Growing your own food - on the balcony and in the city

You can use your balcony for culinary purposes and have your very own urban garden.

BEIRUT: Loathing the lack of green space in Lebanon’s urban areas? Wishing for fresh food within reach, or just feeling inspired by the season? Join the growing ranks of the urban gardener, city-dwellers who are growing their own food, often in small spaces. With a sunny spot, a few supplies and a willingness to get a bit dirty, your balcony or windowsill can bloom and be kitchen-ready.

The Daily Star asked Stephanie Ibrahim, who runs an organic nursery and sells all things organic and Lebanese at Flora Organica (, and Monika Fabian and Nadine Modad of the American University of Beirut’s Department of Landscape Design & Ecosystem Management, for expert tips on how to get your urban garden going.

Choose plants carefully. Ibrahim suggests checking out nearby gardens, if there are any, to get an idea of what grows best in your area. Herbs such as thyme and rosemary require at least six hours of direct sunlight per day, but Modad and Fabian point out that mint and parsley prefer a bit less light, as does sage. They say “herbs are much more easily accommodated than vegetables.”

“Choose plants that give smaller varieties,” says Ibrahim. She suggests cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, or baby aubergines. “Go for compact varieties,” Fabian and Modad urge, “and one will be able to grow a wide range.”

There’s no need to overspend on fancy containers. Recycled plastic water jugs, buckets, or whatever you have will do – but Ibrahim cautions to check that the plastic doesn’t contain any harmful chemicals and didn’t hold detergents. Be sure to cut holes in the container’s bottom so that the roots don’t get waterlogged. “Good drainage is one of the keys to success,” say Fabian and Modad.

Start from seed or seedlings. Some plants must be started from seeds, say Fabian and Modad. These include parsley, coriander, chicory and lettuce. “Any beginner gardener can sow these easily,” they say, by placing them at a depth three times the size of the seed.

Some plants like tomatoes and cucumbers are best purchased as seedlings (young plants). Ibrahim advises paying “close attention to how it [a seedling] was raised, and where you acquired it,” in terms of sun and water. Ease it into its new environment.

Watch the water. Plants’ needs differ, and depend on the weather. In general, Ibrahim advises that “to know if your plant needs water or not, insert your finger 2-3 cm into the soil, or insert a wooden stick instead. If you take it out and there’s soil on it, then it doesn’t need watering.”

Water slowly, she says, until water starts dripping from the pot’s holes. Be sure not to overdo it, as overwatering can be just as deadly as forgetting to water altogether.

Keep your eyes out for supplies, and don’t overlook kitchen scraps. Seeds, soil and fertilizers can be had at supermarkets, nurseries and gardening stores – these shops are often located just outside of cities.

“The best and easiest option” for soil, according to Fabian and Modad, is to buy widely available potting mix bags. “Most herbs flourish in a free-draining environment and as a general rule, a 3:1 mixture of soil-less compost such as peat moss (planting mix) and loam-based compost (soil mix) gives the best results.”

“Sometimes,” Ibrahim says, “you don’t have to go past the door of your kitchen to provide yourself with ... seeds.” Leftover peppers and tomatoes can sometimes be planted, as can some berries. “You can also use onion and garlic hat that have become soft to the touch, and are sprouting green stalks ... Just make sure to put the bottom of the bulb downwards [in the soil].”

Ibrahim suggests beginner gardeners select “hardy” evergreen plants like rosemary, as they have a fairly stable growth pattern that is easy to get used to. Fabian and Modad say that this type of small-scale gardening “is demanding, and the yields are sometimes modest for the effort involved ... [but] don’t give up if it doesn’t work the first time.”

And as they put it, “what could be nicer than reaching out the kitchen window to gather fresh herbs from the window-sill, or eating succulent tomatoes or strawberries grown on the balcony?” Sounds worth the work.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 29, 2012, on page 2.




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