Monday, May 21, 2007

Greenies for Greenery

As I mentioned recently, I suddenly have this strange urge to garden. I have always loved the idea of having house plants, but I never seemed to be very good at caring for them. In the past, I've tried to buy extremely low maintenance plants, one at a time lest I be too overwhelmed by their need for nurturing. I'd water the plant a couple of times a year, and in between it would get a little attention from visiting friends of mine who would take pity on it. You know how it goes from there: droopiness, death, discard, repeat with new plant. This is why I've been afraid to have pets, let alone children.
My last plant in my old apartment was a tiny cactus given to me by one of the plant-pitying friends. It was small enough that when I was moving, I took it with me-- but about two months into my sublet odyssey, I suddenly wondered "hey, where is that little cactus?" It turned out that I had forgotten to take it out of a box of stuff I had stored in my aunt and uncle's basement. Oops. Needless to say it could not be saved.
When I moved into my condo, I was determined to start over, especially since there is one part of the apartment that just seems to be made to be a plant corner-- in other words, I can't figure out what else to put there. But I still had my doubts about having any kind of green thumb... "thumb of black death" might be more like it. So I started to wonder if I should just get fake plants!

I know fake plants kind of miss the point of gardening a bit-- they don't bloom, they don't clean your air, they don't emit nice fragrances unless you squirt perfume on them... but the most you have to do is dust them once in a while for them to always look nice. I also wondered if it might be cheaper to buy fake plants than real ones. I was in Pier 1 one day and noticed that they have some fake flowers that are only a few dollars each-- of course you have to buy more than one stem for them to look nice. On their website, there are quite a few options for fake flowers at under $5 a stem, and whole plants for about $25-50. I also got a copy of the "Petals" catalog-- they have some nice-looking arrangements, but they can be quite expensive: some items are in the $30-50 price range, but quite a few are also $80-$120 and up. And reading their descriptions, where they tell you the plant comes in a glass bowl "filled with acrylic 'water'" kind of creeped me out. Water is just one of those words you don't want to see in quotation marks.
Anyway, as far as the financial issue goes, fake plants probably will save you a little money, but only if you are such a bad gardener that you constantly have to replace your real ones. Of course my whole financial philosophy goes against the idea of repeatedly replacing things just because I haven't taken care of them properly, and I believe in spending more to buy things that will last. Another part of that financial philosophy is to try to save a little money by doing things myself, but only if it's something I can do well and enjoy doing enough to make the time spent worthwhile. So buying real live plants is in many ways not something you'd think I'd do... but I decided to dive in and try to become a gardener anyway.

My first new plant was a Calathea with big green leaves. I didn't read the label too closely, so when I got it home I was a little nervous to read that it likes lots of moisture and a warm room temperature, since my home tends to be a bit on the chilly side with very low humidity in the winter. But though some of the leaves are a little dry on the edges, I have actually been doing pretty well with watering it, probably because it looks so glum and pathetic when I don't. It even survived my vacation, since I had rigged up a plastic water bottle to give it a slow drip. And there are signs that it may have a flower about to bloom.
My other house plant is a dragon plant, I think-- this was another one that I just bought because I liked the look of it, without checking the tag. When I got home, I discovered that it didn't even have a tag, so I had no idea what it was or how to care for it. Luckily I have a small guidebook to houseplants, and I think I managed to identify it. Even if it's not a dragon plant, it seems to be thriving with a little water once or twice a week.
Then there is my herb garden-- these are my only outdoor plants so far. I bought 5 little plants and arranged them in a rectangular planter. I have peppermint, sage, basil, lemon verbena, and lavender. So far they seem to be doing well-- the basil and sage seem particulary lush, and I'm looking forward to actually using some bits of them to cook with.
All in all, I've spent about $40 on plants, and probably another $40 on pots, a plant stand and soil. But in the meantime, I have been observing various neighbors who have far more elaborate gardens with trees and vegetables and vines, and every weekend I'm itching to buy more plants-- this could become an expensive obsession! I also should find some good books or websites with gardening advice, so I can protect my investments by actually learning how to properly care for them. If anyone has any suggestions for good container plants for a city balcony that gets full sun all afternoon, let me know!


Anonymous said...

Some places, like Home Depot, offer a 1 year guarantee on larger plants you buy, so this "insurance" might be helpful while developing your green thumb.

Anonymous said...

I am terrible with plants but my mom really does have a green thumb. One thing I've noticed is that, instead of buying big plants, she gets several small ones, and over time they grow - and often wind up being divided into multiple pots, in which they grow still more. So, instead of dropping a ton of money on one big plant, it might be a better investment to get several small ones.

Chance said...

I've done a lot of apartment gardening and I love it. There are a lot of books about how to do it (key word: apartment) but you don't need them to get a feel for if you like it or not. Go slow. Mess around. Do things on the cheap until you get a feel for it.

If I were going to pick one plant for a city balcony with sun it would be a cherry tomato plant. Get a 5 gallon bucket, the cheap kind they sell in hardware stores, drill a hole in the bottom and fill it with top soil. Potting soil is sort of lightweight so just get a bag of top soil.

Tomato plants have deep roots. Buy a cherry tomato start. They usually sell them in six paks and you only need one or maybe two, try to talk them into sellin you just two or give the other four away to friends. Plant and water.

You may need to stake them later, so keep your eyes peeled for something on the street that would be a suitable stake (broomstick, piece of bamboo, skinny piece of wood) and tie plant to stake very loosly with a plastic bag cut into strips if needed.

Flowering and cherry tomatoes will ensue. Pick sunwarmed tomatoes, slice lengthwise, add some of your basil, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt. Divine.

You can also get a clamp on window box (for the balcony rail) for lettuce. Lettuce doesn't like high sun though, so if you don't have a partial shade place go ahead so plant a bell pepper or two (buy plants)and some radishes (from seed). Radishes are good to go in 40 days and add thin slices of them to your cherry tomato salad.

If you want something really silly, plant a sunflower (in a 5 gal bucket) you will laugh out loud when you look up at your balconey and see its big old head turned to the sun. If you get to the seeds before the birds do, you will like them too. Toasted and added to salad.

These are just a couple of ideas, once you get going you are in deep trouble. Gardening is truly addictive. I used to garden on my porch in Boston and ate salads all summer I grew myself. After this season is over, you can figure out what worked and what didn't, read the apartment gardening books over the winter and dream...

Anonymous said...

Nasturnium: vine-like tendrils will climb up a stick and you can actually eat the flowers, put them as a pretty garnish in a salad.

Tiredbuthappy said...

I am a really abysmal gardener but I love it.

I have a neighbor with a really amazing container garden, and he gave me a tip I'll pass along--for plants that fruit (especially tomatoes) you should put the entire planter in a tray of water. So you plant your tomato in your five gallon bucket with holes drilled in the bottom, and then you place the whole thing in a shallow tub of some kind and fill it with water. That way, the water absorbs into the soil through the little holes and you don't have to water quite so often.

This year I'm trying out growing a tomato in a self-watering planter from Gardener's Supply, but those are kinda expensive. I wouldn't recommend investing in those until you get really obsessed with this.

Another good no-brainer houseplant--a pathos. They have long trailing tendrils, so I keep a couple on top of my fridge and the green vines trail over the side of the fridge. I also have a few hanging up around my house. They're great for cleaning the air, they're cheap, they divide easily (root a shoot in water), and they're really hard to kill.