Saturday, April 26, 2014

Urban Garden 2014: Intro and catch-up

Hey, guess what? I'm an urban gardener for the very first time this year! This all came about because of moving into my nice new apartment last summer, then spending the fall and winter buying all the furniture I needed for it, and getting everything into place; and once I did, I realized that while I was happy with how it looked, it also felt too sterile and euclidean, too much like an all-right-angle single-male place. I thought about how nice it would be to add some organic forms and shapes to this environment, and that got me thinking about my love of all things Victoriana, and of the clever ways people back then used to create these "semi-wild" green spaces right within their urban homes; and I thought it might be nice to try something like that myself, in the sort of main living/hangout space in my little one-bedroom apartment, a couch and easy chair right by a big set of windows that is then framed by bookshelves, a coffeetable, and a throw rug. And while I was at it, I thought I'd try growing some edible plants as well, like things for salad and pesto, etc.; I'm now following a Mediterranean diet, after all, which calls for a large amount of things that are much better off being grown at home if you can pull it off.

I've been doing this for six weeks now, but I just haven't had time before now to sit and actually write in detail about it. (Things with my arts center have been just fucking insane this spring; but more on that in another update soon.) And in fact, I think the easiest way for me to actually track all this stuff this summer is by a little experiment I've done before, as a "photo blog" that's tracked over at my account, where my story is being told mostly through the actual images, but with a few descriptions thrown in along the way. You can go to my Garden 2014 photoset over there at Flickr to see many, many more photos than in this update you see here below; and you can follow along over there over the rest of this summer and fall for all the latest, or friend me there if you're a member too, or subscribe to the RSS feed my account generates. (I'll also get updates with less images posted here to this blog regularly this summer and fall too.) For now, though, I wanted to share at least a "short" version (ha ha) of everything that's happened with the garden since starting it March 10th, and all the realizations I've had along the way, so this extra-long introduction below will get you all caught up to literally where the garden stands as of today. I'm looking forward to bringing you new news all throughout this coming summer and autumn!

March 10: Since I'm going into this first year of urban gardening not knowing even the single slightest first thing about the subject, my garden officially started literally with my friend Carrie giving me a few random cuttings of some dying jade and wandering jew plants she had left over from the previous winter, plus a shopping bag full of opened seed packets, some of which were years and years old and may or may not be any good any more. She also gave me about 75 peat-filled "starter bags" for seeds (about the size of a golfball, for starting seeds when they're first planted, to be repotted into bigger containers as they grow and grow), a few pots, and about half a dozen really big thick guides to gardening; so while I was reading through these books, she suggested, I should also try just randomly dropping some of those seeds into some of those peat bags and watering them once a day, because she said that's literally sometimes all you need to do to grow something, just drop it in the ground and water it once a day. So I put together 50 seed starters of nine varieties (lettuce, sugar snap peas, arugula, morning glory, thyme, salad mix, moonflower, rosemary and basil), repotted the jade and wandering jew cuttings, bought a water can and a mister, and I was officially going! Oh, and as you can see in these photos, while I was at the grocery store I bought my first full-sized plant as well, a pot of English ivy that was on sale for five bucks. Part of my decorating goal, after all, is to eventually have lots of trailing plants on the tops of my bookshelves, surrounding my main living area where my couch and easy chair are, to create the feel of a "walk-in green space" while sitting there; and with its fast growth, easy care, dark color and Victorian connotations, ivy would be a good plant to serve as the main base of my "green curtains." We're officially on our way!

