02 October 2012

Urban Farming - Second Summer - How It Went Down

This is what my porch garden looked like back in June.  Oh I had great hopes for a bountiful harvest.

And here's what the porch looked like this past weekend after decommissioning.  The clay pots will be moved down into the basement while the plastic ones, still filled with dirt, will be stacked and covered with tarpaulin.

Some hopes were fulfilled, but - sadly - many were not. We've been having a drought in this area for over a year now.  Last winter was mild with very little snow.  This Spring was relatively dry and the summer saw successive heat waves without much by way of rain in between.

This was as large as the beans ever got - then they faded.  Two thirds of the seeds never sprouted. 

The two pots of basil grew half the height of last years' crop and looked pale and thin all summer. The pepper plants -- on the left in the above and below pics -- looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss story by summer's end, and birthed only 5 scrawny peppers (that tasted bitter).  The rosemary (right below), being heat loving plant, did pretty well though it didn't grow too high.

The only plants that did well were the tomatoes.  I forget what varieties they were -- both "dwarf" brands for porch containers.  They loved the sun and the heat, but were utter water pigs when it came to hydration.  We had tasty, though small, tomatoes from late July until last weekend.

Ann Z., who stopped by to read my urban gardening posts, had some questions about the tomatoes.  I said I'd answer them in this post.  Here's what Ann asked:
"Does the chicken wire work well in both keeping the squirrels at bay and staking the tomato plant? I've been fighting squirrels all summer and am looking for a new way to protect my tomatoes next year. Also, I live in an apartment complex so I want to make the chicken wire look as neat and nice as possible and not be an eyesore for the neighbors. Yours look very cute, do the wires look as unobtrusive in real life, or does the camera make it look not so bad?

"Great, also, if you don't mind letting us know how you manage to reach into the cage for pruning or to harvest tomatoes when they're ripe. Thanks!"

First, thanks Ann for your interest! I had midland success with my potting/staking/protection plan.  Here's what I did [Ack! Just noticed the misspellings! It's late as I wrote this post! ;-) ].

Here's what that looked like early in the summer. It looked tidy and not too messy. Initially, I'd made separate covers of chicken wire for the tops and held the wire cases down with wooden stakes. Inside I used traditional tomato cages.  The chicken wire alone was not strong enough to hold the plants up.

Later in the summer, though, the plants got big, and very top heavy.  I had to remove the tops of the wire cylinders to give the plants room to grow.  I saw no evidence of squirrels until the very last 2 weeks. Whereas I noticed frequent diggings in my flower pots along the front wall of the porch.

The tomatoes ripened one at a time.  To harvest the earlier, lower-down fruit meant I had to remove the wooden stakes and raise the chicken wire enough to reach under and clip the individual tomatoes.  By the end of the summer, I wound up having to "crush down" the wiring - both to get at the fruit and to give the plants more growing space.  

And that's when I saw the first evidence that a squirrel had visited.  Interestingly, it didn't take any tomatoes.  But it did dig a small hole and half bury a chestnut podlet from a neighbor's tree!

So Ann, since the tomatoes grew so well I want to try them again next year, but this is what I will do differently:
  • Use pots with straight rather than slanting-in sides.  As I noted in the schema above, the tines of the inner cage hit against the walls of the pot higher up in the dirt.  It meant the plants didn't have strong support when they got bigger and needed it. Ditto for the wooden stakes that held the wire frame down - there wasn't enough room for me to implant them firmly into the dirt. I may plant tomatoes in the big blue plastic tubs instead. 
  • Squirrels did get into the wire mesh cylinder - but they didn't do anything to the tomato plants!  Still, I might do the same thing I did with the other flower pots that were dug up - which is to lay down a circle-shaped piece of chicken wire or old window screen around the base of the plants as a block.
  • Harvesting was a problem.  When I assembled the chicken wire cylinders I wasn't thinking that I might have to take them apart later to get at the fruit. I thought I could just lift them up.  But the plant grew into both the inner tomato cage and the chicken wire framing - so lifting them up didn't work.  I ended up having to disassemble the whole kit-n-caboodle by the end of the summer.  Moral of story: somehow create an easy-open feature - maybe by using twist ties to hold the edges closed instead of using the wire strands created when I cut the chicken wire.
  •  As for looking nice for the neighbors . . . well Ann, that may be something you'll have to navigate with them.  Vegetable gardens start out cute and small and then get rangy and sprawling once they start producing.  There's no way to get around that.  Maybe if you use all the same style and/or color of pot, or put pots of flowers in between to "prettify" the layout.  Or invite the neighbors to plant something in one of the pots so they feel invested in the project!

Cages and chicken wire -- the latter rolled up to use again next year. (The brick is to keep them from blowing off the porch.  We had some very windy days last week.)

And here's the last look - including the remaining flowering plants: the hardy geraniums, the plant-with-no-name (nice purple fuzzy blooms though!) and  happy, fat mums, compliments of our landlord upstairs!


  1. Sorry the harvest was limited to the tomatoes. I have never tried gardening on my porch. I have been tempted though. Maybe next year if I find affordable pots.

    1. Bill, I've lucked out on pots. Most have been given to me by family and friends when they were moving or downsizing or clearing out their garages. The two big blue tubs I bought this year were on sale for $6.99 each. I got them originally to mix/reinvigorate old soil in. The shiny green pots to either side of the long geraniums planter were part of a 4 for $10 at our local Menards this year. They're plastic actually, but look like glazed ceramic.

      Still, with buying the seeds, plants, chicken wire, and tomato cages I ended up spending nearly $150 -- about what I did to set up last year's less than successful community garden plot. Frustrating, given the low yield. Next year I won't cheap out on the vegetable seeds and might start my own tomato seedlings. The latter will be a challenge as we've no real good space or light inside our flat for that. I hope to recycle the geraniums - my FIL, Professor Science, told me how they put their geraniums in their garage over winter and then replant 'em in the spring.

    2. Great prices on those pots.

      @Dwayne There is one advantage to living where I live when it comes to drought (at least as long as the underground aquifer flows) This is the only place I know where one can live in the city and have city water and still have your own well. Perhaps the one real important thing I liked when I lived in the country: not needing to depend on the city for water.

  2. This summer was a case study in the concept of survival of the fittest here in eastern Kansas. Our drought started almost two years ago. We started losing small shrubs and evergreens along with some random branch die off in the maples before last winter. Our two months of over 100 degree days this summer killed many things. Among the potted herbs, the rosemary survived long enough to be planted in the ground. A curry plant made it through, but even potted sage was stressed.

    I gave up on anything besides herbs and perennials several years ago. Kansas is harsh and I am not disciplined enough to keep veggies alive.

    1. I thought often about you folks, NerdHouse-wise and general region-wise, in the middle states. I think we are seeing the state of things to come. I've been working by increments on "living smaller" in anticipation of needing to adjust to eventual environmental shifts. (That doesn't seem to apply to buying typewriters, apparently!) ;-)


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