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Time to get the balcony green

Lemon tree last spring

This lemon and these herbs were growing in my balcony last year.

It’s time to start gardening this year. I’ve been itching to get soil under my nails for quite a while. 

This is the fifth year of re-learning. Four years ago I had a back yard in Cork, Southern Ireland, and it had a gorgeous view over the city, and it was facing South. But it was windy – if it had been wind protected it would have been easier. Anyway. I wanted a patch in the back yard that would have plants, so I grabbed some tools and got started. And I tried with some plants and some of them worked better than others. That’s one of the reasons gardening can be fun – you don’t know how or which plants will love the area you have. The first year was learning to see what would work (even though I had already lived there for four years before that). The next year of course I wished some plants would have been in different locations, but I also got my housemates interested.

The plants that loved it in that back yard in Cork (and I hope they still are there, loved by the people living there now) included parsley and chives. And strawberries. And lupins. And narcisses. Plants I wished would have loved it there – but which probably would love it if they were were in a greenhouse included hot peppers, pineapples (which did produce a pineapple – although indoors), and other exotic plants. Tomatoes grew really large, but perhaps I had picked less than ideal type of tomatoes. 

Backyard in Cork, 2009

This picture was taken in April two years ago. At least the yard was facing South…

I learned enough to get the plants look good in that yard. And then I had to re-learn everything. I know when a plant looks thirsty (one of my housemates didn’t – so I had to instruct him to give one shotglass of water a day for a certain plant etc while I was traveling), but that’s very little when everything changes. No more back yard to use for my garden purposes – now I have a balcony. Bye bye sunny exposure – the balcony is facing North and Northeast, meaning there is no sun at all during the winter time. In less than a month, the morning sun should start to hit the edge of the balcony again. And the climate is radically different: Cork had hardiness zone 10 (like Catania) and sunniness 1 or 2 (very unlike Catania). Here it’s zone 8B, an sunniness cannot be taken into account when it’s barely any sun exposure. At best, in June, there is a bit of sun on the edge of the balcony until 11.30 AM. It’s hot, it’s dry. Cork was wet, and on the hottest days of the year it would reach maybe 25 C (low 80s), cold summer days or hot winter days it was maybe 15 C (50s). Now in summer it can reach over 100 (over 40 C), and in winter it doesn’t get too cold, but there’s no constant winter temperature. 60, 40, 35, 65… now the daily temperatures are hitting 70s (universally measured: t-shirt weather), but nights are still on the 40s. Here when it’s hot, the plants remind me of camels. As soon as the nights start to stay constantly over 55 F, I’ll plant more things outdoors.

In early February it was a few days of freezing here (when there was 4 feet of snow suddenly in Chicago). Snowing, freezing, and really windy. A deadly combination. The sprinkler in the house died, making everyone in the whole building wake up 6 AM on the coldest day of the year. Lovely. I rescued what I could indoors from the plants I had in the balcony. Looks like only catnip of the plants that were outdoors survived. 

Last year was complete relearning to see what would work here. A sago (which I learned is not a palm, and should be kept away from pets), aloe (needs more sun), banana (died of indoors weather). Tiny tom tomatoes, hot peppers of various kinds, herbs (parsley, chives, basil – none of them loved it here). Pineapples (still alive, and freeze scares being over, they are back in the balcony). Papayas (died of winter). Coffee (most died because of winter indoors. Sigh). Lemons, oranges, avocado…

Balcony last year

While I was in Ireland, I had plants on my desk too, and on the kitchen window. Those plants got relocated to work friends when I left, and at least the avocados and oranges were doing great, both grown from seeds.

Now I’m planning what I want to do this year.

I love tropical plants, but not flowers.

What would I want to grow? Pineapples – got some. Lemons – I’m afraid my small tree is dead. I’ll want to get a replacement for the lemon. I’ve always wanted to see a lemon tree from my kitchen, so even if it’s a footlong (sue me, Subway, for using the word…) to start with, it’s still a lemon tree. Of the tiny tree last year I did manage to get some lemons, and those were enough for a home made batch of limoncello. And while I’ve got lemons, oranges, key limes, and grapefruits growing from seed again, it will take forever to get those to a nice size, so while they grow I’ll need at least a lemon tree. Catnip – those are now growing in IKEA FNISS bins, with holes poked in bottom for draining (the lemon tree in the first picture above is in FNISS), so 4 of those will provide plenty of catnip for cat toys. I have some herbs growing that I got from HEB, as starting the plants from seed isn’t easy without sun exposure in the apartment. Rosemary, mint, thyme. — (continued in the comments)