March 18: Wow, just eight days after randomly planting some old seeds that may or may not be any good anymore, and knowing not a single thing about gardening yet besides to water them once a day, I've already got my first sproutings! And I have to admit, there's a kind of delirious satisfaction that comes with it that I wasn't expecting, this real feeling of accomplishment that you caused the organic growth of something that didn't exist before. I've got little bits starting to peek up here and there now from the sugar snap peas, moonflowers, basil and salad greens, so we'll see how things continue doing. Not much to report about the jade and wandering jew cuttings -- no signs of growth yet, but eight days later they still haven't died either, so for now until I learn any better I'm taking this as a good sign. That's kind of an interesting thing about gardening so far, that it's a really pure form of trial and error, and of just literally sometimes watching things to see what happens to them, as a form of education about the topic at hand. The ivy, though, is already living up to its reputation; all the light-green leaves you're seeing in these 3/18 photos are literally new leaves that have grown in just the eight days since buying it at the grocery store. I had no idea that plants grew at this fast a rate, where you could get up each morning and see things that literally weren't there the night before.

March 22: Twelve days since the planting of my first crop of seeds, and they're continuing to sprout rapidly, at least among certain varieties: the basil, salad greens and moonflowers are growing like crazy, while the arugula is just starting to show itself. I've also had two of my five sugar snap pea seeds shoot up profoundly, one much more than the other; so that's an interesting thing to ponder, why some seeds seem to randomly do so much better than others, even given identical conditions. I'm about halfway through all those big thick gardening guides now that my friend Carrie loaned me, so I know now that these small sprouts need a real closed-in and humid environment in order to thrive, which is why so many plants are sprouted in greenhouses first before being transplanted inside; so since two of my pea stalks have grown too large for the seedling tray lid, they're now transplanted into a bigger peat-paper container and with my water pitcher over them during the day.

And a little miracle -- the first new growth on one of my jade cuttings! This is the first sign of life any of these cuttings have shown in the twelve days since they were potted (well, besides the "sign of life" that they so far haven't died), so that's very exciting to see, official proof that I may have saved these from the brink of death they were once on. And the store-bought ivy continues to grow well too, so much so that I decided to try my first cutting of it; because don't forget, one of my decorating goals with the garden is to have this "green curtain" hanging down from the tops of my bookshelves that surround my main living area, so I want to get this ivy spread horizontally as fast as I can. I don't actually know much yet about doing cuttings; so as a first experiment, I cut off a few individual leaves and repotted them into small peat paper containers. So we'll see!

March 25: Happy day -- two of my pea stalks and two of my moonflower plants have grown large enough to repot! These are the first four seeds to "graduate" from their starter tray, in the 15 days since I first planted everything. (Although as you can, the basil and the salad greens will be getting this treatment soon as well.) Not much to report with the jade cuttings, other than that all of them now are happily showing at least the tiniest signs of new growth. And the wandering, just keeps sitting there, crumpled and half-dead-looking; but at least the leaves haven't turned brown and fallen off, so for now I'm taking that as a good sign and am just staying patient with it, keeping the soil moist on a daily basis. I have no idea at this point how long a plant can stay dormant and then miraculously be able to come back to life; but with the wandering jew we've now passed two weeks, so we'll see what eventually happens, I guess.

March 31st: Not much to report besides the continual fast growth of everything, including the repotting now of not just the moonflowers but the morning glories, basil and salad greens. (In a surprise, the morning glories burst out of the ground so fast you could sometimes literally see them move, and their first two leaves were each fully adult-sized.) Also, my one "freak" snap pea plant, out of the five seeds I planted, has already grown an entire foot; and it's naturally wanting to curl and climb up something already, so I'm now officially training it to twine around one of the legs of my floor lamp, over in the corner of my main living space right next to a window. This is part of my decorating goal for this year, is to create a bit of a Victorian-solarium post-apocalyptic feel, so that plants are sometimes literally growing up the sides and down from the tops of my furniture; there won't be much of it, since all these plants by definition need to grow near the windows, and I don't have much furniture near the windows for climbing, but I do like the idea of all four legs of my floor lamp being covered by climbing pea vines by the end of the summer, especially when combined with planters of chamomile and lavender that will go in the centers of each shelf between the pea stalks.

