Unlikely Sanctuary

IMG_3397Outside our kitchen door is a sanctuary of sorts. It is a space only slightly larger than our small bathroom! Believe it or not, though, this smallish space was one of the reasons we chose this apartment. (The other reason was that we were soon to be homeless if we kept waiting for the perfect apartment to be listed.)

Though its 180-degree views include the bare brick backside of a neighboring building and a full view of the always-inspiring giant dumpster, this balcony is our only piece of sky and bit of earth. We’re so very fortunate that it’s south-facing, too. Since the building is oddly shaped, though, even the southern exposure leaves us with only a few spots that can be considered “full sun”; everything else is either “part sun” or just barely passable as “part shade”.

In 2009, when I was unable to get a community garden plot here in town (I was wait-listed), I decided that I was going to turn our balcony into a giant container garden. After talking with James about it and also looking at a few harsh realities, I removed the word “giant” from the plans and got to work. That first year, we hauled nine giant cinder blocks, about 20 containers of varying size, and countless sacks of potting soil and compost up three flights of very unforgiving stairs. IMG_3491Once that bit of misery was over, however, we were rewarded with an urban “oasis” right at our back door. We grew all sorts of things — even some vegetables.

Back in 2010, I was finally afforded an opportunity to get my hands in some real dirt when James and I took over an 11’x44′ garden plot in Elgin, IL. (If you want to read more about that chapter of unbridled produce and sweaty glee, check out the posts under “Big Garden Project“.) Since I was so busy with the planning, execution, and tending of the garden plot, our balcony garden took a very distant back seat.

This year, however, there is no “Big Garden Project”. The price of gasoline, the hunt for a new home, and just the sheer amount of time it took to get to the garden were the three biggest roadblocks to continuing the big garden. While I can already see that I’m going to miss all of those homegrown tomatoes, homemade pickles, and that very obvious beaming pride that came from IMG_3495coddling several yummy pumpkins into being, I’ve had to scale down once again and make this tiny balcony my sole outlet for gardening.

But, that’s not to say that it’s a terrible last resort. Having had my first full-on gardening experience has only sharpened my enjoyment of tending plants and even encouraged trying my hand at garden design. In that light, container gardening may be one of the best ways to continue learning. While it is a much more controlled environment than a plot of earth, container gardening is a chance to get up close and personal with every single plant and know everything about it. And the best part: plants are so much easier to move around in containers!

So, without further ado, meet the cast of this year’s Balcony Garden:

Rather than pull out all of the grow lights, this past February, turning our sunroom into a greenhouse (again), I opted to only grow two varieties of plant from seed started indoors: petunias and gazanias. I chose petunias because they’re one of James’ favorites and also because they’re so easygoing — getting along in full sun or part sun without much complaint and with few pest problems. I chose gazanias because they were so eye-catching in the seed catalog. They’re a little daisy-like in appearance and I’m in love with the variety of colors and patterns that have bloomed, so far.


I’ve been taking care of the same four cutesy chrysanthemum plants since 2008; I always put them in a sheltered place to overwinter on the balcony. I had saved several plants from last year’s garden by bringing them indoors for the winter: rosemary, sage, flat-leaf parsley, and catnip.


For the rest of the garden, I wanted to grow some very select herbs: marjoram, thyme, tarragon, basil, lavender, and anise hyssop. These, I ordered from a very spiffy supplier or picked up at a local home and garden store since most of them (with the exception of basil) are very fussy or just plain slow to grow from seed.

Totally as impulse buys, we’ve also got a spectacular shooting-star hydrangea and two white-flowering delphiniums. Hopefully we’ll have found a new home before winter comes; the hydrangea is not hardy for this area and will have to come indoors (and we don’t have room!).


Lastly — because they’re one of my favorite flowers — I direct seeded two varieties of cosmos. After enduring the dark and dreary days of earlier spring, they’re finally starting to poke their fuzzy green heads above ground. One variety I planted was the commonly seen mix of white, pink, and red. The other variety was a mix of beautiful autumnal colors which I’m looking forward to seeing.

Now that spring is in full swing and the temperatures are getting warmer every day, all of the plants are in place and are coming along nicely. Unfortunately, I’ve been visited by the same aphids that plagued our impatiens and pansies, last year. This year, since they had neither impatiens nor pansies to pillage, the aphids have taken a liking to the gazanias. But, thanks to insecticidal soap and the lessons I learned last year, they will not ruin my fun!


We’ve also been able to enjoy quite a few breakfasts and dinners al fresco, so far this spring. And, without the need to commute all the way out to a garden plot, I can now come home to my own little garden sanctuary — a mug of herbal tea or coffee, my laptop or a good book, and I’m all set! I’ll be sure to post updates on the garden’s progress as the season progresses. Happy Spring!


~ by Jason on May 23, 2011.

4 Responses to “Unlikely Sanctuary”

  1. You had me at the burger…

  2. Your balcony looks great! I am a little sad to hear that you won’t be returning to your plot again this year. I really enjoyed reading about that adventure last year, but you’ve made a really cozy nook here! Lovely post.

    • Thanks! Though I do already miss the Big Garden, for sure, it’s nice to have a little garden getaway of some sort. I’m hoping to get the nerve to try and strike up a deal with some farmers at the farmer’s market, this year, so I can scurry away with a bushel or two of tomatoes for a bulk price. Home-canned tomatoes are GOLD! Ach!

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