While so much has changed over the past year, one thing that changed for me in the garden realm was giving up a balcony. In the autumn, my husband and I moved into a new apartment and although we thought we would not give up a balcony, we ended up falling in love with the space and decided to compromise. Luckily, all is not completely lost when it comes to indoor and outdoor growing space in the new place. I can’t wait to share with you the new projects and challenges to come, but in the meantime, let’s review the highlights of the Balkongarten this past year.
It might seem odd to start with winter, but winter is the preparation for the following growing season. I planted spring bulbs in containers relatively late, in December 2019, a task normally completed in September-November, but time got the better of me during the last months of 2019, to the point where I almost didn’t plant them. I’m so glad I did because they were a sliver of joy for myself during the stressful spring. This winter I’m pushing the boundaries with spring bulbs, having potted up one container in our new place in mid-January 2021 and stowed it away in our new attic space until I can get the next project started: where they will eventually live outside, their new home on the windowsills! (but that’s a later article). If the attic doesn’t get cold enough, there might not be any blooms this year but that’s the fun with experimentation: you won’t know until you try!
A tip for planting bulbs in containers:
Pre-moisten the potting mix before beginning. I was lazy in December 2019 and used a potting mix straight from the bag, then watered from above/soaked from below. The potting mix repelled the water and went straight through the container without much absorption. This is especially common with potting mixes that are compacted with less weight or made with coconut coir. By the end of December I ended up having to unpot the bulbs and agitate the mix with my hand while watering to finally get it to absorb. Save yourself the time and pre-moisten the mix before you begin filling containers.
A new lesson learned
One major thing I learned over the winter is that if you store dahlia tubers, or Dahlieknollen, they need to be stored below 10ºC (50ºF). Winter 2019-2020 was my first attempt to store tubers, and it was successful…in a way.
I used a cardboard box, placed the tubers inside, filled it with an old, lightly-moistened potting mix, then tucked it away in the building basement. Now, this wasn’t a fully underground basement in American terms but a half underground basement, which helps create what’s called a Hochparterre in German terms. A Hochparterre means the ground-level apartments are not actually located directly on the ground but a half level up since no one wants to live directly at street level for fear of break-ins, though I’d argue the neighborhood watch helps prevent that (I’m looking at you alte Frauen).
While checking the box’s moisture level in February I found the tubers had sprouted long ghostly stalks, presumably searching for light. This is when I learned that the half-underground basement of the building was not cold enough to keep the tubers dormant over winter.
Dahlia tubers should be stored between 4º-10ºC (39º-50ºF). Since I didn’t have access to a cooler spot that was not the freezing temperatures outside, I potted them up in February and placed them next to the windows inside our living room. I had never really appreciated how fast dahlias grow, as they proceeded to take over space in our living room until they were placed outside after the last frost in April. They first bloomed in May; typical bloom time begins in July! It was a good insight into how some commercial growers may manipulate flower bloom times through temperature adjustments. At the end of the year, I might try storing dahlia tubers again in our new attic space, which is significantly chillier than the basement of the previous building.
Warmer weather arrived in March and with it came the first crocus and miniature iris blooms. This was when the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic and it was at this time that I really appreciated the Balkongarten. It was the only place where I could take my mind off the current events, watching the crocuses open and close as clouds float by and bumblebees collect nectar from blooms provided some much needed meditation during the chaos.
April arrived when a different and good kind of chaos brewed, seed sowing! I told myself last season that I would dial back on the balcony, focusing more on herbs and flowers in 2020. As you can tell from the photos below, that went out the window. The borders were closed, meaning there was no access to the Kleingarten just 200m (660ft) over it, and who was I to miss out on growing vegetables that season? And, as a fellow plant lover on Instagram commented, “who needs to sit anyway?” It turned out to be a fun experience, learning how to grow a few new vegetables in containers even if they didn’t turn out perfectly, but more on that later.
Two new vegetables on the balcony were peas and beans. Being stuck at home meant more time to figure out how to fit more plants on the balcony. I pictured the side wall would turn into a Naschgärtchen with lush green vines of vegetables to snack on, and while it was a minor success with a few peas and beans to harvest, unfortunately the Balkongarten did not receive enough full sunlight in this area throughout the day. Despite it facing south, the ceiling blocked some hours of potential sunlight, and only plants on the ledge received a full day’s worth of sun. I had trouble getting the pea and bean seeds to sprout because the container stayed too cool. Makeshift cloches helped a little but it would have been better to set the boxes on the sunny ledge until the seeds germinated. I’m still happy with the experiment and what didn’t work for me might work for you, so here’s a quick breakdown of what I did:
I used some old ribbon yarn for the structure, tied some knots across the top horizontal strip to hold the vertical strands in place then wrapped the vertical strands around one of the wood planks on the bench to anchor it. I would recommend using a stronger string or rope in case you have better luck than I did to hold the weight of the plants. The potential load-bearing limit didn’t come to mind until after everything was hung up, though fortunately/unfortunately I didn’t grow enough plant mass for it to become an issue.
