The Visitor

Over the past few days one of the pumpkins on our balcony has been nibbled more and more.

I got the pumpkins and winter squash partly because they’re pretty, but I also plan on eating most of them. I’d rather they weren’t pre-eaten. I’m glad the visitor is sticking with only one.

I’m pretty sure the little visitor is a squirrel, not a bird. Something also dug into one of the flower pots. Birds don’t dig.

Most squirrels can’t make it to our balcony anymore.

It used to be an easy climb. The exterior siding of our building was artificial stucco. It was rough and bumpy and the squirrels could scale it like furry little Spidermen. Ravenous Spidermen that would eat all my tomatoes and some of the plants including strawberry plants (not just the fruit). Sometimes there would be two or three critters on the balcony at one time. (Like they were having a party and laughing at us just a little.)

Now we have smoother siding, and the squirrels can’t scale the walls. So we’ve been mostly squirrel-free.

But there is a tree not far from the balcony. The branches have been growing a little closer each year.

Last year, I saw one squirrel on the balcony one time. We scared each other.

Our cat Fletcher had gone out on the balcony a little earlier. I went outside to let him in and check on plants. I was on the far side of the balcony when I heard a strange noise. I turned around and a squirrel was sitting in the middle of the balcony. He looked as surprised to see me as I was to see him.

I think the squirrel must have been hiding from the cat (maybe behind a plant), and when the cat went inside the squirrel thought the coast was clear. That’s when we spotted each other.

I thought I might be able to chase him off if I ran toward him. I took two quick steps forward.

The squirrel had the same idea at the exact same time. (That’s right, I must be squirrel-brained).

So the squirrel and I ran straight toward each other. Which scared us both, again. We each stopped dead in our tracks and looked at each other for a few long seconds. I thought, “oh, crap.” And I’m pretty sure the squirrel did too.

I stomped my foot a couple of times thinking that might get Mr. Squirrel to leave. He stood frozen.

I thought the squirrel would just run off the side of the building. But, it turned out, that wasn’t the way he got there, and he couldn’t just climb down. He was stuck.

The squirrel needed to get back to the tree which was on the other side of me. He pondered his options as I pondered mine (the door back inside was on the other side of the squirrel).

There are bricks around most of the edge of our balcony. After a few deep breaths, Mr. Squirrel jumped onto the bricks and ran, as fast as his little squirrel legs could carry him, past me and flung himself out into the tree from which he came.

The branch bounced so hard I thought he’d be launched back into the sky. But he held fast and then ran, jumping to another branch and then another. Each swinging in his wake as he chattered away.

That’s when my daughter walked outside. She was laughing. Apparently she could see my shadow from inside (like a giant shadow puppet) and saw the whole episode. “Was there a squirrel or something?” Yep.

Mr. Squirrel stayed away for a while after that. In fact, I didn’t see another on the balcony for the rest of that summer. (The branch he jumped too may have cracked a little.) I could see several squirrels in the tree nearby twittering away.

Well, at least one of the furry little critters has figured out how to get on the balcony again. I saw one squirrel earlier in the summer (he promptly ran back to the tree). Now it appears he’s back. What’s more, he found food, so he’s returned several times now. We appear to be his new favorite fast-food place.

I’m hoping the green tomatoes still on the vine will be left alone. Squirrels usually leave hot peppers alone after the first bite or two.

It’s just the one pumpkin that has been nibbled. But first it was a tiny nibble. Now it’s bigger (and bigger). I’m a little worried that Mr. Squirrel will be bringing friends along for a winter feast. Hopefully, they won’t all be such good jumpers.

But I am worried about next spring and summer. I may have to learn to prune trees (from ten feet away and four floors up).

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Nibble, nibble little, squirrel. Who’s been nibbling on my pumpkin?

