Saturday, April 23, 2011

Carrots from Milk - Happy Belated Earth Day!

Happy Belated Earth Day, Readers!

I spent most of Earth Day recovering from a dress try-on session at my Mom's place (which involved snacks and much too much wine). Once I felt well enough, I ventured outside - what beautiful weather we're having!

So beautiful, in fact, that I've planted my tomatoes rather early (supposed to be out once nighttime temperatures stabilize to 7 C or higher, or end-of-May for the later varieties). They seem to be doing alright so far. (I feel like a proud grandmother, unable to resist posting brag photos.... this post was never intended to be about my tomatoes, but here we are....!). Also included is a shot of the privacy-screen-to-be, my Romano Pole beans. They shouldn't be outside yet either, but were quickly outgrowing even the 2L milk carton pots I had transplanted them into!

Latah Tomato (Stellar Seeds)
Siletz Tomato (West Coast Seeds)

Gold Nugget Cherry Tomato (West Coast Seeds)

Sweet Million Cherry Tomato (West Coast Seeds)

Privacy Screen-Beans! Romano Pole beans (West Coast Seeds)

While container gardening on balconies has many, many challenges and downsides, there are a few perks that we can take full advantage of:
  1. Overhead protection (unless you're on the roof!). Eaves or the balcony above you at least partially shield your plants from nasties like frost, hail and hard rain or sleet. Wind is obviously always going to be a bit of a concern, but staking and strategic plant pot arrangement can help quite a lot.
  2. Radiant heat. (We sailed against a boat by that name - great name!). If you're fortunate enough to have a south-facing, west-facing or southwest-facing balcony (I count my blessings....!), then chances are your building's walls are soaking up the heat all day long. Tarmacadam below will do the same, as will concrete, and even wood-siding. At night when the air cools, your plants will be a few degrees warmer than their country-cousins.
  3. Urban sprawl. Yes, I may have found an upside to an otherwise sad reality, but living in the concrete jungle means LOTS of radiant heat. Ever wondered why it rarely snows downtown but nearly always does out in the 'burbs? Partly geography, but it has quite a lot to do with the large buildings storing up heat from the sun during the day (or grossly inefficient buildings giving off heat indiscriminately in a concentrated area). So although this is kind of a repeat of point #2, I felt it worth mentioning since there's your balcony's micro-environment, and then the next-size-up micro-environment of your city, as compared to the macro-environment of the larger region. 
  4. No blights or soil issues. The beauty of container gardening is that the soil tends to come from a bag, and not what's in the yard. So we avoid issues like blights and rusts and black-spot, because if the soil gets bad, we'll simply replace it. We can rotate crops, if we want to, and we can plant cover crops for the winter, but then again, we don't really need to. Soil pH is also rarely a problem, as purchased soil is so often optimally balanced in nutrients and acid/base. Easy peasy!
  5. No carrot rust fly. Perhaps most relevant to this post, the carrot rust fly - the scourge of the vegetable gardener. I learned the most about it on West Coast Seeds' website; apparently these little buggers (that will render your carrots bitter and inedible) can't fly very high at all. So if you're NOT on the ground floor, good news! No worries about this irritating little pest. I'd like to say that you'll have less pests in general if you're elevated (i.e. slugs, snails, sow bugs, etc.), but a friend down the hall has woodbugs on her balcony, and I have ants. Well, at least there's a modest reduction in creepy crawlies. Certainly haven't had slugs or other slimies, but something's eaten holes in my spinach, and probably something that can fly, so I blame the cabbage moth.
Right, back to CARROTS, which is what I really wanted to post on!

You may recall from a Green, Broke and Living in Kits recycling tip that milk cartons aren't recyclable in Metro Vancouver. Boo and hiss, says I. So I suggested reusing the milk cartons as seedling pots, something I've had great success doing in the past (as well as this season).

I needed a deep container for growing carrots, and I have already allotted all the remaining planter space to other seedlings. And my partner loves fresh carrots from the garden! What to do?

Well, I came with a tacky, albeit ingenious (if I don't say so myself) solution to both problems: I plant carrot seeds in soil I dumped into empty 2L milk cartons!