April 4: Thought I'd finally get my main living space rearranged into its new "garden arrangement" I've devised for this year, to better take advantage of the unique challenges such an indoor garden requires. Last year I had my couch up against those big windows you see, which blocked several feet of each window from view; but this year I need every inch of window space I can get, so I've basically swung my couch 90 degrees, so that it's now partially blocking a bookcase and my radiator instead of the windows. That flips everything else in that space 90 degrees too -- my coffeetable, my easy chair, my throw rug -- and to make up for the weird blank space now by the window, and to create another extra space for growing things in the direct sun, I've put together two of my old wood end tables there. So the decorating goal, like I said, is to create a sort of "sense-surround walk-in green space" surrounding this furniture you're seeing; so back there on the radiator, like I'm pointing to in one of these photos, I plan on getting a big giant six-foot-tall palm tree, with fronds that will hang over people's heads when they're sitting on the couch, probably matched up there on the radiator shelf with a big but horizontal plant and a small lamp. Then on the tops of each bookshelf will be a series of dark trailing plants, some of which will eventually bloom with blue, pink and white flowers -- ivy, morning glories, wandering jews, oxalis, violas and moonflowers -- which I hope to grow to at least a foot or two in length, creating these "green curtains" that surround people on all sides. Edibles in the windowsills, pea vines on the floor lamp, chamomile and lavender over there too; and then SOMETHING interesting to do on those two wooden tables, which will undoubtedly be the main mental focus of people's attention when they come into the space, which is why I want to make sure to do things right here and make something really special. So, I'll ponder on all that, while I finally finish up all those big thick guidebooks my friend Carrie loaned me.

April 9th: The one-month anniversary of my first round of seed plantings, so lots of activity to mark the occasion. First, can you believe how much of that stuff has grown?! Pretty amazing, given the inauspicious start to this year's garden; since I knew literally nothing about gardening when my friend Carrie donated a bunch of old stuff to me on March 10th, she suggested that while I was learning, I should literally just "throw some seeds in some dirt and water it every day," because I had literally nothing to lose since everything had been donated to me. (Well, besides some potting dirt, a water can, a spritzer, and some fertilizer; total cost of my gardening adventure this year so far, about twenty bucks.) Every single small green plant you're seeing in these photos came from me literally throwing some seeds into some dirt and watering it each day; the massive success really gets you thinking about nature itself, I've come to realize, and how the earth creates this sort of natural environment for all this gardening-type stuff to happen on its own. A seed gets blown around with some dirt until it's finally submerged partially; dead things from the previous year have provided the nutrients in the soil for the seeds to sprout; and tons of regular rain showers in March and April keep everything in a constant state of moistness. For people who are guilty of overthinking things on a regular basis (myself definitely included), there can be something really soothing and amazing about gardening, because it's sometimes so simple -- just throw some seeds in some dirt and water it every day.

This being the one-month anniversary of the first seeding, I thought I'd start my second round on this day as well, this time now having actually read all those big thick gardening guidebooks Carrie loaned me, and having a much better idea now of what to do to better ensure germination (better soil, soaking the bigger seeds in water beforehand, etc). In this round: more peas, more basil (but this time cinnamon basil), spinach, violas, and mesclun (a specific type of mix of salad greens, popular in France). This is the other big goal of my first-ever garden, aside from the decorating goals, is to also harvest a good amount of practical recipe foods that are usually insanely expensive at the store -- salad greens and basil for the most part, so that I can be having a whole lot of salads and pesto this summer -- but also spinach, sage, mint, green onions, dill, chamomile and lavender (the last two for tea). Regular readers remember that last year I started following the Mediterranean Diet, which I'm still doing, and am trying to swap in a salad for almost every lunch whenever I can anyway, so I'm excited about the idea of having all this stuff at my disposal this summer for essentially free (or, you know, a quarter a plant when you add together the seed and soil, each of which might produce a hundred leaves or more). Oh, and see that big seed planter in the back of my plastic bin? That's an experiment from Miracle Gro I'm trying, one dollar for exactly one spinach seed but packed in its own combination of mulch, peat and fertilizer from Miracle Gro itself, so that you literally just open the top and start watering it. Insanely more expensive than just an entire packet of seeds for a buck, so I'm curious to know how one of these grows versus just planting some spinach seeds the traditional way. I'm starting both options at the same time, so we'll see how they go.