 

Copyright 2016 Deb L Kapke

Size Matters: Notes from the Balcony Garden III

In my balcony garden I’ve established that you’ll have better results if you use larger containers. It’s a good idea to use plants that won’t grow too large too (though you can sometimes break that rule). And full sunlight is best for most edible plants, but a few tolerate some shade.

Tomatoes and peppers especially need lots of soil and sun. 

Greens might be a little forgiving with some filtered sunlight. They’ll perform better — grow larger with larger leaves — in larger pots, but some will survive in less-than-ideal containers. Swiss Chard is nutritious and pretty easy to grow.

I tried some lettuce and arugula this year. I only planted a little because I wasn’t sure how it would grow in a container garden on my balcony.

LettuceLittle Gem. I think I meant to grow more than one lettuce and then didn’t. Little Gem is a small variety of romaine. It had a mild taste that would work well with any kind of lettuce mix. I let it get some shade. It may have thrived better with full sun and with more room too. Even with a little shade it still bolted in the heat of summer though not as quickly as my Japanese Giant Red Mustard plants. I should probably have started the lettuce seeds earlier in the season. 

Arugula – I planted two types of arugula. I love that taste of arugula so I was happy that it grew for so long. It seemed to be okay with a little shade too.

One type was, Arugula Rocket Salad (Roquette) which has nice peppery leaves that look a lot like the arugula I might buy in a grocery store. I love the taste of arugula. These grew larger than the other variety. So I guess that’s good. It resisted bolting for a while. I think it started to bold, but has slowed down now. It’s still growing a few small and tasty leaves. 

The other, Arugula Wild Rocky Organic (at least the seeds started organic and I mostly grew the plants that way). This is a fast growing arugula with a strong flavor that I happen to really enjoy. The leaves grew smaller and finer than the other variety. This made the plant look almost frilly or lacy. It adds pretty texture in a salad with other greens. It grew similarly to the other arugula as far as growth and bolting, but more of this variety bolted. But I’m still getting a few small leaves. 

Overall for container gardening I’m not sure the lettuce was worth the fuss. Space is at a premium. I may try it again though because I love the idea of walking out and picking a salad or a few leaves for sandwiches. If I do, I really need to plant earlier.

I love the taste of arugula, so I enjoyed picking a leaf or two for snacking as I did other gardening. I didn’t grow enough to make whole salads for the family, but it was enough for a few leaves added to mixed salads. Since it grew for longer, it was enjoyable to have in my balcony garden. (And it’s not dead yet.)

Arugula – two varieties Rocket Salad (left) and Wild Rocky (right). Picked this morning.

Next I’ll cover herbs.

(Corrected the caption since I had my right and left backwards. You’d think I’d have mastered that by my age. Oops.)
This post is also for NaBloPoMo.

NaBloPoMo November 2016

Size Matters: Notes from the Balcony Garden II

In my previous notes on balcony gardening (here), size matters in container gardening which is pretty much the only way to garden if you want to grow stuff and don’t have a yard or land. Container gardening is also helpful if you have a yard but poor soil or no sunny spots where you do have soil. 

Containers allow you to put your plants in the sun on a patio, balcony, deck, or front porch or even move them (within reason). You can extend the growing season by bring cold-sensitive plants indoors for the first couple of hard frosts.

Along with craving large containers full of soil, some plants are hungry for sunlight. Sun is especially important for tomatoes and peppers. Most edible plants need full sun. But there are a few plants that don’t mind a little shade. 

Greens and some herbs can be a little forgiving if they don’t get all-day sunlight. I usually put the tomato and pepper plants where they will get the most sun, then let the other plants fend for themselves with the scraps of sunlight that fall elsewhere.

I tried two kinds of greens this year along with some lettuce and arugula. I didn’t grow tons of any of them. This year was mostly an experiment to see what will grow and what we’ll enjoy.

