Each year a new enemy in the garden . . .

The squirrel is avoiding my garden, the birds have nested elsewhere — and now the wasps have invaded. Every year, I get a new foe to battle against in the garden.

I have a mini-potager on my balcony, which measures some 40 square feet. I grow herbs, tomatoes, peppers and a tiny crop of snacking vegies like radishes and carrots. When I started pot-gardening, I was the only one in my complex who grew plants in this way. The most other renters did was plant a couple of begonias or geraniums in a window box or hanging basket.

Now, a number of my neighbors have tomatoes, peppers, herbs and even an apple tree in a pot. The railings on many units are lined with bright flowers and long, waving vines. It makes our complex into a little, old-fashioned neighborhood.

But I have something unique in my garden. In addition to the plants, I also grow an adventure — because every year, I face off against a foe determined to get to the harvest before I do. My supervillains come from a rotating roster — squirrels, then birds, then squirrels.

Some years, the birds will try to eat everything before I can even begin to harvest the crop, often taking one bite to sample the vegie, then leaving it for another vegie they like better. In alternate years, the squirrels shimmy up the wall, slip through the railing and fixate on one particular type of plant to be added to their diet. Last year, the squirrels ate tomatoes — and I’m not referring to the fruit. A squirrel literally ate a six-foot tall Cherokee Purple tomato down to the dirt, fruit, leaves, vine and all. Two years earlier, they ate every thyme plant I put in, and on their previous visit, they found the onions absolutely irresistible.

The birds moved on, of their own choosing. They’re now nesting in the open spaces in the brickwork outside the storage units on each floor, and while they do pull some threads from my coir basketliners, and peck the occasional tomato, they now leave my plants alone. There are enough bird feeders in our complex that the birds no longer lack food.

The squirrels are held at bay by a pungent ‘small rodent’ repellent that is, as far as I can tell, at least 90% capsicum. That’s pepper, extremely hot pepper, like, Ghost Pepper hot. I spray it on the bricks, and the bushy-tailed rodents will climb partway up, stop and scrunch up their noses in disgust, then turn and scurry away.

I thought I would be free to garden this year. However, I’ve been graced with something new — wasps. Big, black, nasty, aggressive, ready to sting me if I so much as put my nose out the doors. I’ve resorted to watering at night (just came back inside from doing that) because they’re not buzzing around my head at midnight.

They’re persistent, I’ll give them that. They started late in May by building a little nest in the far corner of the storage unit. I knocked it down, and sprayed the site with repellent. I didn’t really want to use the heavy sprays, but my friends come over with their children and I don’t want the rugrats to be stung. Two days later, I stepped out, was buzzed and looked up to find another nest being built in a different corner of the storage unit. So I sprayed again.

And found a pattern. I knock down a nest — and the wasps build another, closer to the patio door. As I’m writing this the nest is literally outside the door, just off the edge of the door frame.

Which is annoying, because my plants are really taking off now, and I’d like to go out and get some pictures to post. I picked up these interesting cherry and grape tomatoes — Tumbling Tom and Window Box. Tom is a tiny plant — the height doesn’t get much more than six inches tall, but the plants spread, and trail down, and last year I got sick of cherry tomatoes long before the plants stopped producing. Window Box is new, and thus far seems to be taller and leggier. Still, it’s getting a respectable crop of tomatoes as well. My other tomatoes are growing nicely, and my peppers, with one exception, are finally taking hold. The miniature red bell pepper died — not sure why, but the second coming of the Flood may have had something to do with it. It’s literally rained 24 out of 30 days this June, and peppers just love the sun and hate excess rain. I had to move the pots back from the railing and into the shade to keep the plants from drowning.

Other than watering, I can’t really go outside to do any serious gardening, take pictures, or just enjoy my balcony, until the wasps are gone. Which is why I’m getting up early, to have the apartment just take out the bugs. I checked with the neighbors — and no one else is being bothered by them. Something about me, my balcony or my plant selection seems to have them focused on me.

Hopefully, though, by tomorrow they’ll be gone, and I’ll be able to take some pictures. Meanwhile, I’m occupying myself with making a to-do list — which is now up to seven pages. I’m going to be busy this summer.

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Rosemary and tomatoes and eggplant, oh my

My version of spring fever has now officially arrived — along with an onslaught of gardening catalogs, seed packets and some very lovely plants on websites.

It’s time to plan out my garden.

Yes, I do live in an apartment.

Doesn’t matter, because I can still have a garden — thanks to a medium-sunny, 50-odd-square-foot balcony.

My home is what realtors called an ‘old-fashioned garden’ apartment.  It was built some decades ago, and is literally set in a mini-park.  The curving main street and parking lot cul-de-sacs are lined with giant oaks and smaller dogwoods and pines, there are several large lawns and, bonus feature for me, my apartment looks out over the main lawn with its wandering stream, little bridge and lovely willows.

before the storm

But the main feature, for me at least, is the balcony.  Squint at the buildings above, and you’ll see that each apartment has a balcony or patio that runs roughly half the length of the apartment.  And they’re not narrow, the balconies measure 5-feet or so from the sliding glass door to the railing and another 8-10 feet in clear-length (the remaining 4 feet or so is a utility closet housing the heating and a/c units).

