Kid-Safe Indoor (and Outdoor) Apartment Gardening
Q: My wife and I are big fans of your Public Radio show. What started as casual drive time listening has led to us sitting in the parking lot at the grocery store as we eagerly await the Question of the Week at the end of the show. Anyway, OUR question: How can our family get into gardening when we live in a fifth floor apartment in the Old City section of town? We'd like to get some plants into the house and have our older daughter (3 1/2) help us water and care for them. At the same time, we'd like to avoid creating a mud pit for our ten month old to play in as she starts cruising around looking for trouble.
We don't have any outside space; no roof access, no courtyard, no window boxes. Are there some hearty plants that can live entirely indoors, don't require a ton of light, and won't poison a toddler if she happens to eat a leaf or two? Or, if our kids are too young and our living situation too impractical, maybe it's best we take our family circus on the road? Are there garden clubs or groups we can join where both adults and kids can get involved?
---Ryan in Philadelphia
A: What a great question! I absolutely think they should join a community garden, no matter what else they do.
Philadelphia's Community Garden program—made possible in part by proceeds from the annual Philly Flower Show—is exceptional and extensive. Here's an interactive map that shows all the city's gardens. And right now—in the 'off season'—is the perfect time of year to find and claim a spot in one of those gardens (before everybody else thinks about it in the Spring).
But I also like their attitude about growing some things at home, so I asked them some follow-up questions. They already gave up that they live on the fifth floor, so I HAD to ask if there's an elevator, and what kind of space they have.
Here's their reply: "We do have an elevator--we moved here to get away from a fourth floor walk-up! And we have a decent amount of space, but only three south-facing windows and one north-facing."
That actually sounds pretty promising. So I'm going to start with something perfect for beginners with children, and something that's only available at this time of year: those big rosemary plants pruned into the shape of miniature Christmas trees that you see for sale at garden centers and upscale supermarkets around the holidays. The kids will love the smell, and the parents can let them cut and trim a few branches to season a dinner! And with proper care, the plants should survive in a South facing window…
…But as I always warn when I talk about these 'trees', the growers have to cut down big plants to get the desired shape, and then they cram the roots into tiny little pots so they don't take up too much room on display; so everyone who buys one—kids or no kids—needs to re-pot these 'trees' into containers twice as large ASAP; otherwise, these almost-impossible-to-water root-bound beauties won't last a week.
Note: This time of year, mail-order is often your best bet for finding high-quality bagged compost and potting soil, as your (probably close-to-worthless anyway) garden soil is probably frozen (and certainly full of weed seeds), and local garden centers often move their bagged stuff to an out building to make more room to display holiday merchandise. (Then they hold a two day ornament and red ribbon sale right after Christmas and close until March!~)
(Hint: If you DO mail order, get more than you think you'll need right away; you'll save on the shipping, and nobody EVER said, "gee I wish I had less soil free mix and compost".) And this way, it's in the house in plenty of time for seed-starting and repotting in the Spring. (And, by golly, I wouldn't be surprised if there's a $25 off coupon or some other enticement right near these words to help you do just that. Don't know why; I just have a feeling….)*
Anyway, put a couple inches of this wonderful new soil in the new pot, drop the root ball on top and add or remove soil until the old soil line is at the right spot for the new plant pot. Then fill in the sides with more of the new soil, tamp it down gently and let the whole thing sit in a sink with a few inches of water for an hour. Then let it drain. (You can re-use the decorative foil that came with the original pot if you want [and if it fits], but NEVER water with the foil in place or you risk rotting the roots. Always remove, water, drain well and replace.)
And that's the best way to water all your plants going forward. Rock each plant every couple of days. When the pot feels lighter in weight, repeat the watering process. Don't overwater or let water sit inside any decorative wrappers or in protective saucers underneath.
And let's see…what other plants can I recommend?
Indoor citrus! The famous Meyer lemon for starters—and there are also houseplant-sized limes and oranges and such. Again: great fragrance, kid safe and eventually something edible. How cool for a kid to be able to have a slice of home grown lemon in their water? (Be sure to buy good-sized citrus plants that are designed to stay small and houseplant sized. Resist the temptation to grow your own plant from seed you got from a store-bought fruit; the kids will be in college by the time it flowers—and the fruits will be on a full-sized thorny tree.)
All of this can be attempted on South facing windowsills; although I'd prefer placing the plants on sturdy shelving in front of the windows. And maybe they have a perfect spot to hang some four foot long shop lights over a table. Or even better, get one of those indoor growing units with adjustable racks and several levels of built-in lights—then they can also grow salad greens and herbs (AFTER the baby is old enough to know not to pull on it and make it fall down go boom).
If these very basic ideas entice, you'll find lots more in the recent book "Indoor Kitchen Gardening" by Elizabeth Millard. She was a (great) guest on the show recently and her book is the perfect resource for this kind of adventure…..