Greens

Japanese Giant Red Mustard – This is a variety of mustard plant with a reddish tinge on the large green leaves. It’s pretty. One pot looked more like a decorative plant then an edible. The flavor has a spicy mustard kick which I enjoyed. Leaves can be eaten raw in salads or sandwiches or cooked like Southern greens (which will mellow out that kick). 

These seemed to want larger pots. While they want good light, they will bolt in heat. So strong, hot sunlight can make them bolt faster. Bolting is when a plant sends out a flowering stem that will go to seed. Too little sun and they won’t flourish. But a bit of shade from a tomato plant, for example, can stretch the growing season. Once Mustard goes to seed the leafy parts stop growing and get bitter. But the seeds can be used for seasoning or grinding into mustard paste or powder. 

I might have liked Japanese Giant Red Mustard more if they grew well for longer. They were fine through most of spring but were done by late spring and early summer. On the upside some of the seeds self-planted and are now growing in one of the nearby tomato pots. I’ll see how they do. They aren’t very big yet, so they may not get big enough by the time cold weather kills them. 

Swiss Chard – Bright Lights Variety – This is a variety of Swiss Chard that comes in different color variations. Red, yellow, white, and purple stems have green leaves some of which can be tinged with red. Swiss Chard is in the same family as beets and generally tastes like spinach. It can be eaten raw or cooked. Once they get really big, the stems are best cooked. Or you can cut the stem out and use the leafy parts raw. 

Swiss Chard was by far the best surprise of my leafy greens experiment.

I planted these from young plants in early spring and they are still alive and didn’t bolt. They’ll grow bigger in larger containers, but I left one in the small plastic container it came in and it’s not dead yet. So these are hearty plants! (Maybe they’ll just never die.) 

I’ve purchased Swiss Chard in the grocery store, but find that it doesn’t last long in the fridge. That makes growing this nutritious plant extra nice, I just snip a few leaves for sandwiches, adding to salads, or chopping into soup or rice dishes. Plus its absolutely beautiful! 

Swiss Chard can be fairly cold tolerant (I think), so I’ll see how long it lasts with winter soon upon us.

Young Swiss Chard and a mustard plant that had already bolted by late spring.


it’s not dead yet. Swiss Chard picked today.


Additional posts will cover herbs, lettuce, and arugula.

Size Matters: Notes from the Balcony Garden I

There’s a little spark of life still shimmering in my balcony garden. So I’m keeping a few notes on what worked well. Next spring I may need a reminder.

By default the balcony garden is a container garden. Some plants are better suited to container gardening than others. Size matters — both the size of the container and the kind of plant.

Overall, I used larger containers this year than last. That makes a difference. Plants like to stretch out their roots and get comfy. Not only do plants— peppers, tomatoes, leafy veg or herbs — grow larger and produce more fruit  in larger containers, the soil will not dry out as quickly on a hot day. That can be a big thing.

Once some plants totally dry out, they may not come back. Also, blossom end rot (not a good thing) is more likely if the soil dries too much between waterings.

I don’t have a hose on my balcony, so I carry water in large jugs or let Mother Nature’s rain give the plants a good drink. Plants in larger containers can take more total water per watering, but they need watering less often. After a good rain, many of them can go for days with no extra water. (My arms get a good workout when it’s dry out.)

Tomatoes really benefit from a large container. Comparing last year’s plants to this year’s, I got more yummy tomatoes from fewer plants. So if the choice is more plants but smaller containers or fewer plants and larger containers, you’re probably better with larger containers.

Home-grown and vine-ripened make such a huge difference in the juicy, sweet and tangy taste of a tomato. Grocery store tomatoes never come close (except a few heirloom varieties if you can find them). Farmers markets can have good ones, but around here, those aren’t cheap.

Tomato varieties that don’t grow as large are probably going to work better on a balcony, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try.

Patio Tomato is a variety of tomato plant specifically hybridized for containers and small spaces, but I’ve never been quite as thrilled with the taste or the quantity. Celebrity Tomato plants grow well in containers, produce more fruit, and taste excellent.

