03/18/2013 08:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Instagrammed Garden, Part 1: Seeds Of Doubt


It seems strange to me now that I made it to my 30s without gardening. Up until five years ago, I had never known the exquisite, self-congratulatory taste of a strawberry I had grown myself, or the crippling defeat of watching a seemingly perfect tomato vine slowly yellow from the bottom up, wilting my dreams of annoying friends by inviting them over for "brus-KET-ta".

The triumph and tragedy of the urban garden is now as much a part of my life as not liking reality television and wishing my knees didn't look like that. My husband and I have been container gardening for the last four years on our fourth-floor roofdeck, and it's changed our lives (for the better).


Last year's garden, in full bloom.

When we first moved into the apartment, I was so excited by the idea of having an outdoor space that I went a little nuts. I ordered nine dwarf fruit trees, five raspberry brambles, three blueberry bushes, three grape vines and enough vegetable seed packets to get myself on every seed catalogue's mailing list for the rest of my life.

Pretty much every gardening book you'll find will tell you that's a stupid thing to do. Seasoned gardeners recommend newbies start slowly. Grow some herbs and a pot of tomatoes, get a feel for it. You don't want to be overwhelmed early on and get discouraged by accidentally killing everything.

I went the other way. We killed a lot of things that first year including one blueberry bush and one grape vine, which were heartbreaking. We also found that we couldn't provide enough indoor light in the winter for our four citrus trees to bloom, so we gave them to my parents in Alabama.

But we also ate fresh salsa made entirely from our garden, tossed little raspberries and blueberries into bowls of yogurt, and grew two ears of corn. TWO.

A lot went wrong, but we were hooked for life.


My husband Sean with some of our Liberty apples. We got fruit from the peach and apple trees the second year, plums the third and cherries the fourth. This year, we might finally get grapes.

This year, things are going to be quite a bit different. We recently moved to a new place in Harlem, a three-floor brownstone apartment that we're splitting with two of our good friends. So we'll be getting used to gardening in an unfamiliar space and living in what is basically a commune, minus the free love and banjos. (Although, being from the south, I wouldn't mind a banjo or two.)


Our dog Fenny looking over her new neighborhood from St. Nicholas Park.

Our new gardening space is a large, south-facing, ground-floor deck that has a long, narrow bed running along one wall. While we'll be container gardening for the most part, including building a giant 16' x 3' x 2' planter, we'll have a perennial garden that goes directly in that strip of ground. The deck also has a tree at one end as well as some five-story buildings around it, so we're not 100% certain how much direct sunlight we're getting and for how long, but we're cautiously optimistic.


Our new backyard... we'll be building the large container in a week or so.

So, since we're hitting the reset button on our garden, I thought I'd document the process from starting seeds to, hopefully, Thanksgiving dinner, using the power and idiot-proofness of instagram.



Let's do some good.

One way commune living is already helping the garden is our house calendar. The main reason for moving in with another couple is to pool resources and save money, so we cook at home a lot. Our calendar is an effort to make note of who's cooking what, when and other events everyone should know about, including gardening dates/tasks.

So now, when I ask, "When did we start those seeds?" the calendar is all like, "March 5, jackass, same as Taco Night."


"Vespa Watch" is a story for another time. Also, it wasn't Corey's birthday. The calendar has its flaws.

We started our first round of seeds on March 5: tomatoes (Brandywine, Supersteak, Black Krim, Big Rainbow, Black Pearl, Sweet Baby Girl), peppers (Hot Lemon, Bananarama, Jalapeno Gigante, Ristra Cayenne and a sweet bell), brussel sprouts, okra, two kinds of basil, and three kinds of annual flowers.


Burpee is my go-to for annual plants and seeds.

We're going to do two more rounds of seeds for plants that germinate quicker (I have learned that starting marigolds alongside peppers is nothing if not annoying because of the huge disparity in germination and growing speed).

The brussel sprouts and okra are also sort of an experiment... you ideally direct sow them, but for whatever reason I decided I wanted to try starting them early. The heart wants what it wants.

The brussels germinated in just a few days, which was both exciting and unsettling... instant gratification, but they're going to grow faster than everything else. Damn you, Marigold Effect™.


Hi, we're brussel sprouts. We heard you wanted to feel stupid so we got here early. You got any beer?

We're using a four-tier seed starting rack I ordered online two years ago. Because we're keeping it in the kitchen near the back door, which isn't totally draft free, I threw a blanket over it. It looks like "The Human Centipede" poster.


The first sequence.

The tomatoes were supposed to germinate in 7-14 days. They were up in 5. Again, a cause for both celebration and concern. I was successfully keeping the temperature inside the rack warm, but it was hovering between 80 and 90 degrees, not 65-75 which is recommended. Am I setting my little seedlings up for a tragic fall when they go outside? Or, do I just need to be way more diligent with the hardening-off process? I'm hoping the latter is the case.


So much promise, so much potential for tragedy.

I use a very high-tech system for making sure I know what I planted in each pod.


Someone actually gave me these post-it notes as a Christmas gift. I'm going to use every damn one and ask for more next year.

All my trepidations aside, we're off to a good start. The seedlings are all doing well. Still waiting for the pansies and peppers to pop up (although two of the hot lemon peppers have just begun to poke their heads out).

But we have already suffered one near tragedy. When placing the trays in the racks, we splattered water all over several unopened packets of seeds. We're hoping dumping them in this bag of rice dries them out.


Damn you, marigolds... you won this round.