Which gives me more than adequate space for a mini kitchen garden, providing me with a spot to tinker with plants, de-stress while I water and prune and harvest, sit in the summer evenings and enjoy the fragrance of my favorite flowers while I read a book and sip some great coffee.

The plants can vary from year to year, as you’ll read below, and so do the surprises.  For several years, a pair of sparrows laid their eggs in one of my hanging baskets, then proceeded to raise their family around the minor inconvenience of a human who walked around the nest.  I nearly fell over the railing in shock when one of the fledglings landed on the table next to my coffee cup on his/her first flight attempt.  The sparrows no longer use my hanging baskets — they’ve bought up into a veritable family colony in the decorative brickwork of our building’s outer walls.  Instead, last year I got squirrels that ate all the tomato plants.  Really.  They ate the plants down to the dirt.

So, what else do I grow in my sort-of kitchen garden?

I always have at least one red (sometimes yellow), currant tomato.  Not only are these plants prolific — there are always at least 30-40 little dime-sized fruits ripening on the vine — but they’re quite attractive with their silvery-light-green lacy leaves and branches.  At their base, and in a separate wide bowl set far back in the shade, I sprinkle a variety of lettuces and greens — miniaturized balls of butter and romaine, oakleaf, radicchio (Castelfranco has such beautiful leaves!), mustard, sorrel, purslane and spinach.  I mix in some French breakfast radishes — if I time it correctly, I essentially get a new crop every thirty days.  And I’ll pot a couple of eggplants together with more lettuce — I’m particularly fond of the Hansel and Gretel minis, which reliably yield a bevy of one-serving sized eggplants.   (For reasons I will never understand, I seem to be the only person I know who likes eggplant.)

And then, I experiment.

One year I grew runner beans — which literally ran all over the railing and blocked the sun from the rest of the plants.  I’ve tried peas, which pulled the same stunt as the runner beans and then had the nerve to attract every squirrel in the complex, who ate the pea pods before they fattened up.  I’ve grown broccoli (not a rousing success), artichokes (which yielded a grand total of three artichokes), cabbages (take up way too much room!), and cauliflower (also a favorite of the squirrels).

I’ve had more success with ‘baby’ versions of root vegetables — if I’m patient, carrots, beets and turnips planted in with the other plants will yield a small crop of tasty snacks by mid-September.  And the fun of having your own fresh peppers cannot be overstated — there are now ‘mini’ versions of red and yellow and chocolate bell peppers.  I did learn, though, that one or two jalapeno or cayenne peppers is more than enough — those plants are the over-achievers of the garden world.  I couldn’t give away the jalapenos one year, people were so sick of them!

Naturally, though, the vegies I like the most are the ones that I can’t seem to consistently grow — cucumbers, zucchini and squash.  It doesn’t matter whether I scrub out the old pots, buy new ones and/or use completely fresh, non-peat-moss-based potting soil.  Within 2-3 weeks of planting them, I’ll have that flaky white dusty leaf-rot infecting the plants.  I may just skip them this year — the farmers’ markets are always filled with a variety of different types of these vegies.

I also grow herbs in hanging baskets, some of which I over-winter and then set back out the following year.  My standards run to the culinary plants — parsley, sage, rosemary, oregano, chives, dill, and so much basil and thyme.  More accurately, I’ll usually have Italian large-leaf parsley; green and purple sages; Greek oregano; garlic and plain chives; prostrate and Salem rosemary; fernleaf dill; and as I said, so much basil and thyme.  Italian and Neapolitano, purple and lemon basil; French, English, lemon, nutmeg and silver thyme.

Thyme, to me, is the perfect seasoning — I use it in everything.

To that lot, I add a few single plants — winter savory is one of my favorites, when I can get it, as it has a stronger flavor than its summer counterpart.  A lemon verbena mini-bush and a few scattered pots with chocolate and black peppermint and apple spearmint provide flavoring for summer tea.  And then, I sometimes add the odd herb, depending upon what I find at the annual Herb Sale at Yellow Springs.

The kitchen garden is not complete without flowers, and so my window boxes will feature a mix of alyssum, purple petunias, and bright red ivy leaf geraniums.   The spicy scent of alyssum and the petunias are wonderful in the summer night air, and the scent and bright colors also serve to draw bees in to pollinate the plants.  A few nasturtiums scattered among the vegetables and herbs, and the garden is complete.

Last weekend, I impatiently went through my seeds, and before writing this entry, I’d gone online and placed my order at a lovely website that provides what I call ‘apartment-sized’ packets of seeds (small amounts, 50 seeds or so, as opposed to the 200-seed packets that you see elsewhere).  I also placed my order for tomatoes and peppers and eggplants at the nursery near New Hope, which lets you reserve your plants online, then pick them up later.  I have lots more work to do, but my soul (and impatient mind!) have been soothed by the idea that at least now, I’ve started on the garden.

I just have to wait for that pesky frost date to pass before I can really get out there and plant!