Growing your own food is a pleasure that even access to a great Farmer’s Market can’t beat. Plucking a ripe strawberry or tomato still warm from the sun offers the best flavor and burst of nutrients. It’s a wonderful venture for those of us seeking to increase organic, unpackaged food in our diets and the best way to avoid the many toxins associated with industrial farming and food processing. For those with a backyard, urban/suburban farming can expand to raising chickens or goats.
Like many balcony farmers, I am limited by the boundaries of railings and distance from the ground. And on hot days, the sun’s reflection off sliding glass doors can fry delicate. To cool things off when the temp rises above ninety, I have an umbrella to shade herbs and lettuces and a bamboo curtain that rolls down to cover the glass. This has the added benefit of keeping the indoors cooler. The bamboo curtain was suggested during last summer’s heat wave by my friend Jen Willis.
While my own balcony measures only 4.5×9 feet, I’ve created an expansive collection of “crops” by going vertical with stacked pots and trellises. As for many urban gardeners in Oregon, my “farm” is expanded by proximity to a nearby hillside covered in blackberry bushes. By mid-August my freezer is stocked with enough luscious berries to hold me until January.
I’ve been farming on this balcony for three summers now and have a wonderful collection of perennial herbs and strawberries and am continually working on expanding my collection of annuals. I’ve learned that cucumbers work, if you don’t mind a carpet of vines and big green leaves on the balcony floor. Zucchinis did not work, however. Perhaps they’re just not happy being constrained in a pot. The usually vigorous squashes never got past a couple of inches before turning brown and giving up.
About a month before the danger of frost (and in Oregon, hail) passes, I start laying out small little pots across window ledges and plant seeds for lettuce, tomatoes, arugula, and ready the packets of peas and edamame. I’ve learned to keep adding new peas, beans, and cilantro seeds to the pots every few weeks during the summer to keep the harvest going.
There are a few critical things to remember to reduce the presence of toxins in your home-grown produce. It is really important to avoid using pesticides, which have been linked to diseases like Parkinson’s and reproductive harm. While growing plants on a balcony can reduce competition from critters like slugs and other pests, some will still find their way up to your farm. Checking your plants for pests often and setting up nets around tomato and strawberry plants can help. And to some extent, it helps to let go and share some of your harvest with the bugs and squirrels. Although I admit that a couple of weeks ago, while waiting for a handful of strawberries to ripen to perfection, I ran outside to chase off a squirrel determined to harvest the shiny red berries.
Getting clean soil is also a top priority. The use of the word “organic” for soils and composts does not mean that they are free of pesticides. It means that they were made from plant or animal sources instead of minerals, which is what “inorganic” fertilizers are made from. So, whenever possible, ask for soils and composts that come from sources untreated by pesticides. It is also important to avoid soils and composts made from “biosolids”, which are the solids formed during sewage treatment. Although these materials are rich in nutrients, they can be contaminated by heavy metals and pharmaceuticals. One study by USGS researchers showed that soy beans grown in biosolids-treated soils were contaminated by the antimicrobial chemical triclosan.
There are other potential sources of toxins to be aware of when you live in multi-family housing. My home owners’ association occasionally treats the tile roof to reduce moss growth. This can result in toxins sprayed onto your plants while they’re working and runoff long after they’re done. I lay a plastic tarp over the garden while they’re spraying and make sure the gutters are working well to direct roof runoff away from my plants. Some HOAs may also spray surrounding landscapes with herbicides or insecticides. Ask to be notified when they do so that you can cover your crop. Better yet, ask them to find non-toxic ways to control pests.
Just a note for those raising chickens and goats, which will also take up toxins from their environment and accumulate them in their meat, eggs, and milk. Though you can’t shield them from all toxins, the same cautions apply as those for growing produce. Clean soil is key. If you live in a home built before the seventies, be extra careful about letting the animals feed near the house where flakes or dust from lead paint may contaminate the soil. Raised beds filled with clean soil down to root depth can help overcome past contamination. Finally, if you live near a busy road, it might not be a good idea to grow food, as dust and exhaust from traffic may result in an overall toxic environment.
I would love to hear your stories about your urban farming adventures! Don’t forget to post pics of your crops.
One response to “Balcony Farm Girl”
This is wonderful, rich stuff. Laurel. I’ve put it in my “July” folder for closer perusal. And I didn’t know you now live in Oregon!