And other news? Well, all my ivy cuttings from March 22nd, have died, because it turns out I didn't know what I was doing -- when you take a cutting from an adult plant, what you actually need to do is take a cutting of an entire small section of the plant (or a "mini-plant" if you will), so that it can quickly grow new roots of its own off a mature stalk, and have existing splittings where new leaves grow (something I've only discovered for the first through observation -- that when a young plant grows new leaves which turn into new branches, they almost always happen at the intersection of two existing branches). I'm trying hydroponic germination this time, which can be a hit-or-miss proposition based on the plant; you're basically starting the cuttings in weakly fertilized water instead of soil, so that you can visually check on how their bottoms are doing, and be able to transfer them to a container once you see new roots starting to grow, thus making it ready to grow in soil in the first place. This is yet another of those infamous trials by error that I'm doing this first year of gardening, so we'll see what happens.

And one more miracle -- for the very first time since it got cut off a dying plant in Hyde Park and transferred to my apartment 30 days ago, my wandering jew has sprouted a brand new tiny little leaf bud. I'M A FATHER! It's not quite as dramatic as this, of course, but I have to say that there's something really ridiculously satisfying about taking care of a plant, suddenly see it respond and thrive, and know that it was your actions that caused that growth to happen. GIVER OF HEALTH! CREATOR OF LIFE WHERE NO LIFE EXISTED BEFORE! I AM LIKE A MINOR GOD! Who knew that gardening could be so monomaniacal?

April 15: And six days later, we have spinach sprouts! And surprisingly, coming from both the expensive Miracle Gro pod and the cheap traditional seedings at the same exact moment, and growing at the same exact rate; so I think that quickly puts an end to any question about the relative worth of those fancy Miracle Gro pods you see at the garden stores for so much money. The cinnamon basil has already started sprouting up as well; given how expensive it is at the store, I'm shocked to discover that basil is easily the most trouble-free thing in my entire garden, and that it grows literally at the rate of a weed. What a freaking racket those basil farmers have over us grocery-store shoppers!

April 18: Hydroponics success! Nine days after transplanting them into weakly fertilized water, my ivy cuttings are all showing new root growth, so it's time to transfer them into soil and a medium-sized peat-paper container. Once again, this is all being played by ear, so we'll see whether I still have alive cuttings by this time a month from now, whether I can get these to eventually grow into full plants of their own, etc. And not much else to report, other than that everything continues to grow at a shockingly fast rate, the spinach surprisingly fastest of all. I'm beginning to think that I'm going to have a whole summer of free salads to look forward to!

April 20: Big news -- my moonflower and morning glory seeds have grown so big, their roots are starting to poke out from the bottoms of their peat-paper containers! And that means it's time for repotting, which as I've learned from my guidebooks you have to be surprisingly careful about; if you put a too-small plant into a too-big container, then each time you water it, the water will quickly drop below the root level, which means you have to add a bunch of extra water, which then keeps the roots soggily sitting in water for too long, which will kill plants just as quickly as too little water. So in this case, I took the four out of five morning glory seeds that eventually sprouted from my March 10th planting, and put them all into one medium-sized six-inch clay pot, so that the stalks now combined looks like a full plant for the very first time; then I took my three surviving moonflower stalks, added my now thriving wandering jew stalk, and consolidated them into a six-inch pot as well. Combined with the six-inch planter containing ivy, this now creates this wonderful little horizontal line of trailing-plant pots; the whole goal, then, is like you're seeing in some of these images, to line these up at the top of a bookshelf and hopefully have them be long enough at a certain point to drape down over the fronts of the cases. I'm definitely starting to get there!