I can't wait 'til these are overflowing with bushy carrot tops!

All I do is rinse the cartons once empty, punch a couple of drainage holes in the bottom with a pen or pencil (satisfying to do!), fill with potting soil and sow 4 pelleted seeds (Bolero pelleted). Otherwise, I suppose I could just scatter seeds and thin as you would do with traditional carrot seed. Figure I can squeeze in 3 or 4 (I do four - one for each quadrant). There's an 88% germination rate advertised, so if I lose one every few cartons, that's no big deal.

There are a few upsides (other than the recycling aspect) to reusing the milk cartons as carrot planters:
  1. It's practically FREE.
  2. It's amusing.
  3. The milk's expiry date essentially tags each carton for you, so you know in which order to harvest!
  4. If you plant carrots everytime you finish a 2L carton of milk, you'll have a continuous supply of carrots all season (and into the winter, since carrots are tough that way!).
  5. The rectangular shape and square bases means you can pack 'em together tightly, so they don't take up valuable real estate on the balcony, either.
  6. If they fall off your balcony ('cause you're really pushing the envelope by standing them near the edge or on the rail), they probably won't smash a windshield below or injure anyone too grievously since they're so light-weight!
  7. They make bizarre hostess gifts. You could bring one to a party you wish to never be invited back to. Unfortunately, if the hosts agree with point #2 of this list, you might be expected to bring something inventive each time you're invited over. Either way, you won't be short of conversation at that dinner party.
Can't remember when you planted them? Probably around the time as the printed expiry date! Easy.

I'm going to answer this question right away, because I'm bound to get it:

"I live in a building with a strata council! I can hardly see them giving the 'green-light' to garbage-based planters on my deck!"

Well, there's really two ways about this. First, you can bribe them with fresh produce and give them a cut of the action. I always take extra tomatoes downstairs to the lobby and they don't last very long! So there's definitely a (black) market to take advantage of.

But maybe there's an easier way around it, where you can keep your hard-earned veggies: wait until you have 4 or more cartons (an even number of 6 or higher for a long rectangle, or 9 for a 3 x 3 milk carton square) and group them closely together.

Now it's time to disguise your ill-gotten garbage planter to make it look practically indistinguishable from those heinous plastic things from WalMart (shudder) that everyone seems to have on their decks! (How are they any better to look at, even just aesthetically?!).

You can wrap around the outside of your milk carton grouping with brown kraft paper or landscape fabric or even old jeans you've cut up and sewn into a long enough strip. Tell them you bought the 'recycled denim' planter at the Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware and they'll accept it. You could also paint the outside that faces the street/nosy neighbours (acrylic paint would probably last the season - spray paint definitely, but not so enviro.). Or you can tuck two or more cartons each inside empty basmati rice or coffee burlap bags and cluster those together instead.

Now if that's still too 'hippy' or 'green' for your strata, go to Home Depot or other lumber supply yard, buy forest stewardship council or similarly eco-certified lumber (cedar siding would work) in strips 30cm or 1 foot wide (and then as long as your planter will be), and then cut the same for the length of the side(s) of your rectangular or square grouping. You can simply tack them together (buy some small 'finishing nails' or 'tacks' from the hardware store) by nailing a few nails in the corners (from the broad side of the front, for example, into the 'end' of the side board). It doesn't have to be structurally sound, really - it just has to a frame a partial 'box' that hides your illicit collection of milk carton planters. Voila!

I thought about crocheting a little plarn cozy for each of them, but I'm far too lazy for that. Recycled plastic is hip, so maybe a strata would go for that, so long as the garbage is disguised sufficiently. It is sad, though - out of sight, out of mind applies to our garbage, but it's going somewhere and is piling higher and deeper each day. I wish everyone would keep in mind the MOUNTAIN of garbage we've each generated over the course of our lifetimes so far, and then try to multiply that for everyone in our family, building, workplace, the city, the province, the country, the continent, etc., etc. Scary stuff.

(I watched the Constant Gardener again last night. It has less to do with gardening and more to do with big-Pharma and the greed that runs our world, but it was a good one - definitely rent it if you haven't seen it yet. I went straight to gardening first thing this morning to help me cope with the sad realities of life in the world today).

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