The Magic of the Micro-Garden: Foodie Underground

micro garden

ColumnThere is more to micro-gardens than just food.

Have a few plants that you tend to? Then you have a micro-garden. It’s a thing, of course.

As NPR’s The Salt explains, “The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has lately been talking about micro-gardens as critical way to help the urban poor get more food on the table. The FAO defines micro-gardens intensively cultivated small spaces — such as balconies, small yards, patios and rooftops. Many rely on containers such as plastic-lined wooden boxes, trash cans and even old car tires.”

While most of us aren’t going to base our entire diet off of the small harvest we get from our plants, contributing in some small way–no matter how small–to what you eat, is a rewarding thing. Basil, mint, kale; these plants aren’t going to keep me fed all summer long – and if my homegrown kale was required to save the world, we’d be waiting for a very long time – but every morning when I wake up and look to see if they have grown a bit overnight, I feel happy.

Just like with food, there is beauty in simplicity, and as such, the payoffs are always greater than what you envision as you set off on your planting adventures.

Although I grew up with a large garden, I am not a gardening master. My small potted plants that constitute my urban micro-garden are a foray into trying to grow at least a few things that are edible and partake in the amazing process of watching something go from seed to food. But this also means that whenever a new bud pops up in one of the pots, I am hesitant to pull it. Anything that manages to grow on a 4th floor window balcony is a sacred thing. So I give it a few days, and if it appears to be a weed I will then get rid of it. But if it looks interesting, it stays.

This has, of course, been the unexpected delight of tending plants with homegrown compost; you never know what seeds from the food you eat are going to make it into your dirt. Which is how a little green spurt that was deemed “not a weed” soon grew to larger proportions.

I had to send a photo to my mother for verification: “is this a tomato plant?”

The fact that maybe I had a tomato plant randomly growing on my tiny urban window balcony seemed to good to be true.

“Definitely a tomato plant!” my mother the well-trusted gardener wrote back.

Great.

While the poor little red-leafed basil plant that I have been trying to nurse into adulthood sits looking depressed with its tiny little leaves, a tomato, whose planting I had nothing to do with, decides to take root and flourish. Obviously I have much to learn about gardening.

That little red-leafed basil had been purchased a couple of months earlier at the weekend organic market. With a small window balcony for planting, trying to get basil going is more of a comfort than a food thing. If you want to make pesto, you’re going to have to go and buy full bunches at the market. But having a basil plant is pleasing, and adding a few leaves here and there to a few dishes is very satisfying. Hence the desire for a little basil plant.

But the red-leafed basil never did very well. For the last two months it sat there, on the verge of death, but refusing to completely die off. I was determined though. I propped it up, I watered it, I talked to it; nothing helped. It remained a depressed looking little plant.

Until the tomato showed up. Now, the tomato plant is almost a foot tall and the basil plant is thriving.

“Do you think they have some kind of symbiotic relationship?” I asked my friend Emily.

“Well yeah, plants need friends too,” she responded.

It’s true.

Plants do need good companions to do we well in life (it’s called “companion planting“). And just like us, they need the right ones. As the seed company Burpee out it “relationships between plants are varied – similar to relationships between people. In plant communities, certain plants support each other while others, well, just don’t get along.”

Luckily, as it turns out, tomato and basil are best friends in the plant world.

Funny how this little micro-garden is a reminded of how we’re not much different than plants. We need to be taken care of, enough sun, enough water. And we all need a companion to thrive. Be it a friend, a partner, or just someone to drink coffee in the afternoon with. Life lessons from your micro-garden.

There’s a tomato plant popping up in my kale planter now, too. And in the other basil pot. I’ll let them stay.

This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.

Image: Anna Brones

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