April 23: A surprising development -- my fancy Miracle Gro spinach plant has suddenly and mysterious died, even though the spinach planted the traditional way continues to be some of the fastest growing things in my entire garden right now. Well, now we DEFINITELY know the relative merits of those fancy Miracle Gro pods you see at the store, versus simply buying an entire packet of seeds for a tenth of the cost! And not much else to report, other than that we're finally getting our first warm weather of the year around here in Chicago, so the plants are all growing at an even faster rate right now than before.

April 24: A big day -- I finally consolidated all my jade cuttings into one unified bush! These were yet another donated thing from my friend Carrie back on March 10th, to officially start off my first garden, cut from a dying plant on her back porch she had forgotten about over the winter; so I didn't really want to go to the trouble of putting them all together into one big plant until I had seen whether they were even still alive, and whether they could be nursed back to a point where they were producing new leaves again. All four of them are now, though, so I bit the bullet, bought a larger two-buck plastic container at Target, bought my second bag of potting soil of the season, and over the course of a half-hour very carefully put them all together then adjusted for space and growth direction. This is what's known as a "succulent" plant, ones designed for hot and dry weather by having big thick leaves that hold lots of fluid (a cactus, for example, is the most famous type of succulent out there); I'm not a big fan of succulent plants, preferring instead the delicate leaves of "annuals" (which is defined as a plant that's grown new from a seed every spring, thrives in the summer, sheds its own seeds in the fall, then died that winter), but I have to admit that I find it really charming and delightful to be able to have this particular bush as a permanent "perennial" part of my garden (meaning a plant that grows all year long, year in and year out), and that every time I look at it over the years, it will remind me of my friendship with Carrie, and that she was so excited about the idea of my gardening that she donated all this stuff to me in the first place. Plant as physical representation of friendship -- that's an idea I'm really charmed by.

I also replanted my basil and salad greens into the clay pots that will be their permanent adult homes, and that turned out to be really satisfying as well, to grow all of this from literally nothing, from literally hard little pebbles that were in a paper envelope, and to have three entire full adult plants out of them now (or six when you count the pea vine, moonflowers and morning glories too). These gardening guides say that when replanting such edibles into larger containers, make sure to physically separate the many little stalks that have grown next to each other in your starter pods (for those who don't know, the seeds of these edibles are notoriously tiny, so you have to sort of just take a pinch of them and dump them all into a hole in the soil at once); but these stalks and resulting root systems are so fragile at this point in their growth, I have no idea whether I accidentally killed them when delicately separating them during the repotting, so I guess we'll just wait and see. Oh, and I've officially started my third round of seeds, although not too much this time -- just more morning glories, more moonflowers, and green onions for the first time. It's been too cold here in Chicago to start up some of the other stuff, but in May I'm looking forward to trying out for the first time such things as chamomile, lavender, sage, mint and more.

April 25: Well, six weeks now since I started my gardening experiment, I thought I'd finally clean up my apartment on a Friday evening into "company mode" and lay out my now consolidated plants for the first time, to see where I am in terms of my decorating goal of building this "walk-in green space" surrounding the furniture in my main living area of my apartment. And I have to say, not too bad so far, for only being at this for six weeks now, and having not really acquired yet most of the store-bought adult plants that will start really filling up this space for the first time. The big news today, of course, and the inspiration behind cleaning up the apartment, was that I bought what will eventually be the tallest and biggest single item in my garden -- a "majesty" palm tree to sit on top of my radiator in warm months, with fronds that will eventually hang out over the heads of people when they sit on the couch. And I say "eventually," of course, because I'm buying to grow this year because of my limited budget; you wouldn't believe how much the cost of these plants change depending on their size, with for example this four-foot palm only costing 12 bucks, but ones even two feet taller costing a full 35. This apparently will eventually grow to bump up against the ceiling, and will easily be the one most dominating form in the entire garden from year to year, so I'm glad to have it now in place and really helping to define this space for the first time. I'm starting my fourth round of seeds on Monday, so I'll check in with you again then!

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