Monday, March 5, 2012

Gardening for apartment-dwellers

Small-Space Container Gardens, by Fern Richardson, arrived in bookstores last month. I found it at Mrs. Dalloway's Literary and Garden Arts, the nearest independent bookstore to where I live.

Mrs. Dalloway's serves the many, many gardeners in Berkeley -- the folks who make walks around town so easy on the eyes. But it also caters to the literati. While I was there this weekend I picked up The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder to complement what may be the first gardening book I've ever bought in my entire black-thumbed life.

Why a gardening book? Why now? Why a focus on gardens composed of plants in pots?

In reverse order: because I live in an apartment; because the book was just published; and because Fern Richardson is my cousin and I'm delighted that Timber Press has brought her expertise and sensibility to gardeners everywhere. Fern blogs at Life on the Balcony. Those who want to verify that this author knows her container gardens thus have ample opportunity to try before they buy ... Fern's blog is a hyperlinked cornucopia for gardeners of modest estate.

Genetics suggest that I should be a terrific gardener. My mother and grandmother grew bountiful plots of vegetables and herbs from the time our family moved to California. My sister has a green thumb, and her partner has a greener thumb still. And then there's Fern, on my father's side of our family, who's talented enough to publish on the topic ... she credits my father's sister, her grandma, for helping her to get started.

So much for genetics. I can barely keep a cactus alive.

So the other night I carried my newly-purchased copy of Small-Space Container Gardens to the café down the street, ordered dinner, and turned first to Chapter 8: Green Thumb Crash Course - Learning the Essentials for Success. By the time salad arrived I'd learned that I pot plants incorrectly (though now I know better!), and that I'd be well-advised to buy a better grade of potting soil than the cheap stuff on sale at the hardware store down the street. At least I've been watering at the right time of day: "in the morning [to give] the sun a chance to dry up any water droplets that landed on leaves, reducing the likelihood of a moisture-loving disease afflicting your plant."

As I paged through her book I was particularly amused by Fern's reference to a Supreme Court case: "Also, ignore what the Supreme Court wrote in Nix v. Hedden: tomatoes are not a vegetable, they are a fruit." Though you wouldn't necessarily think it of a master gardener, Fern has a law degree ... giving her citation of 19th jurists particular zing.

Small-Space Container Gardens has something for everyone. Interested in attracting birds and bees to your balcony? Chapter 3. Is your goal to plant a garden that will transform your balcony into a private oasis? Chapter 6. Concerned about weather's effect on your budding plants? Chapter 2. Are you interested in dining on your container garden's bounty? Chapter 4.

I don't know that even Fern's green-thumb genius can turn around my lifelong incompetence when it comes to growing plants. But you never know....

Apologies for the blurriness of my iPod's photo of Small-Space Container Gardens on the display table at Mrs. Dalloway's bookstore. The book itself is crystal clear and beautifully illustrated. I was delighted to discover that this image was the author's first sighting of her book "in the wild."

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Flowery front yards in Berkeley
Autumn in Berkeley
Watching food terroir go national


  1. Thanks so much for your review, Steve!

    Gardeners might not like to admit this, but I have no qualms in saying it: You have to kill a lot of plants before you can develop a green thumb. And I still kill plants from time to time. Mickey always acts like it is a supreme tragedy to throw a dead plant out, that I should give it "one more try." But with such a small garden, I kind of look forward to the opportunity to buy a new plant.

  2. Steve -
    You could just blog about amazing people you are related to! I've wasted a ton of time on Fern's website now and plan on doing her pallet garden this spring. Thanks! Lindy

  3. @Fern -- I hope that means I'm well on my way!

    @Lindy -- There are lots of amazing people out there, and I'm glad to be related to some of them, one way or another, family, friends, colleagues, neighbors. It's almost enough to undermine my self-image as a hermit. I hope the pallet garden is a resounding success...