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Archive for June, 2012

Sitting on an apartment balcony in the early morning, the rising sun awakens birds singing a morning song to be heard; however, there isn’t a single bird in sight. Apartment balconies are notorious for being void of wildlife. With a few simple changes a thriving sanctuary can be created on any balcony.

Attracting Birds

Feeders are one of the easiest and quickest ways to attract a variety of birds. Use tube feeders to attract Goldfinches, Chickadees, and finches that prefer thistle and small seeds. Hopper feeders work well for Blue Jays, Cardinals, House Finches,  Purple Finches, Tufted Titmice and Buntings—a favorite is sunflower seeds and cracked peanuts. Suet cages work well as a companion feeder and will attract Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, and Nuthatches. If wanting to attract Orioles, provide fresh slices of oranges.  Thinking thrifty? Even a shallow dish filled with seed, peanuts, or meal worms will attract birds—they aren’t picky. Any seed mix containing the large, brown, round millet should be avoided as birds do not readily eat it.

The Hummers

A petite, colorful hummingbird is always an exciting and welcomed visitor. By placing a hummingbird feeder on the balcony, you’ll be sure to attract the small bird. The syrup is easy and quick to make at home. Boil 1 cup of sugar with 4 cups of water—the syrup will keep for up to one week in the refrigerator. Change the syrup regularly in accordance to outside temperature—hummingbirds will refuse spoiled syrup. This tiny, flying package will be full of attitude and provide a viewer with countless hours of its antics.

Splishin’ & Splashin’

By also providing wild birds with a source of fresh water, they will be assured that your balcony is the place to be. A traditional bird bath will work, but they also make hanging bird baths. For a more cost-effective solution, wild birds will be just as pleased with a shallow dish filled with water.

Go Natural

By growing certain plants, you can provide a natural source of nutrition for wildlife. This is beneficial as it provides wildlife with the proper nutrition and encourages natural survival skills that are not reliant on people—if you’ve ever had a hoard of House Finches at your bird feeder or would like to find out, then you’ll know what I mean! Plant flowers that are attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds.

A few balcony friendly plants:

  • Petunia
  • Fuschia
  • Salvia
  • Lantana
  • Beebalm
  • Snapdragon

More than Novelty

Enthusiasts of colorful caterpillars and butterflies may also grow host plants for caterpillars. Providing the host plant of a favorite caterpillar will attract not only the colorful caterpillars that rely upon them for food, but also the butterfly looking to lay eggs.

By growing a variety of plants and providing a food source for varying wildlife, your balcony will soon be thriving with its own wildlife oasis. For every garden pest I’ve found, I had a garden predator that preyed upon them—from hungry birds looking for juicy, fattened caterpillars to colorful predatory insects looking for a sticky slug.


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Tomatoes are one of the crops that almost never fails me. They’re tolerant of a fairly wide range of conditions, as long as you keep them out of the frost. Animals don’t seem to bother them nearly as much as other plants (it probably ‘helps’ that the foliage is poisonous, and coats your fingers with aromatic yellow stickiness when you work with them). Sometimes disease can be an issue, but for me this usually means some minor late blight or maybe a few tomatoes with end rot. Only once have I suffered serious disease damage to my tomatoes (thanks to late blight), and it was from infected material shipped to my region and sold by big-box stores. I only plant home-starts or sets from independent local nurseries, but spores are relentless in their ability to travel on the wind. There was nothing I could’ve done! One makes the best of the situation, picks up, and carries on next year. Such is the way of the farmer.

A tomato plant with severe late blight. That year, we made lots of green salsa.

I plant between two and three dozen tomato plants of various varieties every year. This provides me with many bushels of fruit, a lot of which I process and can, and the remainder of which I sell. My staple varieties that are always present are Early Girl and Golden Boy, although I also grow a few different ones every year. I have grown Roma, Sweet 100, Yellow Pear, Tangerine, Honeybunch, Black Krim, Pink Brandywine, Better Boy, Supersonic, Italian Ice, Mountain Fresh… and the list goes on.

