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Green Thumbs Get Inventive
City Dwellers FInd Solutions in Window Boxes and Container Collections

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, August 13, 2009

Suzanna Dennis surveys the fruits of months of tender care: a vegetable garden of vigor, health and bounty.

Five tomato vines form one tangled mass, belying the notion that congested vines are disease-prone. Hers are green and lush and full of trusses of ripening berries. Seven chili peppers are developing their fiery pods, four okra plants are blooming, and two tomatillos have already arrayed their papery lanterns. A zucchini variety named Raven is sprawling nicely, and the miniature white cucumber plant is beginning to produce. Two vines of the heirloom muskmelon Anne Arundel hug the ground. The bed also contains flowering annuals and perennials Dennis started from seed.

All this can be found in the meager 9 by 5 feet of a sidewalk bed on Capitol Hill that, until Dennis transformed it this spring, held the rotting stump of a fallen street tree. "I saw this space lying fallow," she said. "I decided to turn it into a vegetable garden."

As waiting lists for community garden slots expand and the popularity of growing one's own food swells, land-challenged city dwellers have become increasingly inventive in their stabs at urban agriculture.

Christine Moschetti, who lives in a second-floor co-op on 16th Street NW, has a series of window boxes sitting on the window ledges on two sides of her apartment. They grab that one commodity as precious as soil for the urban gardener: sunlight. In an east-facing window box, she has an herb garden kept tame by constant harvesting. The herbs supply fresh flavors to her cooking all summer long.

Moschetti, the former director of a nonprofit organization for crime victims, can raise the window screen and harvest anything she fancies: garden sage, oregano, thyme, creeping rosemary, parsley and basil. In another box, lavender is still in bloom. Inside, shade-tolerant houseplants hang next to windows; others sit on radiators. Moschetti's dining room table is full of baby staghorn ferns and other greenhouse plants, and the transition to the box outside is almost seamless. Sitting in this corner may be all the garden you need.

Suzanne Allan, an urban planner who moved last year from a house in Suffolk, Va., to an apartment in the District's West End, is raising vegetables and herbs on her sixth-floor balcony in five window boxes and six pots. Her inventory includes summer squash, cucumber, tomato, sage, basil, oregano and chives. There are certain advantages to this form of aerial gardening. In her garden in Suffolk, she had to contend with deer, turtles and possums. Seventy feet aboveground, she doesn't even have squirrels, and there are no mosquitoes to worry about. Birds are still a problem, however.

Vegetables grown well in containers tend to have fewer pests and diseases because there has been no buildup of pest populations over the years. Air circulation tends to be better, too, reducing fungal diseases.

You pay a price for this, however, because containers dry out more quickly than garden beds. Allan's balcony faces west and gets the hot afternoon sun. She waters "every day, sometimes twice a day, which is not my ideal situation," she said. In two of the rail boxes she has used a soil mix with water-retaining gel. "I do see a real difference" in water retention. "Next year I will use more of that."

Debra Brunk has small yards in the front and back of her rowhouse in the District's Petworth neighborhood, but through intensive container-gardening on her rear deck and patio she has managed to establish a productive fruit and vegetable garden layered on an ornamental landscape.

She has 30 boxes, containers and growing bags, and the list of edible goodies is formidable, from tomatoes to banana peppers to potatoes. In the spring, she grew peas, lettuces and kale. She recently harvested garlic set into pots last fall and now has 30 bulbs braided in the kitchen for months of use. The potted blueberry produces two cups of berries, perfect for sprinkling on breakfast cereal, and the nine strawberry plants in three window boxes provide an earlier season of berries.

In her tomato pots, Brunk is growing carrots and has started lettuce and beets for a fall crop. This year, for the first time, she has rigged a drip irrigation watering system to the containers, connected to an programmable timer. By growing varieties in containers she has avoided the need for crop rotation, and because the plants are easier to see and reach, "I can do a better job of picking off insects and harvesting. And it allows me to grow larger plants in a more contained way," given the dwarfing effect of container cultivation.

Brunk, a manager for a trade association, makes her own soil mix with compost, coco fiber, perlite and topsoil. She doesn't like ready-made mixes (they can be expensive) because they contain synthetic fertilizers that would thwart her desire to grow organically. With food either from the garden or bought at farmers markets, "we haven't had to buy fruit or vegetables" at the supermarket, she said. "We are trying to do things locally and organic, and we really enjoy it."

Urban gardening may not be large-scale, but the efforts can be significant. For Dennis, converting the vacant tree box was a major physical and logistical undertaking. She rented a pickax for a day in March to remove the remnants of the toppled tree stump and then excavate a "soil" that consisted of clay, gravel and rubble. She had to push a cart loaded with bags of topsoil for seven blocks. But gardening is in her blood. Growing up in Northern California, she started gardening when she was 5.

Her Capitol Hill effort, she concedes, "is a very public form of gardening." It has captured the imagination of her neighbors in a wholly unanticipated way. A woman walks by with her dog and exclaims with delight, "I remember when it was just seeds!"

The risk of people helping themselves to the produce "is a valid concern," Dennis said. "That's why I planted cherry tomatoes, okra, peppers" -- veggies that produce a lot, but successively. A lone beefsteak tomato might be too hard a thing to lose. "But really it hasn't been a problem, and, similarly, people have been very good about keeping their dogs away," said Dennis, a researcher for an international nonprofit organization.

She expects the city to plant a tree in the box in November, when it might be time to try to find a community garden spot.

In several cities in the United States, gardeners have claimed parcels of unused public land for vegetable gardens as a social protest against official neglect or land-use policies. Not so here.

"For me," said Dennis, "I was a gardener without a garden."

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