Lessons Learned in the Garden – Part 1

Big things are happening in my Garden In The Sky right now.  The strawberries have been steadily offering small but beautifully sweet, deep red fruits, the Night Blooming Stock and Sweet Peas on the front balcony have been filling the sitting room with perfume and on the back balcony the peas are sending down fat pods, the beans are extending sticky fingers outwards, the broccoli is flowering and my cucumbers have finally begun to grow.

It’s all very exciting, considering the humble beginnings!

Not exactly an ambitious start.
Not exactly an ambitious start.

You see, I have wanted a vegetable garden for as long as I can remember (or would like to, considering I can count those years in decades now, DECADES!  WITH AN “S”!) but I could never seem to find the right time, the right resources, the right place.  Ever since moving to Ireland I’ve lived in one apartment or another and the only time I’ve lived in a house where a vegetable garden would have been a possibility, I also lived with a super destructive, dig-happy dog.  No garden for me!

This year, something snapped.  I got tired of waiting.  I didn’t care that I hadn’t a patch of grassy turf, I had two balconies and half a notion of what I could do with them.  I WOULD PLANT SOMETHING! So, I began to plot.  And to draw.  And to Google.  And to literally dream of what I could do.  Then, at the beginning of March, I put my half-baked plan into action.

Since we are living in rented accommodation, I couldn’t do anything that would permanently damage the balconies.  That more than anything required some out of the box thinking, but I got there in the end.  Cable ties!  Cables ties would be the nails, screws and clamps for my garden.  Then, along with cable ties, I would need pots, soil, seed starting tools, bird safe netting and windbreak material.

Over the course of a weekend, the back balcony was transformed.

First things first. Scrub away that horrible green stuff that neglected balconies develop.
Balcony scrubbed, time to measure and plan. Oh, and get rid of those deck chairs.
These uprights would be responsible for keeping the wind break and bird safe netting in place. Since we don’t own the apartment however, everything I put up would have to be secure enough to stay in place, but also temporary. When this all has to come down again, there will be no trace left behind.

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Then the fun started.

I began to learn from my garden – not just that pea pods grew out of where the flowers had been, or that broccoli flowers in the middle of the plant, but lessons, some less welcome than others!  For instance, my garden taught me:

Forward Planning

My ambitions might not have been great at the start, but I researched the best conditions for the plants I intended to grow.  I made sure I planted them with room enough, but close enough to make the most use of the limited space.  I tried to ensure that things that would need big pots eventually got them now.  Every seed planted in my garden was first started indoors to protect young seedlings from spring frosts.  Then, as the madness enveloped me I bought more plants, more seeds.  I had to do more research, I had to sit down and think about where I would put these new plants, lest I run out of room or damage tender young plants by having to repot them later!

Broccoli and cauliflower plants all look the same at this stage, best to keep them separated!
Broccoli and cauliflower plants all look the same at this stage, best to keep them separated!


I am really bad at making hard decisions.  Especially when it comes to living things.  It’s why I wonder if, despite all my dreams about it, I would actually be able to be a small holder.  If you have a holding, no matter how small, eventually something has to die.

Thinning the seedlings was the hardest thing I’ve had to do up to this point for my garden.  I grew each of those seedlings from a seed that I watered, nurtured, protected from cold and roaming rabbits.  I took tender care of them, and it genuinely upset me to have to have choose which would live and which would be snipped off at soil level and fed to the aforementioned rabbits.  Sometimes the choice was easy, one seedling would be significantly weaker or smaller or deformed.  Snip!  Other times, the choice was so much harder.  Two perfect seedlings occupying one small pot that would soon become one too-small pot.  Both were tall and healthy, both had their second set of leaves spread open to the sunshine.  I would have to be ruthless.  One of those perfect seedlings would have to be sacrificed.  Snip!  If I wanted a thriving seedling, I would have to dedicate all of the limited resources of a pot to just one.

I’m not ashamed to admit it upset me.

More seedlings than I needed, but it still seemed a terrible waste.
More seedlings than I needed, but it still seemed a terrible waste.

Creative Thinking

As my plant collection grew there just wasn’t enough room for everything to be grown in pots on the ground.  I needed to think upwards.  Lettuces, radishes, spinach, spring onions, there are a lot of vegetables that are happy to grow in smaller or shallower pots, which meant window baskets attached to the balcony railings would be a real space saving solution.

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Then came the hardest part after thinning the seedlings; the waiting.  You can’t rush nature, not if you are trying to garden as naturally as possible in an unnatural garden.  Maybe it’s first timer’s naiveté, maybe it’s some misguided notion about what “natural” really is, but I wanted to let my garden grow at its own pace.  When it’s your first time however, letting things proceed according to their own schedule can be hard to do.  I wanted everything to grow NOW.  I watered the plants religiously everyday while they were seedlings in the greenhouse with a spray bottle, once they were planted out, I watered them every other day with a gentle rose nozzle watering can.  As spring warmed, I watched my radishes thrive and some of the other more temperature tolerant plants develop.  My courgette seedling exploded in a flurry of fuzzy leaves with stiff bristled stems.


I also cursed and sighed and wondered what I had done wrong as my Sugar Baby Watermelon seedlings and cucumbers huddled, closed up and shivering in the cool spring breezes, and didn’t grow, didn’t thrive.  I checked the daily temperatures and muttered every time the daily high was estimated to be in the mid-teens Celsius.

Continued in Part 2


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