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To Grow or Not To Grow: That is the Question

Growing up in rural Wisconsin, having a garden was just the prudent thing to do. As a child, I took for granted the fresh produce my mother would lovingly grow each summer - it was simply expected. I remember eating handfuls of fresh green beans while splashing in the pool, or painstakingly waiting for those strawberries to ripen so I could savor them still warm from the sun.

As I've grown older, and have lived many years away from home without my mother's garden, I've realized just how precious those memories are - and how much I miss them. So, a couple of years ago, I started growing things. Notice I did not say I started my own garden. At the time, I lived in Chicago, in an apartment. Now I live in New Orleans in an apartment. Apartments on not quite conducive to gardening, but I've found that almost wherever you are, you can grow things.

I started with the easiest indoor plants: herbs. A bit of basil, some rosemary, perhaps some thyme and sage. Whatever I managed not to kill, provided a nice addition to my evening meals. I stand by the fact that adding fresh herbs as a garnish makes almost any meal better. But growing these indoor herbs got me excited to try growing more. So off to the garden store I went to buy some 3-gallon pots and potting soil. That first year I planted swiss chard and one cherry tomato plant. It was tough. I kept the plant outside near the door to my apartment building. There was no hose or water access, so I had to fill a large watering can in my apartment and carry it downstairs in order to water the plants. I also planted 3 swiss chard plants per container (WAY too many), and thus my yield that first year wasn't great. But I felt good that I had kept the plants alive.

The next year, I had moved to an apartment with a south facing balcony. Hooray!! In the upper midwest, south facing garden space is prime because that's how your garden will get the most sunlight each day. I increased the number of pots, bought more potting soil, and visited my local garden center. I bought mostly tomatoes and peppers, with some leafy greens thrown in for variety. To say that year 2 went better than year 1 would be an understatement. It seemed we were harvesting something from our little potted, balcony garden almost every day during the summer! It was fantastic!!

(Sweet pepper blossoms about to open)

(Great White tomato from my patio garden)

(Red Robin tomatoes are so easy to grow - they reseed themselves!!)

(A handful of Red Robin cherry tomatoes from my patio garden)

Now I've moved to New Orleans. Along with a much longer growing season (almost continuous) there also comes more pests and diseases to combat with the hot and humid weather. It is an adjustment to be sure, but I'm up for the challenge! As you probably know already, I'm a researcher by nature, so I've done quite a bit of homework in trying to figure out how to outsmart the vine borers (plant early!) and blossom-end rot (calcium!).

But I've also been experimenting with different types of growing things. Living in New Orleans presents opportunities for urban foraging almost year-round. This winter, I found a HUGE kumquat tree down the street, so I picked a bunch of kumquats and made kumquat marmalade. It was delish! So good that I thought I'd like my own kumquat tree. So I looked up how to grow your own, and it's about as easy as saving a seed from a kumquat, sprouting it in damp paper towel, and planting it in a small container! It won't bear fruit for 3-5 years, but in the meantime I can forage from the neighbor's tree :)

(The beginnings of my very own kumquat tree!)

I've also started growing microgreens intermittently. Microgreens are a great way to cure the need for something fresh in the midst of winter, as they are ready to harvest in 21 days or less, and all you need are the seeds, a flat pan or plastic container, and sunlight (or a grow light). I use compostable grow mats instead of potting soil (it just keeps things cleaner) and the grow lights that I use for seed starting, and voila! In just a couple weeks I've got microgreens to use as a garnish or add to salads.

This year, I've also experimented with starting all of my garden plants from seed. I purchased seeds from a couple different sources (Baker Creek Seeds, Amazon, David's Seeds) and used seeds that I saved from my tomatoes last year. I'm happy to report that as of now, I'm about a week away from transplanting most of my plants into their outdoor containers! Yay! This year's variety includes: Pink Caspian tomatoes, Green Zebra tomatoes, Red Robin tomatoes, Tiny Sungolds, Costoluto Genovese, Long Italian eggplant, Habanada peppers (like Habaneros but not spicy), Alaku Sarga Szentes peppers, Jimmy Nardello peppers, Candy Roaster squash, Red Kuri squash, Kabocha squash, Amarillo carrots, Parisian carrots, Okra, Red Roselle, Yukon Gold potatoes, Fava Beans, Green Beans, Snow Peas, Black Spanish radishes, two types of lettuce and my Cayennetta Peppers.

It's easy to get swept up in the beauty of the backyard gardens you see on Instagram or Pinterest. But it doesn't happen overnight. Even if you live in an apartment and all you have is a windowsill, you can still grow something that will add immeasurable value to your life. All you have to do is start.

Good luck!


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