Tomatoes can be grown beautifully in the ground, but if you have a large flower pot, or even something like a 5 gallon bucket, single plants will do rather nicely in those as well. There are also special planters, such as ‘Topsy Turvy’, that hang the tomato upside down in the air and allow it to grow that way (I view these as only a novelty, although they may work well for those with very limited space).  Regardless of the method you use, though, there are a few things you can do to make sure your tomatoes are a bit happier!

Tomatoes can take a while to grow!

If you live in a zone that has a shorter growing season/relatively long winters, you’ll probably need to start your tomatoes indoors to get a good harvest off of them. Sow seeds in small containers in good garden soil or a reasonable quality potting mix, 6-8 weeks before your last expected frost date (or when you will first be able move them outside). You can use ‘recycled’ nursery pots from other plants, plastic Solo/Dixie cups, or any other such thing – just allow some holes for drainage. You can also buy already-started plants right when you need them. I recommend local nurseries if available. Buying started sets is a simple solution for those without the inclination to do it themselves, or for those with very poor indoor lighting and/or shaded, protected windows, though it is quite a bit more expensive than starting your own. You’ll just have to weigh your choices!

These were large seedlings, 10-12″ tall, when planted. Now, not quite a month after they were put in the ground, they’re making their first fruits!

Tomatoes like support!

Now, you can grow tomatoes pretty well by letting them grow on their own, letting them flop over and the vines fall onto the ground, but this makes weeding and cultivating harder, exposes the plant to more soil contact and more potential disease, allows rainwater to splash on and dirty the fruit, and also opens up the whole shebang to infestation or damage by things like crawling bugs or rodents. It also isn’t as nice to look at. Still, we have grown ‘floppy’ tomatoes with good success during times we too many extra plants or in areas where appearances didn’t matter.

A better option is to use a staking or caging method. This can be as simple as a pipe or strong stick stuck deep into the dirt in a pot or bucket, or a tripod of branches or lumber cutoffs for field-grown plants. Plants can be tied up to these supports as they grow, using strips of soft cloth, which I usually obtain by simply ripping up an old t-shirt.

Tomato ‘tripods’ made of scrap wood.

You can also pay for wire tomato cages or fold-out stands, the smaller and less complex ones being cheaper. Those will suffice, but the biggest ones I have, which are simple wire ones that stand around 5 feet high and cost $3 apiece, usually end up being preferable because I grow some 7-8 foot tall tomatoes at times and those cages keep them much more contained. Even so, last year I had to build an extra framework out of scrap lumber to hold up the immense weight of the fruit.

Tomatoes like to have strong roots!

Solanaceous plants like these love to have lots of loose dirt around their bases. They will send out more roots anywhere the stem is buried and touching the dirt! Therefore, it pays to bury deeply. In a pot, dig and set the plant in a hole sufficient enough to cover much of the stem. Even covering some of the lower leaves is fine. In the ground outside, you can do the same thing, or you can plant the tomato at the ‘normal’ level of the soil and then mound/hill dirt up into a pile around the stem. Another way is to lay the plant on its side on the ground and cover the stem with a layer of dirt. It doesn’t matter that it’s sideways – the top will right itself toward the sun in a few days. You will not hurt the tomato! Any of these methods will grow an enormous root system and send off some explosive growth after the plant gets a hold on the soil. This applies whether you plant in a pot or in the ground. Bury deep and you’ll do well!

Example of the hilling system of planting. These tomatoes were initially planted with only the top leaves sticking out, but now they have grown a large root system and are very vigorous!

You can try any varieties you want. Homegrown, well-ripened tomatoes are almost always going to taste better than supermarket bought, but you can try various cultivars and see which you prefer, as some will be standouts to you in their flavor, texture, or other aspects. It’s all about your preference. I prefer medium-sized, rounded red tomatoes for sale purposes, just like the ones Early Girl makes – they seem to be most accepted as a ‘regular’ tomato. Beefsteaks can crack or look a bit ugly in fluctuating weather, and while people love their huge size, sometimes you end up with many that have far less-than-perfect appearances.

