In his short essay, The Pleasures of Eating, agrarian writer Wendell Berry argues that city people can begin to reverse what he calls (agri)cultural amnesia by “participat[ing] in food production to the extent that you can. If you have a yard or even just a porch or sunny window, grow something to eat in it. Only by growing some food for yourself can you become acquainted with the beautiful energy cycle that revolves from soil to seed to flower to fruit to food to offal to decay, and around again.”
A lot has changed in the century since Brooklyn’s agricultural heyday. Can the modern Brooklynite follow Berry’s urging? We asked the professionals at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (www.bbg.org or 718.623.7200), who assure us that growing produce right in Brooklyn is easy, even without a plot at the community garden or a claim to your sidewalk tree pit. Imagine savoring spring greens grown on your terrace, cooling down with a bowl of gazpacho on a hot summer afternoon made with tomatoes picked that morning, or seasoning your favorite dish with herbs plucked from your window box. With a little planning, you can indeed grow a tiny crop of produce in your apartment.
Even Brooklyn school kids can tell you that spring is the season for planting. For the novice gardener, seeds can be intimidating. Though they cost more, seedlings (young plants) are an easy way to get a jumpstart (or play catch-up) on your growing season.
Herbs are a best bet if you’re short on space. They’ll grow in a window box or in a pot on a small balcony. Most will thrive in a roomy pot with at least four daily hours of sun and it’s easy to grow two or three varieties together. Just a few leaves will be enough for most recipes.
A few favorites: compact thymes are good for indoor containers; creeping thymes trail prettily over pot edges. Chives grow straight up, like grass (give them a haircut and use snippings as a raw garnish). Mint loves to grow; cut it back and it will thrive; pour boiling water over a few sprigs, steep, and enjoy a cup of homegrown tea. Lemon Verbena is great for this too. (Pick up a readymade herb garden window box at Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s annual Plant Sale, May 3 and 4.)
Yes, you can grow a wide variety of vegetables in pots or hanging baskets. Choose an outdoor spot that gets six to eight hours of full sun per day, and use pots that are at least 12 to 16 inches in diameter. Remember, plants dry out quickly in containers, and small containers dry out fastest. Miniature vegetable varieties are great for confined spaces.
A few favorites: the tomato variety Tiny Tim does well in hanging baskets. Mini eggplant varieties like Mini Bambino, which produce clusters of large lavender flowers followed by tiny, inch-long purple fruits (yes, like tomatoes, eggplants contain seeds and thus are botanically classified as fruits, not vegetables). Carrot varieties such as Parmex and Thumbelina don’t need deep pots. The summer squash Sundrops produces beautiful miniature golden squash on compact plants.
Each spring, farmer Trina Pilonero of Silver Heights Farm sells seedlings that are selected for windowsill agriculture. Find her at Union Square Greenmarket on Wednesday and Saturday.