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  HOME AND GARDEN » House Plants Gardenig Tips  

Organic products from your balcony… to your table
(By Andreas Barboutsis)

Every spring the balconies of many apartment buildings resemble hanging gardens, lending the beauty of their blooms to the overall aspect of the city: Wisterias and bougainvilleas climb up to the height of several stories to ornament grey blank walls, while in the constricted open spaces between the tall buildings, shrubs and trees flower thanks to the abundant sunlight and our scant ministrations.

Yearly however the number of rooftop “kitchen” gardens increases ¯ those small plots covering a few square metres, filled with all kinds of vegetables ¯ as well as the number of potted fruit-trees on verandas and the array of aromatic herbs on kitchen window-sills.

This trend is not new and certainly it is not a Greek invention. It has been a by-product of urban growth the world over, ever since the apartment buildings swallowed up the detached family homes with their surrounding modest gardens. Most Western European countries however have taken in the past decades the trend of the “city” garden one step further, introducing the system of “shared” gardens with wonderful results. These are in fact state or municipal owned plots of land which are parcelled out for a nominal rent to families eager to cultivate vegetables and fruits for their own consumption on their allotted patches.

Also, throughout the Western world, various “urban self-sufficiency” projects have been put into effect, aimed at popularising the concept of food production within the city limits. In many cases their implementation has been proved quite successful, which is very encouraging. One of the most impressive examples is that of Vancouver in Canada : under climatic conditions that are far less favourable than those prevailing at Athens , about half the households there produce part of the food they are consuming.

Furthermore, the trend to create vegetable gardens at home has acquired additional impetus ever since we have started worrying about the quality of the farm products we buy at the market.
The threat of genetically modified vegetables and fruits and the fear of pesticides are a clear indication that it would be worth our while to devote a modicum of our time to tend such a garden. Many are, as well, the benefits we would accrue in the process, the topmost being that home-grown produce is far more tasty than the market one, since it is harvested when fully ripe. On the contrary, the fruits and vegetables we buy from the greengrocer or the supermarket have been harvested quite unripe in order to survive the amount of time necessary for their transportation to the market and that spend on the self, while home-grown produce is consumed right away, without having been preserved at various degrees of refrigeration for several weeks as it generally does. Thus, our own fruits and vegetables provide us with the full benefit of their vitamins and nutritional value, which play such an important role in preserving our good health. Another benefit provided by the home garden ¯ apart from the fact that we re-establish a healthy relationship with nature and the rotation of the seasons¯ is the deep satisfaction that we will certainly feel when realizing that part of the food on our table has been produced by ourselves. Additionally, gardening is an excellent stress-reducing occupation, in which all the family can participate. In teaching our children the joys of tilling the soil, of pruning and of harvesting we will be introducing them to a harmless and rewarding pastime that will prove beneficial to the development of their character.

Many of us would have liked to establish a small vegetable garden at home, yet we hesitate from fear that the polluted city air will poison our plants. However, since the introduction of leadless gas, this danger has been diminished considerably, to the point that ¯ according to the experts ¯ at a distance of as less as some fifty metres from a highway it would be quite safe to cultivate our chosen vegetables.

The basic rules of successful gardening:

There are a few basic rules you would have to follow for your garden to flourish, even if your gardening experience is practically nil.
The position where you will establish your vegetable patch: it should be sheltered from strong winds and it should be receiving ample sunlight for several hours.
The soil should be fertile and with good drainage. Yet even common clay soils can always be improved with the application of humus and organic manure or compost.
• Watering should be done with great care, since not all vegetables need the same amount of water.
The seeds are a very important factor. At the nursery where you will purchase your seeds or seedlings, you can inquire which of your favourite vegetables are more likely to thrive in your area. It is worth the effort to seek seeds from local varieties or to buy organically produced seeds from specialized shops, in order to avoid hybrids. You should plant the seeds in small pots filled with turf or in seed trays, at the appropriate season and following the instructions on the seed-packet. You should take care to keep the soil moist until the seedlings appear, after which it is usually sufficient to water them once a day until such time as the seedlings have grown enough to be transplanted to their permanent position.
The number of plants you need should be carefully calculated beforehand. For example, a family of four does not need more than a dozen of tomato plants and ten cucumber plants in order to enjoy fresh, tasty salads throughout the summer months. You should however sow one-and-a-half more seed than the required quantity, in order to counter possible losses.
• Transplanting the seedlings: Whether you are going to transplant your seedlings in pots, containers or in open ground depends mainly on the size the particular plant is going to have when fully grown. The nursery from which you have purchased your seeds or seedlings is well qualified to advise you on the subject.
• Companion planting: Some plants get along well with other plants ¯ each grows better in the presence of the other ¯ and some do not. Tomatoes, for example, thrive when grown alongside carrots or celery, but they cannot stand the company of potatoes. Cucumber plants “adore” peas and onions, but do not grow well near radishes.
• Feeding your plants is not a difficult task. The nutrients necessary for the healthy grow of most plants are well known and there are many reliable fertilizers available, or you can apply well-rotted manure ¯ the tried and tested method of organic plant feeding.
• Plant pests. You can fight the pests that may afflict your plants by natural and harmless methods, without resorting to commercial pesticides. The all-consuming snails can be picked by hand off your plants, if you are to rise very early a couple of days and search for them among the leaves, or you can hunt them down at night with the aid of a flashlight. Also, spraying the plants with garlic juice, or well-cooled water in which you have boiled substantial quantities of various herbs, like wormwood or deadnettle, will keep at bay aphids, thrips and red spider mites.
You can find useful advice for all of the above in the gardening books and guides to organic gardening that are available in most bookstores.

