Tag Archives: rooftop garden

A Strange and Wonderful Growing Season

Well, I said I was going on hiatus from the blog for awhile but I guess this is what hiatus looks like…

It’s the last day of September 2012, but by looking at our rooftop you’d swear it was the first week of June. In the Great Lakes region we’re lucky to have one full growing season, much less two. But that’s exactly what it’s turning out to be- at least here in Chicago, 4 stories up.

Like the rest of the garden, these Atkinson heirloom tomatoes were an anomaly this year. I couldn’t get them to hold blossoms all summer – too hot? – but now in September I have plenty of fruit arriving at all stages from blossom to red ripe.

Green Bell Peppers were absolutely prolific this year and are still going strong. Each plant has more fruit than they can hold – and with new flowers blooming, there’s no sign of stopping. Will probably yield a crop of smaller peppers well into October.

Like the peppers, these Chinese eggplant were fantastic this year. In August the plants seemed to be on their way out. Leaves were yellowing and dropping. But when day time temps got milder, new growth sprouted and now flowers. Will easily have a crop of small eggs in a few weeks. They grow quite fast and can further ripen indoors if the risk of frost threatens the young’n’s.

What? A double season of squash? Now that’s a new one for me. This Dwarf Hubbard squash grew very quickly this month after the plant was surely about to dry up and blow away with the wind. Not thinking the season would support them to maturity, we actually had a September meal of squash blossoms. Glad I left one on the vine!

Another surprise – a third round of strawberries. These Ozarks are bound and determined to hold onto every last ray of sunshine this year. Fine by me!

It probably comes as no surprise that the Japanese Shishitos gave us more than we could handle this year. We ate, and ate, and ate, and gave away, and pickled. And guess what? Yup, another round of foliage and blossoms popped up this week. I think I’m going to start leaving them on people’s doorstep at night. Here’s a jar of pickled peppers that yielded amazing flavor.

Extra Dwarf Pak Choi did great in the spring but a second planting in the summer was quickly snuffed out by the heat. I planted these seeds a week and a half ago and expect to have several meals over the next couple weeks. Perfect weather for brassicas.

Mildly warm days and cool nights is ideal weather for late season greens like this arugula.

A flourishing Autumn herb garden? This cilantro seems to think so. So do its companions parsley and dill.

Not to be left out, this California poppy plant that had fully died back after its summer show is making a resurgence.

Attempting to upstage the entire crowd, this floribunda ‘Moondance’ rose towers over the garden in its 3rd blooming cycle of the summer. Am I going to have white roses at Christmas?

This year the news was full of stories about drought and poor farming conditions. Here in Chicago, it’s just been bizarre. If you felt this year’s season was strange too, I’d love to hear your story in the comment section.

Alright I really must put an end to these distractions. So back to work… unless I find more surprises up there.

Pre-storm Bounty

Recent travel is really putting my mico-irrigation system to the test- so far so good. I’m using the Raindrip brand container gardening kit that uses 1/4″ feeder hoses with inline drippers. Fairly easy set-up, although I do wish it came with clearer instructions and descriptions of the various fittings. It doesn’t directly connect to EarthBoxes but I’m simply hanging the drippers into the fill tubes. Kind of mundane blog material, so feel free to get in touch if you have any questions about it.

Another intense storm this morning appears to have taken out more tomato plants. What a harsh year for gardening in Chicago. Needless to say I’ll be making a lot of adjustments and precautions next year. I’m heading to South Carolina on Wednesday, so next week I’ll take pics of whatever is left in the garden when I get back. Getting tired of just peas and pak choi!

Here’s a look at some peas and pak choy I harvested last week (still life on Tolix chair). And a bonus shot of blooming prickly pear on a Chicago beach/dune.

A gardening incident in 10 parts. Plus, the 7 stages of (seed) recovery.

Part 1. Chicago got a lot of rain over the past few days

Part 2. My indoor crate full of gardening supplies was temporarily placed outside on Thursday to make room for patio furniture being hauled up to the roof.

