Urbanites' guide to gardening

With a little sun and TLC, New Yorkers can turn their small spaces into green oases.

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  • Radishes planted in a plastic serving bowl

  • Recycle olive oil and food cannisters as planters--these are filled with chilies

  • Young strawberry plants can be grown on a fire escape or on a windowsill

  • Just add compost and you've got a garden

  • Short on space? Grow herbs in rose pots. Since they are tall, they hold more...

  • Nasturtiums are pretty and edible. Try tossing them into a salad

  • You can have fresh berries for your cereal!

Radishes planted in a plastic serving bowl

Photographs: Heini Schneebeli; (Brooklyn Botanical Garden) Patrick Cullina courtesy of Brooklyn Botanical Garden

So inspired were we by Deborah Schneebeli-Morrell’s new book Organic Crops in Pots: How to Grow Your Own Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs ($24.95) that we asked her for some starter tips on how to grow produce, herbs and flowers in the meager space available to city dwellers.

What are your tips for growing plants when all you have available is a fire escape and a windowsill?
The essentials are good compost kept moist and regularly fed (but not overwatered), light, some sun and, above all, you need to start with healthy, sturdy plants. The enemy to all successful growing, especially at a height, is wind. This will limit the growth of your crops and destabilize the roots.... I would not advise trying to grow in a windy position.

What do you suggest growing?
You can grow almost anything. Certain crops will tolerate some shade, such as strawberries, some salad crops (like rocket and lettuce), and some herbs (mint or chervil). All of the woody Mediterranean herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme, etc.) need warmth and sun, while sweet basil needs warmth but will tolerate a little shade. You can grow small bush tomatoes in a sunny window box along with delicious herbs. Even a large pot of blueberries would do well, but don’t forget to protect (using a net) the berries from birds as they ripen.

Any tips for making those plants more vital?
Always buy healthy-looking young plants or buy your seeds from a good supplier; I favor organic where possible. Keep the compost moist, not wet, and don’t let it dry out. I like to water at the end of the day—it’s my quiet meditation time! Use companion planting with your vegetables to ward off any unwelcome pests. Never use chemical pesticides; they leave an untold legacy on the natural world as well as on human health.

What supplies does an urban gardener really need?
In reality, you don’t need much: one or two carefully chosen containers, some bags of good organic compost, a smaller amount of well-rotted manure—you can often get this from city farms—some seaweed extract for feeding the growing plants, a small trowel-and-fork set, a collection of seeds and/or young plants.I love the idea of recycling containers to be used as pots, found in your book.

What makes a great pot for gardening?
Olive oil cans make excellent containers for growing chilies or pot basil, and I have even grown bell peppers in a reused plastic bicycle basket.Smaller plants will manage to grow in a small container, but slower-growing larger vegetables need a larger container, which can hold more compost. Succulents and cacti will grow well in little earth and need little water, so they are an option for unusual and small containers. Some people may want to use old boots, handbags, etc. as planters but I think this is more of a gimmick than a practical growing solution. Still, if you have a sense of humor, you can try anything that will hold compost and water!


Want some more guidance? Learn which plants can thrive in NYC apartments at “Heartier Houseplants,” a seminar held at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Saturday 14 at 10:30am; $35 for nonmembers, $30 for members. 900 Washington Ave at Eastern Pkwy, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn (718-623-7298, bbg.org)

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