The Arch City Gardener

Journeys In St. Louis Gardening and Beyond


Lettuce Season is for Sharing

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Rows of lettuce in Stevan’s backyard garden.

“People don’t know where their food comes from.” You’ve heard this, right? As generations become farther removed from the farm, their experience with with food is, shall we say, less direct. Fortunately there’s a resurgence in backyard gardening to close the widening gap from the farm gate to plate. As more gardeners get their hands dirty they not only produce delicious tasting produce, they learn about the risks/rewards associated with growing food…weather, insects, squirrels and rabbits (in my case), fungus, and much more.

Patio tomatoes thrive 15 stories up. Small space gardening is becoming more common.

Salad fixins’ 15 stories up! The balcony of this city apartment provides enough space to grow lettuce, tomatoes and an assortment of herbs.

Society may have moved further from the farm, but today’s gardeners are successfully growing lettuce, tomatoes and other produce in small spaces. My dear friend Chris takes advantage of small-space living and is growing lettuce and tomatoes growing on her apartment balcony 15 stories up.

Stevan, a friend of mine at work, has a backyard garden. And every year he sends me pictures of his lettuce like the one at the start of this post. This year, I joked that he could feed his entire community with the bounty in his backyard. To my surprise the next day Stevan hand-delivered to my desk a delicious Ceasar salad featuring Romaine lettuce picked from his garden that morning. Apparently he and other colleagues have a Ceasar salad lunch day every spring with the bounty from his garden.

I am not the only one he’s sharing his lettuce with however. A nearby child center is also benefitting from Stevan’s love of gardening. What I learned when returning his empty salad bowl is that he and others at work share their love of growing food by helping children at a nearby child center plant their own garden. Stevan may have provided the seed and the know-how, but he’ll be first to tell you this more than just lettuce-sharing. He’ll say he’s the one who benefitted by enjoying the kids’ happy faces and the connections they are making to growing food from seed. Lettuce season may be nearing an end here in St. Louis but I’m sure this is just the beginning of their garden delights.

Stevan UCCC

Planted from seed, the vegetable garden at the University City Children’s Center.

I’m inspired by my friends’ vegetable gardens. Truthfully, growing vegetables intimidates me a bit. Stevan (who grew up on a farm) tells me that you start simply with an easy-to-grow plant. This year I have patio tomatoes that the squirrels seem to be enjoying, as they have been plucked from the vine at just the opportune time. I have grown peppers and I always have some herbs planted. But next year I may have to visit Stevan’s backyard and get some first-hand pointers.

Do you grow vegetables?



Thinking About Sustainability: Composting

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What does your garden landscape say about sustainability? This is something I am thinking of more frequently for a few reasons: to protect the watershed, to reduce/maximize resource use and reduce expenses. As I began creating my backyard garden, my focus was on installation of low-maintenance plants and shrubs, with an emphasis on shrubs suitable for the conditions in plant hardiness zone 6a/6b. With that in mind I selected plants that are drought tolerant and some natives.

Sustainability–and I am really not crazy about this word…it feels kind of like the buzz-word-of-the-day to me–has always been in the back of my mind, however. I have spent considerable time researching rain barrels since I began my yard improvement efforts and plan to put in two or three barrels this year. And If you would have asked me three years ago if I would be composting, I would have resolutely said, “No.”

The young beebalm "Pardon My Pink" is dwarfed by black-eyed Susan on the left and tall garden phlox on the right.

The young beebalm “Pardon My Pink” is dwarfed by black-eyed Susan on the left and tall garden phlox on the right.

I had tried composting at the old house when the kids were little and I had very little time to devote to the garden or yard, other than to pick up the toys before we mowed or move the hose. With a pallet as my base, I constructed a container in an out-of-the-way corner in the yard using heavy gauge wire. I put PVC pipe that we drilled holes in into the center of the compost and dumped in the leaves from the stately oaks, dogwoods and maples that freely dropped mountains of leaves in the fall and when I thought of it some grass clippings. I watered it now and then and really just forgot about it…for a few years, actually. I don’t think I turned it more than once or twice a year. It seemed the most attention it received was in the fall when I filled it up with new leaves.

One day a few years later, I noticed it had reduced to a pile of, well, dirt. The next spring I added the composted material to the dry shade area of the yard where I was coaxing hostas to grow with some limited success. And what a difference it made! Truly.That corner of the yard that year was lovely and I attribute it to the compost.

But I did not become a compost convert.

Honestly, I don’t really think I was doing it right. I mean, it took years for the stuff to break down. But like the bees I am trying to attract with my perennial selections (or maybe it’s the murmurings of my 20-year-old daughter in my ear), the idea of composting is buzzing in the back of my head. The benefits are many from putting nutrients back in the soil to reducing waste and reducing fertilizers. And, my oh my, there are lots of products out there for the backyard enthusiast.

Pinterest posts lead me to believe composting is Not a Big Deal. When I read about putting a banana peel in the soil by the rose bushes, I think, “Now THAT’S the lazy man’s compost!” Or putting a whole egg in the bottom of a container to feed the plants throughout the season. Do these natural tips really work? I don’t fancy myself as lazy, more like time pressed, and I do like a short cut or two. But I don’t think I will be burying banana peels in the rose beds any time soon.

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My only true reservation at this juncture is where to place a composter. I envision buying one that has a crank where you can turn the bin. Unlike my last address, I have very limited space and, frankly, I think the compost bins on the market are hunky, clunky and ugly. I don’t want it up next to the house. Last fall, I put in three leatherleaf viburnum and moved some azalea to the front of a wedge-shaped area that behind it is very shady and often wet and I’ve had difficulty getting much to grow there. I did this with the idea that the viburnum will grow tall create a nice screen for something like a compost bin or even some of the garden essentials, such as the wheel barrow, that don’t fit into my one-car garage.

Let’s hope the viburnum are in the right place because the buzzing from my 20-year-old makes me think a kitchen composter is in my future for Mother’s Day.