Part 3. Saturday is a nice day to garden so I go up to the roof and find my indoor crate still outdoors.

Part 4. Stage 1. Discovery: I opened up the crate to find my box full of 2010 and 2011 seed packets. Oh yeah, that’s where I put those!

Part 5. Stage 2. Revelation: Said seed packets were floating in rain water. Or, as a smarter gardener would have it, pre-soaking for germination.

Part 6. Stage 3. Contemplation: Spent Saturday getting creative. How to accommodate more babies than my nursery could possibly have room for.

Part 7. Stage 4. Acceptance: Can’t possibly plant them all- we will be eating sprouts and baby greens with every meal for the next 2 months.

Part 8. Stage 5. Preparation: Amassed every unused container I could find including cookie sheets and baking dishes.

Part 9. Stage 6. Action: Sprouting plantable seeds in paper towel for transplant once I get more containers. Combined peas and beans and squash for salad sprouts. Planted trays for baby green and herb mix.

Part 10. Stage 7. Change: Lesson learned. Pledge to develop a better seed saving procedure for this fall. Pledge to not leave stuff out in the rain.

My rooftop project is now no longer just a rooftop project. It is now also a living room project and a sprouting project. It’s Sunday and I just finished prepping all EarthBoxes for rooftop planting- may have to risk planting earlier than May 15 and so far the forecast is looking good. Stay tuned…

Sunday April 10, 2011 – in like a lamb out like a lion?

An amazing treat for us today in Chicagoland – 80+ degrees by noon and a nice breeze (bordering on strong wind). Problem is, that breeze is predicated to turn into severe weather later today with potential for tornadoes and hail.

Got all the Earthboxes set up today and planted one box of Dwarf Gray Peas. They like to start in cooler weather but this will have to do for now. Here’s a look at my seed starts inside that were planted on 4/4 – 6 days ago. The clam shell is sprouting asian baby greens and the trays are showing cukes, pak choi, beans, amaranth, tomato, watermelon, yellow squash and basil… so far

Seed Starts after 6 days

Filled the Earthboxes with mix of peat/perlite/dolomite and using FoxFarm’s Peace of Mind Tomato and Vegetable granular fertilizer.

 

Earthbox Prep

Mia trying to escape the heat amongst planters:

Shade is hard to come by on the rooftop.

 

The tropical desert Midwest?

Opuntia "Prickly Pear"

I’m a plant geek- continuously amazed by the plant world. Like when I first found out that cactus grow native to Michigan and Illinois. A few years ago I was walking past a house in Michigan that had mounds of prickly pear growing and flowering in the yard. Double-take! I expressed my amazement to the woman living there, “I had no idea cactus can live outside here!” She called hers “Michigan Prickly Pear” and broke off a few pads for me to grow. And grow they did (above pic). It would be a much larger patch, actually, were it not for a hungry critter two years ago.

More than likely this is Opuntia humifusa, or Eastern Prickly Pear, which grows native in the Midwest. Opuntia monocantha and Opuntia fragilis can apparently also found in Illinois and Michigan. Mine appears lanky in the pic because it started to grow in low-light conditions while over-wintering. I have since moved it onto the rooftop where I expect it will thrive and hopefully bloom. I can confidently say that this species can handle its fair share of neglect and abuse! It looks quite disheveled (ok, it looks dead) after a harsh winter but perks right up in the spring.

Hiking in northern Michigan a couple years ago I came across another “desert” surprise- lizards! Maybe not as much a surprise in Illinois, but for an Upper Peninsula of Michigan native, seeing a lizard seemed about as likely as seeing a zebra. Yet there it was on Marquette’s Sugarloaf Mountain, what I’ve since learned to most likely be a Five-lined Skink, a native of Michigan. Illinois has a native legless lizard, which I’ve yet to see, called the Slender Glass Lizard.