I also favor ‘indeterminate’ varieties that grow larger and larger and set fruit until they are killed by frost. There are also ‘determinate’ cultivars available that grow to a certain size, set most of their fruit at once, and then don’t grow much or decline. Such plants may be slightly more suitable for those with small spaces, but as far as I have seen, any tomato plant can be grown nicely in similar conditions to all the others – no need for special treatment just because of the name. Just give them a good start, let them have enough soil of their own so they can spread their roots, and keep them supported!

An overloaded basket of nearly perfect Early Girls!

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Fundamental maintenance is necessary for keeping any container garden alive and thriving. My container garden hosts quite the arsenal of plants this year which requires a strategic plan of action.  While it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of gardening, creating a routine will help to simplify the maintenance.

Water

Adopting a watering schedule is very important. Plants growing outdoors in containers will need more care and attention than plants growing indoors. Outdoor plants will require more frequent watering. Many factors attribute to the watering needs of a potted plant. These needs will depend on the size of the plant, pot, temperature and location.

Soil Quality/Condition

A good quality potting soil is preferable. Cheap soils may have a lot of filler that will cause the dirt to dry out quickly. I prefer to mix my own soil when I have the space and time—this year I’ve used a mix of cow manure compost, soil conditioner, sand, and a high quality potting mix. I mix in accordance to the need of the plant; the size of the plant in ratio to pot size should be taken into account when mixing soil. When planting a small plant in a large pot, a lighter soil mixture may make all the difference on whether the plant lives or dies.

Some plants that prefer well-draining soil:

  • Lavender
  • Tarragon
  • Citrus
  • Rosemary
  • Succulents
  • Cacti
  • Many tropicals

Repot if necessary

Nearly all newly purchased plants will need to be repotted into a bigger pot with fresh soil. To check if your plant needs repotting, simply turn over the pot and look at the drainage holes to check for visible roots. You may also gently remove the plant from the pot, if it comes out as a large, root entangled clump then it is time to repot. When repotting, it is important to loosen the roots—some dirt should be left around the roots.

Fertilize

Does your potting soil bag say it will feed your plant for six months? While this may be true for some plants, I have found that any vegetables, herbs, or plants that are heavy producers or fast growers will require fertilizer before the six month period. Using a good fertilizer on a regular schedule will help keep your garden green and thriving. Heavy feeders will require fertilizer weekly; while light feeders may require it monthly or less. Every plant will show signs of stress when in need of fertilizer; this may include yellowing or paling of leaf colors to wilting of leaves and lack of new growth.

Prune

Many plants will fail to thrive if not pruned. Pruning not only shapes a plant, but encourages bushy, new growth and proper airflow to prevent diseases. This is especially useful with herbs and necessary with fruit trees. Herbs will bush out, producing more leaves to be collected for your next meal. Pinching back new growth will also help delay flowering to prolong the usability of the plant.

According to Alli Cobra of our own “Greenhorn Wisdom” fame, for fruit trees, it is necessary to remove center branches to help air flow and prevent disease.

She also feels it is important to remove:

  • Center branches
  • Overlapping and crossing branches
  • Branches with weak crotches — for example, branching has a very high angle that is less than 45 degrees
  • Any other crowded areas to improve overall airflow

Deadhead

Flowering plants do best when deadheaded. This is the removal of dead or dying flowers. By removing the dead flowers, the plant will put more energy into producing new flowers instead of producing seed. Many plants can be kept flowering throughout the season if deadheaded when necessary.

Protection from the Elements

When growing in containers, plants will need protection from the weather. This is particularly true if in a place with a harsh winter and long periods of frost. According to Alli, surrounding the pot with mulch or leaves, placing in a shed or garage after reaching dormancy or placing them in a trench may make all the difference on whether the plant will survive the winter to thrive when spring arrives.

Growing on a balcony will also leave plants more prone to being blown over or knocked over by a pesky squirrel. To help discourage this, place a layer of small rocks in the bottom of pots.

Whether protecting one plant or many from a troublesome squirrel, every garden thrives with a little routine. Armed with the basic knowledge of container garden maintenance, any garden under your watch will not only remain green and lively, but will flourish and impress.

Looking to get into container gardening? Try reading our article about getting started here: “Gardening in Small Spaces

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