Spring and summer can bring out garden envy in many apartment dwellers. Some handle the gardening itch by tending to a few house plants. Others, such as Adams Morgan resident Eve Bratman, go a lot further.
After she found out all the spots were taken in her neighborhood's community garden, the former gardening teacher, who worked with community gardens in Chicago for four summers, refused to give up her passion for the earth.
So Bratman, 24, who shares her one-bedroom apartment with her boyfriend, invited some more living creatures into their home when she bought 250 earthworms on eBay.
"I am very interested in sustainable living," said Bratman, who holds a bachelor's degree in environmental studies. "I came up with the idea of using all of the aluminum cans from canned tomatoes or beans and planting seeds in them. I bought worms for indoor composting and am creating dirt by composting."
Bratman has been reluctant to tell her neighbors about the worms she keeps in a four-gallon plastic container underneath her sink for fear of how they might react. But now that her system is thriving, she is proud of it and says she is slowly "coming out" about her worms.
When she realized 250 worms weren't enough to create the dirt she needed for her herb, tomato and pepper plants, Bratman ordered 2,000 more earthworms that are up to five inches long.
She throws food scraps into the worm habitat, which includes moistened leaves and a newspaper covering to keep the worms' bodies at the right temperature. The pound of worms consumes about quarter of a pound of food a week. The digested food "comes out as really rich soil," Bratman said.
Bratman said her composting experiment is working well. With rubber gloves, she separates the soil from the worms and uses it to boost some of her store-bought indoor plants, including a Christmas cactus, five tomato plants, three pepper plants and herbs that include dill, basil, sage and thyme. She grows them in aluminum cans in each room of her fourth-floor apartment and in window boxes that she bought at a local farmer's market.
She hopes that with more time, and thus more composting, she can use solely the dirt she produces in the bin under her sink.
"The worm compost adds to the richness in the soil. You can really tell. People call it black gold. My plants are really dark green. It really works," she said.
Bratman said the plants have livened up her apartment. "I love having plants around me and all the green. It's beautified our apartment and our surroundings," she said.
"It's been a challenge for my creative side to try to figure out ways to create green. It's not quite the same as digging in the dirt, but you know, it's a close second."
It's not necessary to go as far as Bratman has to garden in apartment complexes. Many people are increasingly exploring container gardening, the easiest way for apartment residents to get their gardening fix.
"Container gardening has been one of fastest-growing segments of the gardening world in the last five years," said Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturalist for the National Gardening Association, a Vermont-based nonprofit organization established in 1972.
"What's happening is that people have less space and less time to garden. They don't have as many yards as they used to have. Also, with different interests competing for people's time, container gardening is good because it is not a lot to take care of. There is not a lot of weeding, not insect disease control and not a lot of planting to really work at," Nardozzi said.
"Container gardening is something people can do for 15 minutes after work every day," he said.
Nardozzi said would-be container gardeners should first gauge how much sun their apartment gets to see how much they can plant indoors, on a balcony or patio, or in window boxes.
"If you get at least six hours of sun a day, you can pretty much plant anything there," he said. Normally, south- and west-facing apartments get a lot of sun and north-facing ones get more shade, which limits tenants to certain plants. Staff at local garden centers will be able to help amateurs decide what types of plants to test in containers or window boxes or on balconies or patios. They will also be able to give advice based on the season and light capacity of an apartment and recommend low-maintenance varieties that are good for apartment gardening.
Because container gardening is on the rise, there are many different kinds of containers out there, such as faux terra cotta or self-watering, that can match interior design rather than just the standard green plastic or brown clay pots.
Nardozzi advises people to use their window boxes to grow herbs and annual flowers and to use containers for the likes of tomatoes, beans or small shrubs. In bigger containers, he said, people should consider placing a tall, vertical-growing plant in the middle and smaller plants around the edge so that they cascade down the side. Big upright plants include dracaena or schefflera; cascading plants include lobelia, German ivies or geraniums. African violets and orchids are also popular indoor plants.
Nardozzi suggests that gardeners use potting mix in the containers. If the container is big, there's no need to fill the whole thing with heavy potting soil (or worm-enhanced soil, for that matter). Use packing peanuts in the bottom and then add enough soil to root a plant in 10 inches of soil.
From a design standpoint, container placement is also important.
"The best thing to do, whether in a home, apartment or condo, is creating focal points with plants that create drama. They're as much a part of interior design as a piece of sculpture or something," said Lauren Swezey, a horticulturalist and senior gardening writer for Sunset magazine.
Swezey suggests getting larger plants with outstanding foliage and form and color, such as palms and bamboos or large dracaena, instead of using many little pots. She said gardeners should put the containers in an uncrowded area that gives the plant space to breathe.
Plants can allow apartment-dwellers to create more privacy from their neighbors as well, assuming their landlords allow them to place trellises on balconies or patios. On south-facing walls in particular, morning glory vines and sweet peas grown on mesh netting or trellises act as a visual block that provides both natural beauty and some privacy, Nardozzi said.
"Working in a small, condensed space means that you can mess it up the first time around without many problems," he said. "The great thing about containers is that you can rip them all up, buy new containers and start again."
Just don't forget to water.
Do you have questions, comments or ideas about apartment life? Contact Sara Gebhardt via e-mail at email@example.com or by mail, c/o Real Estate Editor. The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071.