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How Does My Garden Grow? Seriously, how?

Somebody went to the garden store…

What happens when a confirmed black-thumb acquires a newly-cemented backyard? Container gardening a la Three Stooges!

Stephen’s been living in this apartment for something like 17 years. It’s on the ground floor, and there’s a back door off the kitchen. But until about four months ago, we opened it only for ventilation: Lurking on the other side was a jungle, composed of five-foot-tall weeds growing out of dangerously broken cement. Rather than mountains, the terrain was studded with auto parts courtesy of the body shop next door. And rather than rhinos or jaguars or whatever wildlife you’d expect to find in the jungle, there were feral cats. Oh, and rats, let’s not forget the rats.

But then, a genuine Brooklyn Miracle: The landlady’s daughter took over managing the building, and in short order evicted the auto body shop, cleared all the crap out of the backyard, and re-cemented the surface. As of last fall, we now have private access to a brick-walled, C-shaped nook.

One leg of the “C”

I wasted no time, once the workers left. First acquisition: a big ol’ Weber grill. Second acquisition: The planters you see below, bought second-hand from a botanist who was relocating to the west coast. Several of them have compost-rich, organic soil, and a few even have plants. I distinctly remember her telling me what she was growing in those containers, with instructions for how to get them through the winter. There was mint, and strawberries, and raspberries. I pictured myself plucking a juicy red berry, warm from the sun, and popping it into my mouth.

And then I did what I always do: I thought I’d remember stuff, ignoring the fact that since becoming a mother, my brain has taken on distinctly sieve-like attributes. I took notes on what she told me, but I neglected to mark which planter held which plant. So here we are, several weeks into what seems to be an early spring, and stuff is growing. I know, it’s exciting! But I can’t for the life of me tell what’s an actual plant and what’s a weed.

Did I mention I’ve never successfully grown so much as a fern? Stephen had a few plants when I moved in here, and within a matter of months my poisonous touch had killed them all.

At first I thought these were the strawberries, but a quick sniff set me straight: mint.

Which means that this lovely young thing, which I thought was mint but in fact has no discernible smell, is most likely a berry plant. But which one?

This one, I have no idea. None. For a minute I thought it might be purslane, but a) the botanist didn’t tell me she was giving me any; and b) the leaves don’t have that thick, succulent look to them. Suggestions? Is it a weed?

And then we have this which is, I dunno, an herb? A flower? Clover?

And is this more of the same? They’re similar, but I’m not sure if they’re identical.

Truly, I am a dunce when it comes to this stuff. I don’t know what I was thinking, back when I acquired these planters. Oh wait, yes I do: I thought that perhaps if Harry helped me to grow some new foods (think: vegetables), he’d actually want to eat them. That pipe dream lingers on, so this weekend I went shopping at Rose Red & Lavender, the local garden store, and picked up the starter kit and seeds you see at the top of the page. I admit, part of me bought those seeds because I just loved the packaging. But really, they’re all recommended for container gardening, and in particular city gardening.

rooftop ready seeds new york city

Except for the garden-variety (ahem) fennel, these are from Rooftop Ready Seeds, a small company based right here in Brooklyn. They’re culled from plants grown in New York City, on rooftops, in containers. Perfect.

hudson valley seed library

And the ones pictured above are from Hudson Valley Seed Library, another local company (though this time from actual, in-the-ground farms). The packages are just stunning. Plus c’mon, what New Yorker can resist a tomato actually named “New Yorker”?

As I understand it, I’m supposed to moisten the little pods in the Jump Start seed starter thingy, and then plunk a couple seeds in each. Put the lid on, and let it sit a while. When the sprouts are a few inches high, transplant into my containers. Done.

Um, yeah. Except for the small matter of the already-sprouting foliage in said containers. I have no idea what to save and what to yank. Or, frankly, how to yank properly. I have dim memories of weeding a small vegetable garden with my dad when I was a kid, but that was, y’know, at least a decade ago.

So, please help me. Can you identify any of those sprouting things above? If they’re weeds, how thorough do I need to be when removing them from the pots? I’m pretty sure if I leave roots behind it’ll just grow back, right? Any other general gardening tips for me?

I’m all ears.

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Susan

    That berry is a rasberry, don’t pull it out!
    The others look like herbs, but it’s hard (for me) to say from a photo. Try picking one leaf and crushing it between your fingers, then smell. That may help you identify a familiar fragrance.
    With all those beautiful seeds, you’re gonna need more pots.
    By the way, my picky eater has helped me grow plenty. He loves to dig and plant seeds and help water and pick. But when it comes to tasting? No. Still won’t do it. So don’t hold your breath. Be glad he can learn how food grows.
    and congratulations on your outdoor space! Enjoy it, whatever it produces.

