Tag Archives: rooftop

Growing Potatoes in a Pot

Potatoes are one of the easiest things you can grow at home, regardless of how much space you have. And if you have any potatoes in your pantry, you’re halfway there already. All you need to do is plunge a few of those potatoes into a container of soil and wait few weeks. Here is today’s before and after picture of a few organic supermarket potatoes that I planted exactly 2 months ago. So in a matter of 8 weeks you can grow your own meal of garden fresh new potatoes:

Potato foliage reached about a foot and a half in height in a matter of 2 months.

A handful of new potatoes harvested from 3 starter potatoes from the pantry.

How to Grow Potatoes At Home:

1. Gather a few potatoes from your pantry or buy some from the supermarket. Look for ones that have “eyes” starting to form or sprout. The eyes are simply those white protrusions on the surface of the potato- usually there are several.

2. Fill a container with soil rich in organic matter. Any standard patio planter will work as long as there are holes in the bottom and room enough to accommodate the growing potatoes. Potatoes like well-draining soil, especially if it’s amended with manure, compost or even whole kitchen vegetable scraps mixed in. Beyond this, they won’t require additional fertilizer.

3. Bury 2 or 3 potatoes several inches down into the soil. Alternatively, you can carve out the sprouting “eyes” from the starter potato, leaving a small chuck of flesh around each eye. The eye will sprout into the root system and foliage as seen above. Each eye you plant will produce an individual plant, so the more eyes you start with the more potatoes you’ll end up with. But remember they need room in the pot to handle all their newborns!

4. Water well and place in a location that will receive plenty of sun once the foliage emerges. Water regularly when the soil starts to dry, but don’t make your potatoes live in soggy soil. Potatoes are hardy and can tolerate a fair amount of abuse.

5. After 8 weeks, when foliage reaches 1 to 2 feet in height, gently pull the soil away from the base of the foliage to explore the size of the new potatoes. Harvest if they are a size you want to cook with or cover them back up and wait a couple more weeks if you want more mature potatoes. When harvesting, explore the soil well as the potatoes may be scattered throughout the container.

6. After harvesting the potatoes, you might place some of the small or imperfect ones back into the soil to start the process all over again.

The Windy City Lives Up To Its Name

That’s the doorway to my rooftop. There used to be a door there. Until a particularly strong gust of wind wrenched the hinges from their flimsy frame yesterday. After an hour of chiseling out the splinters from the hole, its ready for its makeover. Thank you, condo contractors, for thinking of that hydraulic damper, or doorstop, or reinforced frame, OR SOMETHING!!

Okay, that feels better. Planting postponed until tomorrow. And hopefully some “after” pics of this door mess. Unless it looks terrible, in which case I will conveniently forget an update. Off to Home Depot….

Get out of town! Surprising bevies of birds in Chicagoland.

My mom always used to say, “A watched pot never boils” whenever I’d get impatient for… eh hem… water to boil. And so it goes this weekend as the sun is out -there’s an appearance of Spring – but all I can do is watch my pea shoots on the rooftop. The only 2011 crop that can yet withstand the cold nights and windy days. I set out some beans to harden and the wind stripped their leaves in no time. So, until some milder weather, it’s pea shoots for me. And birds…

I wouldn’t have expected to see so many birds from my 4th story vantage point in the city, but I’ve seen a hawk munching on fresh kill, lots of seagulls, a red finch, 3 egrets, swallows, and about a million sparrows. Something even harvested a mouse and donated half of its body to my planter box. A temporary donation, as it was gone later in the day.

Watching for birds is plenty more interesting than watching pea shoots. In fact, I’ve adapted my moms saying: “A watched pea shoot is boring.” So, until May 15th, the suggested planting date for northern Illinois, I may just pay more attention to the birds. Here are some of the interesting and even surprising avian gatherings in the area:

1. Chicago’s own parrot colony of Monk parakeets, or Quaker parakeets, first arrived in Chicago in 1973, and has grown in numbers to over 200 (source). The colony is easy to see and even easier to hear. Visit the Harold Washington Park in Hyde Park at 5200 South Hyde Park Blvd. If you don’t see them right away, listen for their loud squawks- they won’t be far away. This article from Chicago Wilderness magazine shares their history.

2. The Bald Eagles at Plum Island Sanctuary and Starved Rock State Park have headed north, but high counts can be seen in the trees here during the winter. Just look at this photo from 2009 posted on magnificentfrigatebird.com– now that’s worth the drive next winter:

Here’s their link for the annual Starved Rock Eagle Watch.

3. Sandhill Cranes are another annual migrant who generally appear in Illinois farm fields and preserves in early spring. They are big, the are loud, and they seem almost prehistoric in their mystique. Here’s a nice article about their history in Chicago and another article about their large gathering in Indiana.

4. It’s always interesting to catch a glimpse of a rare bird that seems to have strayed into the Great Lakes flyway. Here’s an interesting week by week compilation of rare bird sightings that are called into the University of Arizona National Birding Hotline Cooperative. It may be Arizona but they get plenty of reports from the Great Lakes region. I’ve never even heard of some of these birds and probably wouldn’t know one when I saw it!

5. Cook County Forest Preserve’s Busse Woods is a great place for bird watching and often times you don’t even have to get off the freeway. (Although it’s highly recommended). Driving on I-90 near near Arlington Heights/Schaumburg, expect to see Great Blue Heron nets dotting the highest trees as you look West at their rookery. It’s almost seems strange, their gangly legs and crooked necks, standing up in their huge stick-woven nests. Might as well check out the Elk heard in Elk Grove Village while you’re in the area.

As fast-paced and sprawling as Chicago is, the city is still rewarded with rich ecological diversity due to its proximity to Lake Michigan, major river arteries, prairies,  and major migration routes. Who knows what bird will blow through the Windy City.

Sources for finding the best birding hot spots in Chicago and Illinois:

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.