently for work and pleasure. I learned that a garden is a constant care project. This may sound obvious; but it was only through experimentation, that I understood what this meant. We had a glorious summer – great for beach goers and boaters – but this meant constant watering, or arranging for someone to water when I was away. It was during these weeks of sunshine, I thought of (real) farmers, and how they must have a very different impression of 3 weeks of perfect sun. And since I didn’t use chemicals, this meant competition: aphids took over my nasturtium flowers, chamomile and courgette. I tried to rid them with soapy water; this didn’t work. I later heard that my friendly ants bring aphids to the garden (they milk them like cows and graze them on selected plants)… Silly ants! But thankfully, ladybugs feed on these aphids (if you can catch them). Marigolds also keep certain insects away with their pungent aroma. Marigolds are also incredibly easy to maintain, last late into the fall season; and their flowers are used in a traditional Chinese tea for cleansing and detoxing (so my Chinese friend informed me).
I studied companion planting and composting, took courses on (urban) permaculture, followed garden blogs and befriended fellow Instagram-ers eager to bring food back to the city (#urbanagriculture). I learned which crops prefer sun or shade, wind or shelter, warm or cooler temperatures. Still, my courgette and my pumpkins – which started out beautifully – never reached their full potential because their containers were too small. Since I refused to buy planters, only using what I could scavenge on the street corner on trash day, this was destined to be a problem. I planted rhubarb, which provided inspiration for chutney and crumble; but I later learned you shouldn’t harvest rhubarb past midsummer. It taunted me long after this date, begging to be eaten. I tried potatoes as well, often harvesting them too early; I was so eager! I planted a “bee seed flower mix” (and even built a bee hotel) to help the struggling bee population; still with this gesture I received the mutual benefit of the their pollination skills. I learned that garlic should be planted in the autumn to rest in the soil before spring, and onions in the winter (if not from onion sets). I guess, for many of these different crops, I learned that it takes time – a lot of time. While I can go any day of the week and buy tomatoes from the grocery store, my tomato babies were not ready until early August. This process of experimentation helped me gain a new respect and value for food. Simultaneously, I worked in a community garden, great to compliment summer meals, bringing mushrooms, cabbage or Swiss chard home, while building a community of happy harvesters. Besides, it was an “education garden” – a great place to learn from more experienced (urban) farmers, and share stories of our city-crop-growing adventures.
As the seasons change again, I have returned to buying vegetables from the market or the grocery store; but with new appreciation for what this process entails. I’m ok with fancy organic vegetables with fancy organic prices, because I know the efforts it takes to grow fancy organic things (and humbly, I’m only responsible for feeding myself). In the meantime, I gained a new appreciation for farmers, food systems, food provision and the challenges associated to food waste (while attempting to give my food waste to my balcony compost worms, when possible). Admittedly though, I’ve become a snob about the freshness of my salads, the flavor of my tomatoes or the quality of my carrots. Thankfully I still have some lingering carrots, tomatoes, radishes and winter kale, (so far) surviving the changing seasons to hold me over!
**My balcony garden included: three types of salad, as well as spinach, kale, bok-choy, radishes, rhubarb, strawberries, beets, fava beans, white and red onion, green and purple potted peas, edible flowers (sunflowers, nasturtium & pansies, marigolds), herbs (basil, chives, parsley, rosemary, lavender, sage, oregano, salve, thyme, lemon balm, camomile and two varieties of mint), several types of tomatoes (mostly smaller heirloom varieties), peppers (red peppers and Surinamese yellow peppers), potatoes, pumpkins, courgette and carrots. This was enough to provide salads almost daily, as well as compliments to many meals: herbs, carrots, potatoes. While I still had to go to the grocery store, most of my fruits and veggies were balcony-derived. 🙂
Most varieties were quite easy to maintain on the balcony, but some required additional space, including pumpkins, courgette and nasturtiums. Pepper varieties were also quite fickle for balcony growing. Peas, salads, strawberries, onions, bok-choy and herbs are ideal for balcony growing. Tomatoes worked too, especially because I have good sun exposure. Certainly, I have more to learn for next year; this gardening stuff is addicting!