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Oh Susan, I am 99% sure that Harry’s not going to eat any of this. He’ll enjoy gardening with me, for sure, but I just don’t see him plucking a tiny yellow tomato off the vine & popping it into his mouth… Sigh.

  2. Beth

    Hey Deb, do you have a copy of the Bountiful Container? It helped me coax quite a harvest out of my Los Angeles balcony… pre-baby… who is now three…

    I do aspire to one day get back to container gardening! Maybe this will be my inspiration!

    1. Debbie Koenig

      I don’t have that one, Beth! Just borrowed The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible from the library, which looks promising. Of course, finding the time to read it is another matter…

  3. Ellen

    The “most likely a berry plant” is your raspberry, they get thorny and like to climb so be prepared. And the two that look similar look like oregano to me. I’d crush a leaf to smell it rather than tasting to ID it unless you are reasonably sure it’s a possibility.

    If you are starting seeds in the pods, you can clear out anything that you are unsure of in the pots – if you lose something you wanted in the weeding you can always get more seed/lings!

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Thanks, Ellen! When you say “clear out” do you mean dump the soil & start anew, or just weed really well & remove every scrap of everything? This is how much of a beginner I am. 🙂

      1. Ellen

        I’d keep the soil and just weed. It sounds like the soil you inherited is fantastic, and that’s the toughest part of any gardening – getting good soil.

        I do all of my vegetable gardening in containers just for the convenience even though we have a half-acre lot. As long as your container is deep enough for the roots and you have good soil, you can grow almost anything. Plants that go up (cucumbers, tomatoes, and all kinds of beans) are nice because they give you the feel of a “real” garden with the height. Sugar snap peas are our favorite because the flowers are pretty, you can toss shoots in salads, the peas of course, and they grow fast so little ones get almost instant gratification for planting something. 🙂

        1. Debbie Koenig

          Ooo, sugar snap peas: good idea! I’m going to try some cukes, too, hopefully one of those small, thin-skinned varieties.

  4. I’m going to disagree with Ellen a bit. If you determine that some of the plants are weeds, I suggest that you dump the soil out, pulling the plant/roots out and work in some fresh soil. Don’t get rid of the old soil, but it may need to be replenished. Get a bag of good potting soil (I like Fox Farms) and mix it about 1/2 and 1/2 with the old soil.

    Clearly, you will need more containers. If you don’t want to spend a bunch of money, see if your local bakery has plastic buckets. Mine sells them for $2-3 a piece. You can spray paint them to look more like terra cotta if you like, then all you need is a drain hole in the bottom. Fill them with more of that potting soil and viola!

    You’ll be so excited when your seeds start to sprout!

  5. Roxanne

    I’m so excited for you. I have a small hobby greenhouse (about 10 x 12) because here at 8,500 feet above sea level the growing season is crazy short. I do have to big raised beds that my hubby made for me (stacked like bunk beds), but the rest I grow in pots … including tomatoes and lots of herbs. I HIGHLY recommend buying fairly large tomato plants, rather than trying to grow them from seed.

    I’m not good at IDing stuff either, so I pencil in (right on the pot) what I’ve planted so that I don’t forget.

  6. Susanne

    Strong suggestion: Get yourself a compost bin to keep in a corner. It will recycle your kitchen scraps and produce the best medium ever for gardening.

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Susanne, I’ve thought about this (well, for a few seconds anyway) and I’m intimidated. Taking on the garden itself seems like all I can handle right now! Next year, though, I’m getting me some worms.

  7. Elisa

    For a virgin gardener, starting with seeds is a waste of money.
    As to your containers, what you have there is all weeds. Dump each container onto newspapers, remove anything green growing. Wash the containers, fill in with a mixture of existing dirt and manure. Wait few more weeks (there’s still the possibility of frost) buy few tomato plants, peppers, basil, etc.

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Too late, re: starting with seeds! As for the plants, I’m quite sure that two of them aren’t weeds–there’s definitely a mint plant, and what others have said are raspberries. I know the botanist gave me both of those, as well as strawberries!

  8. Betty

    Oregano and maybe margoram? We grew cucumbers in a hanging upside down bucket. I’m sure you could grow then in a rightside up bucket, using a tomato cage as support. I’m going to do that this year. My mother-in-law grows eggplants in large containers on her deck.

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