You don’t need a big yard to grow veggies or herbs in the name of sustainability — in fact you don’t need a yard, period. Even though the days are getting shorter and nights a bit cooler, if you long for the fresher-than-fresh taste of organic veggies or herbs right out of the garden but live in an apartment or other space with little or no yard, then meet my buddy Bob of west suburban Plainfield.
A few years ago, he bought a townhouse in a new development. The second year there, he had a small tomato patch next to the shrubbery but due to indiscriminate yard spraying by the association’s maintenance crew decided to move things up a notch – literally — right up to his townhouse balcony.
Blessed with at least 7 hours of sunlight and no shade after mid-morning, in the deck of this tiny space (about four feet wide by six feet long) he has: two large planter buckets of (surprise!) organic summer squash, four planters chock full of organic basil, two containers of organic green peppers and a planter of hot peppers. He still grows tomatoes in two big planters — one for organic cherry tomatoes and the other containing organic Brandywine heirloom tomatoes. The ‘piece de resistance’ is what’s growing along the entire railing: four long window boxes bursting with the most gorgeous mouthwatering organic greens I’ve ever seen: endive, tatsoi, leaf lettuce, arugula, broccoli raab, mizuna and mustard greens. When the temperature cools down, he throws a plastic cover over everything at night and keeps right on harvesting until the first frost.
Seeing his success got me thinking: why not do the same with some of my old window boxes, some lettuce/ meslcun mix seeds and my squash seedlings already in dire need of transplant? I love fresh crunchy greens topped with herb dressings, and already grow herbs on my deck (nice because I can move them around as the sunlight shifts over the summer.) Greens prefer cooler weather and didn’t do well here earlier in the hottest part of summer so this was a perfect time (mid-late August) to start the fall round of planting. Most greens are sun-lovers so using a large window box made sense as I could move it from one spot to another to get the most benefit from sun.
Growing squash in a container, on the other hand, was news to me. I’ve always given it plenty of room (4-6 feet per plant) in the garden, just like it says on the seed labels. The extreme heat in July and early August made it all but impossible for me to shovel and drag heavy bags of soil for transplanting into last-year’s garden plot. However, my squash plants were getting leggy and even starting to blossom in their pint-sized cups so, once the weather gave us a break from the heat, it was time for moving day!
I found several nice BIG planters on sale at Menards and, with a bag of organic planting soil and some compost, in they went. Once in their new homes I parked them in the sunniest spot of the ‘southside’ tomato/ pepper patch by the deck. The mesclun lettuce mix as well as a large clump of purslane gleaned from Bob’s greens went into the largest (3’) window box on the sunniest part of the deck.
After nearly three weeks I’m happy to report that everyone’s doing well – even with the recently cooler night temperatures (which the greens love.) The peppers and tomatoes out in the garden don’t like the temperature drop, but as long as it doesn’t go below 50 degrees at night they should be okay. When the daytime temperatures drop below 60 for good I cover my tomatoes before the first frost with clear plastic sheeting which gives me at least another 2-3 weeks’ worth of fruit. I’m also planting another round of green beans as well as kale and other cooler-weather crops.
Here’s one idea what to do with all those yummy squash, green beans, peppers, fresh herbs and other garden goodies that are still in season:
Summer Squash (and Friends) Medley
You’ll need: 1 small-medium summer squash, straight or crookneck, cut crosswise in 1/8” thick slices; 1 or 2 good handfuls (about 1 1/2 cups) of green beans (or mix in with wax beans); 1 green onion, chopped; ½ medium green pepper, cleaned and chopped; 1 garlic clove finely chopped; 2-3 fresh rosemary leaves; a couple of nice leafy sprigs of thyme (about 1 good teaspoon); 2-3 medium basil leaves, torn (I prefer the large Italian variety but also keep a ‘Purple Ruffles’ basil plant around for that luscious spicy flavor it gives.) A light sprinkle of black pepper and we’re good to go. (Notice that I left out salt: you can add as much or little to taste but I do not use it – and my blood pressure thanks me.)
Put everything in a medium saucepan with about ½” water in the bottom (I steam rather than boil veggies – it’s much tastier with less loss of vitamins and other nutrients) cover and cook on low heat about 5-6 minutes or until barely tender. I like to serve this either as a side dish or add sliced leftover broiled chicken breast and serve over cooked pasta for a quick and delicious meal accompanied by a salad of those wonderful greens!
Next up: Still can’t or won’t have a garden? Try your local farmers’ market! Hint: they sell more than just produce and other seasonal foods – most offer gourmet oils and vinegars, sauces, baked goods and artisan crafts!