I love strawberries, so it was really disheartening to read that they are now at the top of the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list. Yes, we can pay nearly double the price for certified organic, but that’s just not a viable option for most families. There is also the common misconception that organic means NO pesticides; production demands on large scale farms require the fruit to be doused in organic pesticides, so while it is a better option, there are still toxins to consider.
There Must be a Better Way
The only way to be sure that we’re not leaving the safety of our food up to companies that don’t have a vested interest in our health is to grow our own. Home gardening is often more cost effective, and makes for a fun family project! If you have a backyard, you’re already ahead. But what if, like many, you have no yard space? My family is relocating to Waterloo this summer, and while we’re excited for this next step in our journey, we will have very minimal space for growing food. We don’t own the home and the yard space is unfenced and shared. That leaves us with only a wooden deck off the back of our kitchen. Time to get creative!
Since time is ticking on starting a garden – is it May already!? – I called on my good friend Jenn Gizerian, the caretaker and assistant farmer on an experimental, ‘beyond organic’ herb, vegetable and heirloom seed preservation farm in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Jenn has spent the last 10 years gleaning knowledge from farmers to put to use in her home gardens – which she’s maintained on both balconies and side porches in the city and small back yards in the country. Here’s the advice she shared with me so we can have a thriving, beyond organic, container garden this year:
The Home Gardener’s Biggest Obstacle: “I don’t have space!”
It may come as a surprise that most plants are pretty flexible. It’s true, nature really does find a way! While ideal conditions can vary greatly based on what you want to grow, there are many plants that will tolerate a small/unique space and limited sunlight, so a few feet for planters that get 6-8 hours of direct sunlight will open up a wide variety of vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers to choose from. And you can expect a pretty nice harvest!
Take a second look at your balcony or front porch. Does it get 6-8 hours of sun? Yes? Then you may consider yourself a home gardener!
But Aren’t Planters Expensive?
Buying planters for your container garden can get costly, so this is where your creativity comes into play. Nearly anything can be turned into a planter: old pallets, buckets, scraps of wood, tires, empty water or juice jugs – the possibilities are endless when it comes to repurposing common household items. If you’re starting your plants from seed, plastic egg cartons make the perfect mini greenhouse!
Check out the Pinterest Board I’ve created to keep track of upcycled planter ideas!
TIP: If you plan to reuse plastic as long term planters, it’s a good idea to line it with landscape/ weed block fabric. Some plastics may leach unwanted chemicals into your soil!
Small Space, Big Harvest
Container gardens, though often small, can still produce a large amount of food if the conditions are right. Enter: the soil. When you’ve decided on your planters, fill each one with an 85/15 (give or take) mix of organic potting soil and organic compost.
Caution: Potting soil can be tricky, and you’re not always getting what you pay for when it comes to the cheap stuff. Traditional potting soil is often treated with synthetic chemicals, or can be loaded with weed seed. Spring for the good stuff!
Choosing Your Plants
You have your space; you’ve chosen and prepared your planters and your soil is ready; you know how much sun your space gets. Now what will you grow??
First consider: What does your family eat? Make a list of your family’s favorite fruits and vegetables. Think about what herbs you like to cook with often.
Next, figure our your Zone (in Canada or in the United States . This is important information to have as you choose your plants because some plants just will not produce as well in certain regions. You will get a better yield if you grow plants suited for your area.
Did you know? Certain plants grow better when they are grown together! Carrots and tomatoes, strawberries and spinach – this method is called Companion Planting, which provides the benefits of natural pest control, attracting pollinators, and increased growth.
The drawback to companion planting for the Container Gardener is limited space. If that’s the case for you, consider incorporating essential oils into your watering routine. This way your plants still reap the benefits of their companions, even in tight quarters. Simply add 3-5 drops of CPTG Essential Oil to a gallon of warm water and stir. Once cool, use this to fill your watering container halfway, then fill to the top with cold water, stir, and commence with watering as you normally would. The oil you add to the water depends on what you choose to grow. For example, grow:
Tomatoes, peppers, broccoli and green beans with Basil.
Cucumbers, potatoes and cauliflower with Sage.
Brussel sprouts, kale and spinach with Dill.
And don’t forget to add Lavender to attract bees and butterflies!
Natural Gardening – Non-Toxic Solutions to Common Issues
If you know what you’re looking for, these common issues that can cause some BIG problems can be stopped before they get out of hand without the use of harmful, toxic chemicals:
- Powdery Mildew – looks like dust as it begins to appear on the leaves of your plants. Diluted Rosemary Oil (10-15 drops in a spray bottle of water) sprayed directly onto the leaves as soon as it is identified, and then again every two weeks or so should keep it at bay. Powdery Mildew can winter over, so discard that soil at the end of the growing season and use OnGuard Cleaning Concentrate to eradicate any remnants in your planters.
- Yellowing Leaves – are often a sign that your plant is not getting enough nutrients. Try adding fertilizer, but always research what fertilizer is best for your plants. Tomatoes, for example, require different ‘food’ than blueberries.
- Aphids – like to feed on new plant growth, and can really wreck havoc in your garden. As soon as you notice them, clip off any leaves with heavy infestations and hit your plant with a cedarwood, peppermint and wild orange essential oil spray (about 5 drops of each in a large spray bottle of water). Aphids may also be a sign of over fertilization, so lay off the plant food until you have them under control.
- Ants – can actually be very beneficial to your garden, but left to get out of control they create an environment perfect for other pests you want to avoid. I like to mix 1-2 tablespoons of organic diatomaceous earth in a large spray bottle with lukewarm water, 5 drops of peppermint and 5 drops of cinnamon essential oil. Spritz where you see large concentrations of ants, but not directly onto plants or your soil.
- Slugs – love moisture, so the best way to reduce slug damage is to water your plants early in the day. Add Cedarwood essential oil to your mulch to help repel slugs, then set beer traps to attract them away from your planters. (Fill shallow dishes with a yeasty beer – slugs will go in but not come back out again.)
TIP: Find yourself a feast for insects while you are in your garden? Rosemary Essential Oil or Terrashield Essential Oil blend are my favorite ways to not become a mosquito’s dinner!
Not using essential oils yet? Let Marissa help you get started!
Have we convinced you that, not only do you have the space to grow your own food (even if you live in a second story apartment),
but that you can do it naturally? You CAN, and I hope you will!
We’ve just shared a wealth of information on natural gardening in small, unique spaces, so please post any questions you have in the comments below.
Know someone who would love to have a garden of their own, but thinks they don’t have the space? Please share this article with them!