Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Rental Home and Garden by Jenna Messier

Just because you rent your home or apartment, doesn’t mean that your yard can’t be fabulous, fruitful and a haven for humans and wildlife! I have been gardening at my apartment in West Haven, CT for two seasons now and with small inputs over time, the property is really shaping up. The lot is .3 acres and half of it is a driveway and a construction equipment lot - with kid’s toys dispersed across the yard. So I have to use my space wisely.  I have spent around $350 this year for inputs; mostly on organic potting soil, seeds and containers.  Here is a photo journal, sharing my plants and experience with homeowners and renters alike.

 Here is an overall view of my veggie garden. It is around 25 X 8ft.  I expanded it by 10 feet this spring to grow more greens and tomatoes.  Last year, I incorporated a tractor-scoop of compost from Common Ground High School. This year I am using my own compost to which I added coconut coir for its peat-like qualities.

On Sunday morning, don’t come between me and my compost pile!  It is an earthly ritual which I truly enjoy, opening up my two bins and
turning the compost with a pitchfork, communing with the worms and last week’s leftovers.  Adding in water and some sort of carbon like leaves, straw or paper, working to create the perfect mix. Every three to six months, it is time to sift the oldest compost pile and harvest the soft and friable soil.  Hint: In the fall, be sure to glean the paper bags full of leaves from your neighbors, as they don’t know they are discarding such a hot commodity and will think you are doing them a favor!


What is better than a strawberry patch for kids to pick sweet berries and get excited about gardening?  Last year, I bought $30 of plants and they are cranking out fruit this season. I have given away many strawberry plants to friends and neighbors, too. My son Aadi is in the photo.


I love growing peas. This year, we didn’t make the traditional St. Patrick’s Day planting date due to such cold weather and late snow, but they are nearly ready to harvest.

Tomato volunteer
This is my favorite experiment!  I brought in some compost in January, in order to transplant some young parsley plants, when to my surprise 20 tomato seedlings sprouted and grew like wildfire amidst the winter snowstorms. (Yes, this means my compost was not truly a hot pile.) When they were 3 feet high in March, I could hardly wait to plant them outside. According to my indoor growing experience, these tomato plants should be weak and leggy with not enough hours of daylight to support their growth. Eventually, the plants did weaken and when I planted them in late May, they looked nearly dead.  But eureka, they have revived! They are four feet tall and they are flowering already!

Mixed Greens
Here is my second seeding of greens, with swiss chard, arugula, mizuna, and a mesclun mix.  Don’t forget to re-seed every two weeks to have a continual harvest.  I took three cuttings off my first arugula plants and I pulled them out last week after they bolted.

Garlic and friends
 Despite a late planting in December, I have 5 garlic bulbs growing.  Since they will be harvested in July, I let my red russian kale volunteers stick around for spring salads.  I also planted some tomato seedlings which can take over after the garlic harvest.  I added nasturtiums for color in the garden and in my salad mixes.

Among the swiss chard, I boldly planted some potatoes and squash.  As the early chard fizzles out, there will be room for hilling the potato plants, but the winter squashes will most likely consume the whole space and was probably a bit of a reckless choice.  But who doesn’t want winter squash? Or was it pumpkin seeds?

 When you don’t have enough space, use anything you can find as a planter! This box was left by a previous tenant and I have planted peppers, lemon cucumbers, basil and a few 4 O’Clocks for color.

 I bought an early season blueberry bush and a late season bush, and put each into a planter for easy moving in the future.  I brightened them up with pansies in front and morning glories cannot be seen but are beginning to climb the pole in back.  The flowers
were really pretty in the spring, reminding me of their ornamental charm, in addition to their sweet berries to come.

This old cement planter was on the property, probably too heavy to move.  In front I have mache ready to harvest, pansies for color, and the only two surviving cosmos plants from a flat that was hit by a frost. You must start plants from seed, in order to have an affordable garden.  So spend money on seed flats and even a cheap mini-greenhouse on wheels with 4 shelves and a plastic cover.

Working with the landscape

This yard has two amazing features to be treasured: a grape arbor of old wine grapes and a delightful pair of pear trees – both planted around seventy years ago! It was my first inclination to prune these fruitful relics last year, in order to restore their health.  The pear trees are extremely productive, but the grapes were few and far between. Both had not been pruned in ten years.
Grape Arbor & Bloom

 This arbor had vines to the ground, and last year I pruned all the side shoots and used a ladder to get on top and prune back to a few shoots for each large branch.  This year, I was more lax, and only pruned the sides. 

 I am amazed by the hundreds of flower clusters on the vines this year.  This is my first look at grape flowers.  I may thin out the shoots on top, so the fruit has air flow and light to develop.

Pear tree canopy

These pears are heavenly, and usually are ripe in late July.  Two years ago, we had an epic harvest of pears which we peeled, sliced and cooked down with a bit of lemon juice. This process took around two weeks and spanned many evenings in the kitchen. Then we bagged them up and froze them, lasting a whole year. I created a recipe for pear pie which consists of using fresh ginger, cinnamon and allspice in the pear mixture and topping the pie with oats, flour and a few teaspoons of organic sugar and butter. Yum!  Last year, we had a poor harvest due to a late frost during bloom. 

Last year I pruned the trees heavily, but this year I couldn't find the time and it shows.  Michael Phillips, organic fruit guru, would not approve for sure! But we are thrilled with the heavy fruit set.

Herb Garden
  This new garden is both useful and decorative.  I like having a kitchen garden close to the kitchen, so I moved my chives, mint, oregano and thyme into this sandy native soil steps from my door.  A friend brought me over 3 bags of perennials and I interspersed Evening Primrose and Appalachian Mountain Mint into this garden, now full of color.  Never underestimate the power of ASKING FOR PLANTS!  Fellow gardeners will share, allowing you to expand your palette for free. Just keep paying it forward when your garden becomes a jungle!

The Bad and the Ugly

Honeysuckle – so invasive but so sweet
In full disclosure, my yard has problems, too.  There is a solid hedge of invasive plants around the whole property, wrapped around some old wooden and wire fencing.  Bittersweet, privet, mulberry, Norway maple, with an icing of Japanese honeysuckle, are all intertwined and aggressive.  I have decided not to take on this invasive removal project since I don’t own the property, would have to make agreements
with neighbors, and we would need a real fence.  And for now, the honeysuckle smells so divine!

Enjoy your garden this season! You, too, can have a little paradise in your own back yard with a little sweat and creativity.

Jenna Messier