Urban Gardening 101–New York, NY

It’s the end of May, and gardeners everywhere are flocking to local nurseries and farms to choose summer plantings and become one with the messy soil of their backyard. As a city dweller, I only have a teeny-tiny piece (about 5 ft x 2.5 ft) of private outdoor space in my life–not counting the many gorgeous parks and river paths that are just outside of our front door and our beautiful shared roof deck. Since I love flowers and gardening, this might seem less than ideal, but I wouldn’t trade the urban bustle–not yet at least–for a suburban yard. (Would I take a huge outdoor city terrace? Sure, but I’ll keep dreaming!) I absolutely love the convenience of city livin’- from running across the street to the bodega as I’m cooking dinner because I forgot to buy milk, to walking my daughter to school, and having my dry cleaning, food, and EVERYTHING delivered right to our door. But giving up gardening space is the trade off.

However, each May I set out to beautify my sliver of outdoor space with window boxes. Some might not even call it a space– it’s the top of a big bay window (thank you architecture!) and is only accessible through our center living room window. Getting the flowers planted each year is a bit of an ordeal, one that causes many eye-rolls from my husband, but here’s how it goes:

  • I purchase the plants in Connecticut for the best selection and price (shout out to Moscarillo’s), load up our already jammed car trunk, and then drive them back to our urban digs 4 stories up in the sky. Flower choice is also limiting, since our window is north facing and only receives early morning sunlight. I always choose jazzy colors, like orange, pink, and purple. Over the years, I’ve figured out what thrives best, but each year I’m tempted to get something new and different. And each year I learn my lesson–to stick to what works–three years ago, I tried rosemary, which I knew needed more sunlight, and two years ago I tried gerbera daisies. Both were an epic fail. This year I’m sticking to the classics: begonias, basil, a pretty creeping purple petunia (appropriately titled Callie Dark Blue after my daughter), and pink verbena. Ivy, mint, and impatiens have also worked well in the past.
  • In multiple trips, I schlep the flowers and bags of soil up to our 4th floor apartment (with help of eye-rolling hubby).  This year it took me three days to get to the planting, so the flowers ended up in our bathtub for a bit, where I could easily water them and not make a mess!
  • Once I’m ready to dirty up the living room, I place a clear painting tarp down on the floor, so I can make a mess on it while planting, and then roll it up for easy cleanup. I carefully maneuver my three planters inside through the narrow window. Regretfully, I’ve left them out all winter and they’re now filled with dead plants and rock hard soil. I empty them, aka, messily fill a garbage bag with last year’s summer color and happiness, which are now bone dry and sad.
  • I fill the boxes with good, fresh container soil, and then carefully arrange and re-arrange where each plant should go. The water reserves on each box have to face the front center window for watering access, while the plants that spread have to go on the outside so they can grow gracefully over the edge of the bay window. The basil must be in the exact middle where it’s easily accessible to cut from my center window, and where it will grow tall enough to block our view of the ugly 1960’s building across the street! It’s a lot of planning, but once it’s all figured out and color coordinated, I go ahead and dig in.
  • Watering. There’s no way around it, it’s a total PITA. I have no water source in the front of our long, narrow apartment, so I fill gallon milk containers and 2L soda bottles in our tub and then huff them out to the living room. This usually results in several trips each week and lots of dripping water on our shiny new hardwood floors. I dream of having a hose! Because of this, I use special window boxes that have a water reserve area in the bottom. These also come in handy as we vacation a lot during the hot summer months and I know the flowers can hold out for four-ish days without me having to harass a neighbor to water our plants.
  • Final step: enjoy! All summer I can reach out the window and snip basil for fresh pesto, lemon mint for homemade lemonade, or simply smile at my own personal splash of color that accentuates my view of bustling Amsterdam Avenue.

City Gardening Tips:

  • Choose plants wisely- they should be hardy ones that don’t need a lot of attention and sunlight- they’re hard to get and a pain to plant, so make it count!
  • Use good soil, specifically for containers, and fertilize every few weeks.
  • Buy window boxes that have a water reserve.
  • Make sure the boxes weigh enough or are anchored, to keep them safe for pedestrians below.
  • Plant fresh herbs for use in cooking and summer cocktail. Farm to table? Try windowsill to table!
  • Enjoy the process–those splashes of floral color are your own small piece of summer happiness.