From desert to the tropics…

If you’ve spent time on Chicago’s beaches you may have seen live palm trees. I’m not going to surprise anybody by saying those are not native to the Great Lakes region. But, surprisingly, some folks are successful in growing them outdoors in Chicago (with special care). And orchids, which are normally thought of as tropical plants, are native and even abundant in the region. Even some non-native tropical orchids can thrive in Illinois home gardens. Especially if you happen to live in a micro-climate, where your growing area may be a zone ahead of your neighbors, you can try your hand at outdoor tropicals.

I try to be conscious about bringing non-native and hybridized species into a habitat, but I think it can be safely said that these particular tropicals won’t be overpopulating anytime soon. Even the cold-hardy palms require a lot of attention to over-wintering or they will die. That said, keep them at home and preferably grow them in containers. Here are some websites with tips for picking species and growing conditions of hardy outdoor tropical plants:

Why I chose EarthBox.

Wood decking over composite roof liner. EarthBoxes haven't arrived yet.

In the past I’ve gardened ground-direct, in raised beds, or in standard planters. This year, because of the unique challenges of growing on a Chicago roof top, I chose self-irrigated planters (SIPs). Specifically, EarthBox brand.

EarthBoxes are popular in Chicago for many practical reasons, but also because they have received a lot of attention from local celeb chef and roof top gardener Rick Bayless. The Inside Urban Green blog posted an article several years ago about Rick’s rooftop.

Here are some other reason’s they seem practical and popular:

  • Ideal size 29″L x 14″W x 11″H
  • Easy to use, all-in-one, “just add water” kind of setup
  • Aesthetically pleasing: basic rectangle in 3 color choices
  • Good choice for hot spots due to self-contained irrigation
  • Can be brought indoors for year round gardening
  • Made of recyclable food-grade plastic
  • Have a strong resale value on eBay or Craig’sList
  • Affordable

That last point can be argued but even after reading a lot of ingenious garden blogs, I still found EarthBoxes to be a solid choice. Even DIYers end up spending money on plastic buckets and fittings and tubing and trellises. And I’m not so sure the hardware buckets and tubing are made out of safe plastic. I’m all for DIY projects, so if nothing else they may save a few bucks and are a fun project. But I’m also all for supporting small businesses doing big things like EarthBox.

I started out by purchasing 10 EarthBoxes so I got a bulk discount of $27/box. After pricing planters in local garden centers and other SIPs online, that’s still a pretty good price. Also, it’s pretty clear they are popular enough that I could easily resell them if I wanted to.

The visual appeal, I have to admit, was a big factor for us. I grew up in the woods of Northern Michigan on a small hobby farm so the concept of aesthetics and gardening requires some swallowing of that rugged pride. But we want our roof to be an entertainment and relaxation area, so the uniform look of the boxes seems clean and unobtrusive (unless you’re into that blaze-orange Home Depot bucket look!) We want the focus to be on the beautiful plants not on the planters. Ok, the truth is, if I make our rooftop look sloppy I probably wouldn’t be allowed to garden next year. *smile*

The EarthBox website explains that each box holds approx. 2 cu. ft. of potting media. I spoke with a salesperson at Downtown Home & Garden Center in Ann Arbor, MI who highly endorses EarthBoxes and claims they only take 1.5 cu. feet. So that’s less than 80 pounds of wet weight per box. The Garden Center sold 2.0 cu. ft. bags of Sunrise organic potting mix in the media ratio that EarthBox suggests so that’s what I chose. I’ll be amending with dolomite and organic fertilizer.

I also spoke with the guys at Green Thumb Garden Center in Ferndale, MI who suggest I supplement my plant feeding with silica. They believe it’s a natural way for plants to add their own extra structure to their stems for situations like rooftops in Chicago where wind is a huge factor. EarthBox sells a trellis system but that would have made my purchase substantially more expensive. For support I’ll do DIY trellis and wind breaks this year and try the silica. Clearly this year will be a big experiment, but I suppose with gardening every year is.

Rooftop view looking East towards the city.