Cherokee Purple tomatoes taste great, but want tons of space. My plant last year was fairly healthy but grew only four nice tomatoes. It was a lot of work for four tomatoes. I’m better off buying Cherokee Purple tomatoes at a farmers’ market. I left them out this year.

Sun Gold cherry tomato plants can get quite large. Huge even. Stretched upright, my plant this year would have reached all the way to the balcony above us. I had to tape part of it to the wall to keep it from taking over. I’m sure it might have been happier in the ground (or in an even larger container), but it still produced a lot of super tasty cherry tomatoes. That was fine. So, I think cherry tomato varieties are a little more forgiving for containers.

Sun Gold cherry tomatoes.

Peppers (hot or sweet) generally grow pretty well in containers (larger is still better). But there isn’t as much difference in taste between home-grown and store-purchased. So I love other things about growing peppers — like being able to just walk out and pick a pepper. It’s nice to see them grow and know that I used only a little soap and vigilance to keep pesty bugs away. Picking them at the peak of ripeness can still provide some amazingly sweet and flavorful peppers. I also like growing hard-to-find peppers that I know I’ll eat.

We liked Gypsy Peppers again this year (though one plant seemed a little different and may have been mislabeled).

Cow Horn Peppers were a huge hit for the hot stuff. They grew lots of beautiful, twisty, flavorful, larger, hot peppers. I would so grow these again.

Garden Salsa peppers weren’t quite as impressive, but they were fine for a pepper with less heat.

Dragon Cayenne was another good one. The smaller plant seemed fine in a not-huge flower pot and the little peppers had nice heat and flavor.

We generally like jalapeños and did again this year. They like a larger pot for good numbers. They still grow okay in a smaller pot, but the quantity is greatly reduced.

Cajun Bell peppers looked almost like habaneros, but weren’t as hot. They were thin-walled, and not as convenient to slice as some of the other varieties. I may or may not grow them again. But they were cute.

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Hot stuff – Cow Horn peppers.

Next I’ll cover leafy greens and herbs.

I swore I wouldn’t: A Balcony Garden Journey Part 2

I absolutely did not go to Home Depot with the idea of purchasing plants or seeds and most definitely not tomato plants.

I went there to have a key made and to purchase a spray bottle so I could mix up some homemade cleaning spray. My old bottle stopped spraying.

The smell of the store was distinctly Home Depot — earth, chemicals, metal, and concrete. People milled in and out of the garden area, and, as it was almost spring, I could see greenery with each flash of the sliding door.

I had to go take a peek. It was the promise of sunshine and green life pushing through dark soil.

I resisted the urge to purchase plants right there and then. I wanted to think about what we might grow and use and liked the idea of sharing the experience with my daughter. She’s much older now than the last time I grew plants on our balcony.

I knew I would have to be very strict about how much we tried to grow. Several years ago I grew too much which made for a lot of work. There were some plants I hardly even used. Pineapple sage, for example, was beautiful and smelled great fresh. But it didn’t dry well or hold it’s flavor in cooking.  It really became more of a decorative plant. I don’t mind some strictly decorative plants, but I really like plants that look nice and offer something we can eat. It makes for space well-used.

A couple of hot peppers and strawberry plants in hanging baskets seemed to be about right in my mind. Maybe a couple of herbs too.

Years ago the squirrels didn’t seem to be able to raid the strawberry plants when I had them in hanging baskets. The hot pepper plants they left alone after the first few bites. This seemed manageable. Fun. Pretty. Hopefully giving us a few things to eat for the trouble.

When I brought my daughter near the gardening section, it was the seeds that caught her eye. Well, dang, I hadn’t planned on trying to grow anything from seed. In fact, I already had a few packets of 5-or-more-year-old seeds collecting dust in a cabinet somewhere. I let her pick out two of something new.

She settled on cucumbers and a variety of marigold called Cottage Red.

