Saturday, April 4, 2009

Operation Salad: Take 1

I have a keen recollection of a conversation that transpired on a houseboat shanty on the Thames that my friend Laura was living on. Her friend Somerset was raving about the salads she was growing in pots in her garden. Fresh lettuce, she enthused, was the most glorious thing on a hot summer's day. When I moved to an apartment with a roof deck last fall, this salad concept remained at the back of my mind.

And now that winter seems to have finally thawed, and the neighborhood is bright with forsythias and clusters of daffodils, I decided to take action. Despite a limited amount of gardening experience, I was nevertheless eager to start my little urban garden from seed. So I traipsed along to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and bought some organic dirt and a few Seeds of Change packets -- chives, basil, red ridinghood lettuce (which is supposed to tolerate sunny rooftop climes) and beetberry (whose leaves are supposedly tasty.) On Thursday, however, I was slightly disheartened to read in the NY Times Home & Garden section that this is the biggest conglomerate of organic seed sellers in the country. So much for mom and pop seeds. But then I happened to pop by the co-op later that day and discovered that they sell Fedco seeds which were not only produced on a smaller scale but are also designed to be planted in Maine's hardy northern climes. The more rugged the seeds, the better, I figure. And they cost only 98 cents per packet, about a quarter of the price of Seeds of Change. So I scored some "Pink Lettucy Mustard" Greens, and some Sweet Pea flowers, which are now happily installed in a pot of soil on my fire escape.

I had been saving a few empty egg cartons to start my seedlings in, but was dismayed to realize that the 12 slots per carton would only technically accommodate about 24 seeds. Apparently, you are only supposed to plant a couple of seeds per little soil nodule. Since each seed packet holds about 50 seeds, I began to panic. We would have to eat a lot of eggs -- and fast -- in order to free up the kind of space required by my recent seed purchases. I quickly came to my senses and dashed out to the hardware store to buy a tray of 60 starter cells made of cardboard-y stuff that supposedly disintegrates when planted in dirt. I also decided that given my inexperience, I would seed each cell with say, 4 or 5 seeds, just in case. I hope that I do not come to regret this unorthodox decision. Apparently, the thing to do is wait until the seeds begin to sprout and then cut back all but the strongest seedling so that if can flourish fully in its cell before being transferred to the garden, ahem, terra cotta pot on the roof.

At the hardware store, I checked out the inventory of said pots. The pickings were slim, but the lady in charge assured me that she would be getting in a new shipment in a week or so. I inquired about a couple of quirky looking pots in the corner -- one blue and white glazed, with minor crack down the side, the other quite shallow and attractively polka-dotted green. The lady explained that they were just left-overs from last year and offered them to me for free. Score. Since they did not have holes in the bottom for drainage, however, she suggested that I fill the bottoms with pebbles. I then bought a $5 bag of rocks, which felt rather odd, but never mind. I have a feeling that that foraging for rocks in Prospect Park is more challenging and/or illicit than it sounds.I began by filling an egg carton with dirt and then poking a few (ok, several) chive seeds into each cell. I then watered the carton profusely, as the chive packet suggested that "consistent, even moisture" is essential in the sprouting phase. The dirt seemed to repel the water, however, and I wound up having to kind of stir each pot to distribute the water with the end of a fork. Concerned that the seeds were buried deeper than the recommended 1/4 inch, I decided to revise my tactic and pre-water the soil going forward. I dumped a bunch of soil into a Ziploc baggie and watered it, squeezing it like dough. I then proceeded to pack it into each cell and rather gingerly add the seed. Although a slightly worrying amount of dirt that washed down my kitchen sink, I reckon that this method was superior.

So now my seeds are all set up on windowsills around my apartment. Nothing much seems to have happened yet. I spritz them daily and hope that something green transpires shortly. In the meanwhile, I am considering composting.