• More advice: You will easily learn how to prune your plants and how to protect your small kitchen garden from winter frosts. And, after you will astonish your family and friends with your first spectacular successes, you may decide that it is high time you should accumulate (in a special container) all organic matter that is usually thrown away as garden and kitchen waste and transform it into extremely valuable compost which will make your soil healthy and provide your plants with nutrients and strength. You may even find both the money and the few square metres necessary in order to install on your roof or on your veranda one of those small “domestic” greenhouses that are now available in Greece, in which you would be able to cultivate your vegetables ¯ or even exotic fruits ¯ the year round. Also, it would not be difficult, even from the start, to build with bricks raised beds in your garden, so that all the work you will have to do will be done without stooping and without backaches. And later on, you may even decide to extend your activities and include animals in your “farm”. Hens (without a rooster, which may annoy the neighbours) are considered the easier domestic animals to breed and maintain.
• Conclusion: It is certain that you will not find it difficult to discover appropriate solutions to anything you may come up against, aided solely by the experience you will soon acquire and by your own creative imagination. Members of your family, or friends with whom you share the same passion for life, may also lend a helping hand.

A bounty to choose from:
The following list comprises of plants that are easy to cultivate and which, usually, will reward you with large crops.
• Vegetables: tomato, cucumber, peppers, eggplant, marrow, onion, leek, celery, carrot, radish, cabbage, lettuce, spinach, peas, beans.
• Fruits: strawberry, gooseberry, raspberry.
• Aromatic herbs: basil, rosemary, sage, mint, marjoram, oregano, thyme, parsley, rocket, laurel.
• Fruit trees: fig, apple, pear, apricot, quince, cherry, lemon.


It is advisable to divide the space allotted for a vegetable garden into four lots. On each lot you should grow different vegetables, so that in the next planting season each vegetable will be planted on a different lot. This method ensures better and larger crops, because on each planting season your plants, by changing soil, avoid plant diseases and insect enemies that live in the soil and affect the particular plants, while by changing site they find in the soil the necessary nutrients that often differ for each kind of plant.  

 Succession cropping

Conditional upon the soil being rich in organic matter, lot A should be planted with potatoes, lot B with root crops (turnips, beats, radishes), lot C with pulses and lot D with salad crops or green-leaf vegetables. The cultivation of potatoes results in keeping the soil loose and in reducing perennial weeds. On the other hand, by using large quantities of manure or fertilizer for the benefit of the potato crop, you are going to need less for the next three planting seasons, until you come back to growing potatoes on lot A.

After the potatoes have been harvested, lot A should be devoted to producing a root crop (turnips, beets, radishes), which grow better on soil that has been fertilized with manure for a previous crop. It is worth knowing that fresh manure affects badly root crops, causing their roots to grow unevenly and become “forked” into two or more rootlets.

In the next season you should plant in lot A pulses (peas, beans etc.). These have the quality of enriching the soil with nitrogen (by gathering up the atmospheric nitrogen, preserving it in the nodules of their roots and then, when the plant is cut off at ground level after harvesting, releasing it into the soil) which will benefit the crop that will follow. This should be a salad crop or green-leaf vegetables, while the next season plot A should again be devoted to potatoes. Plots B, C, and D should be planted accordingly, rotating the crops in the same order.

In order to keep your soil in prime condition you have to take care that it does not become deficient in lime. The soil that lacks lime cannot retain the main nutrients that feed the plants. Potatoes, especially, prefer acid soil; therefore lime should be added to each plot when potatoes are to be planted in it. In general, a soil with sufficient lime needs fewer fertilizers.

Crop rotation maintains the right balance of the various nutrients existing in the soil that are necessary to the plants. The soil is better aerated and supplied with the oxygen the soil bacteria need in order to transform manure and fertilizers into plant food. Crop rotation also prevents the establishment of parasites and the transmission of diseases that are endemic to certain groups of plants and are known as “soil diseases”.

In establishing your vegetable garden, you should not forget that you should also create paths between the various beds. You can pave them with stone slabs, bricks or gravel. Paths are necessary because they allow you, when it is raining or when the ground is muddy, to access the various beds and lift onions, cabbages, lettuce or other vegetables without compressing the soil with your steps.

Andreas Barboutsis



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