I guided her to a variety of cucumber called Picklebush since they seemed like they would stay pretty small and produce cucumbers that look like deli pickles. Cottage Red marigold were not edible flowers like some (Lemon and Tangerine Marigold are edible), but they looked pretty on the packet and marigolds are usually good at keeping away garden pests. So there’s a usefulness there.

As far as plants, I quickly picked up a Tabasco Pepper plant and some jalapeño peppers (one mild variety and one standard). My daughter doesn’t like anything too spicy. I looked for a parsley plant but found none at the time, so I grabbed a packet of flat-leaf parsley seeds and a packet of Siam Queen Basil seeds. Plus we selected two strawberry plants — the only everbearing ones that looked good at the time — Ozark Beauty.

My daughter pleaded with me to get tomato plants, but after my somewhat bitter memories of squirrels that consumed every single tomato my plant grew the last time I tried. I told her, “no.” I said it several times. And we left with no tomatoes.

I didn’t know I would be back to Home Depot so soon. There were not only more strawberries in our future, but possibly tomatoes too.

(Part 2 of a series. Visit again later for more.)

I Swore I Wouldn’t: A Balcony Garden Journey

I swore I wouldn’t try to grow tomato plants on our balcony again. That was about seven years ago. And I hadn’t grown ’em since. So imagine my surprise this year when all that changed.

When I started growing tomatoes the first summer we lived here I thought that no pesky insects could find their way to our plants way up here on the third floor. But find us they did. How’d those aphids get here? Are those other things mites?

Not only did insects find us but it wasn’t long before the squirrels did too. The outer shell of our building was coated in artificial stucco. The squirrels could grab the bumpy texture with their claws and scale up the side of the building like Spidermen in furry gray suits. Not only did the squirrels find us, I’m pretty sure they put posters up around the neighborhood advertising the free food to all their friends. Drove the cats bananas as the squirrels taunted them then escaped up a stuccoed pillar.

I tried sprays for the insects and mesh along with hot pepper sprinkles to discourage the squirrels. But they’d still find my tomatoes. 

There are challenges to growing tomato plants in containers and especially so when you have only a balcony and jugs to carry water instead of a backyard with a hose.  

The plants grew nicely. Tomatoes too. More than once I’d patiently wait one more day for a tomato to turn red only go out the next and find bites already taken out of it. How rude of them to take a few bites and leave the rest behind! Do they know how hard I worked to make those things grow? 

The last straw was the day I saw a squirrel perched on the bricks around the edge of our balcony. His fluffy tail twitched in excitement. I went out to shoo him away only to find a partially chewed green tomato sitting there. Cute but infuriating, those furry thieves weren’t even waiting for the tomatoes to ripen.  No tomato was safe. It was the last tomato. I was done. 

I moved on to growing only herbs, a few flowers (some of which the squirrels ate too) and hot peppers.  The squirrels bit a few hot peppers but soon left them alone. 

Eventually the outside of our building became less and less appealing as the improperly installed artificial stucco became discolored and cracked in places. Above the utility closet off our balcony there was a large gap left by our builder where several generations of pigeons made a charming home for themselves. But for us, the pigeons made a horrible mess. We tried mesh to keep them out, but they found another way in. Eventually we stopped trying to grow anything we might want to eat. Soon, we hardly went out there at all. Shame too, nice view.

Last summer, with building repairs in full swing (partially due to that artificial stucco), we couldn’t go out on our balcony at all. The winter before, the repair workers had wired our balcony door shut from the outside. We scrambled to save a few nice flower pots when they first did it. We had put our fresh cut Christmas tree on the balcony in a bucket of water, so we had to make special arrangements to retrieve that too. We didn’t even have windows for a while.

So early this Spring a visit to Home Depot resulted in the purchase of a few small plants. This started a slippery slope of greenery and a whole new battle. (Part 1 of a series.)