By mid-April the tulips, anemones and grape hyacinths were at their peak and buzzing with activity from various bee species.
Another experiment was a few polyculture pots. I created one container with carrot and lettuce seed and another container with parsnip and spinach seed. I used the lettuce and spinach as mini greens while waiting on the carrots and parsnip seeds to germinate. It would have been best to thin out the lettuce and spinach to just 2-3 plants instead of 10 for the size of pots that I used (or, you know, use larger pots), but overall I was happy and harvested a few carrots and parsnips by the end of summer.
A New Pest
Growing the spinach in cramped, less-than-ideal conditions attracted a new unfamiliar pest: leafminers. They can be found burrowing between the upper and lower leaf epidermis of leaves. Luckily, they are easy to spot in the leaf during the larva stage and can easily be cut out, but the damage will have already been done. To spot the problem beforehand, check the underside of leaves for tiny white eggs and gently scrape them off with your fingernail to crush them with your fingers.
As you can tell from the above photo I also had a familiar foe: aphids. I resisted the urge to use neem oil to attract the familiar ladybug predator which paid off because I also attracted the less familiar hoverfly and parasitic wasp predators. As much as I don’t want to watch my plants grow weak from pests, I really do enjoy watching aphid predators, which is why I tolerate the aphids. I mean, you’ve got to admit watching this hoverfly larvae eat an aphid is pretty cool, and so is watching the parasitic wasp hunt for aphids.
I also really enjoy the adult hoverfly behavior, swaying from left to right in a sharp zig-zag manner, sometimes abruptly hovering for several seconds to inspect whether I was a friend or foe, as they searched for plants to lay eggs. The hoverflies most likely wouldn’t have arrived if it weren’t for the shallow-faced flowers of wild carrot, dill, and alyssum on the balcony, so if you wish to attract these curious little flyers be sure to have one of these flowers around as a nectar source for the adults.
By June I hung some lights and planted a few brightly-colored flowers to add some festivity to the space. The flowers attracted more pollinators to watch during the day, while the lights gave the warm evenings of sipping wine a nice glow.
August arrived when many plants were looking less than stellar from the summer heat but I didn’t mind because it was still a place of refuge. If we were still living there I would try setting up an irrigation system. As I’ve stated in a past post, my least-favorite garden activity is watering, and though I watered at least twice a day it didn’t seem to be enough. I think the plants in this space would have prefered a slow, steady drip for 1-2 hours twice a day for a more even distribution of moisture throughout the day.
One of the few plants that loved the heat was the tomatillo. It was huge! I got a lot of flowers but not many tomatillos themselves, though that was due to laziness of not collecting pollen from a friend’s tomatillo plant. Tomatillos are not good self-pollinators and require at least one other plant for cross pollinating. On my plant with more than 100 flowers and I received maybe 10 small tomatillos. They are very large, prolific plants so I do not recommend growing them on a small balcony, and since they do grow large they will require support. In the sheltered corner of the balcony I tied the main stem to a wire trellis. If you have a large balcony, and one that is large enough for two plants, then definitely give them a try.
Autumn arrived and it was time to pack the apartment, harvest the last summer tomatoes, and clean the balcony. We were ready to move but it was bittersweet leaving the balcony behind. I learned a lot about container gardening in this space and still have a lot more to learn about it. Thankfully, I can continue to learn in the new apartment though it will be a little different, but I’ll get to that in a future post. We still live near the Kleingarten so there will still be plenty to learn and do there but until then I say farewell, Balkongarten, you were a great teacher.
It’s been one month since Germany closed its borders to neighboring countries, one month since we’ve been able to visit the Kleingarten located only 200m (660ft) in Switzerland. It’s a little sad not being able to observe the garden transition into spring. Around this time of year the fruit trees are blooming and it’s the perfect time to celebrate spring by cooking food over a fire. We were lucky enough to enjoy a small picnic, with proper social distancing of course, under the flowering plum tree the day before the closing.
When we left, the onions and raspberry brushes were awakening from their wintery slumber and we noticed the tiniest of seedlings popping out of the prepared meadow areas from the fall. They were so small that it was undetermined whether they were in fact the meadow seedlings or weeds, though I have the sneaking suspicion that the birds might have helped themselves to the seeds over winter. If we had access to the garden to see if they are weeds, we could have cheated and sowed another round of the mixes and protected them from the birds with a thin layer of fleece until germination.
The garden probably looks a bit rough at the moment with overgrown grass, but we enjoy its wild look and in the past have even put off mowing a few extra days to enjoy the casual nature of the space. Before the border closing, Dan, a member of the Schrebergartencrew, sowed peas, carrots, cilantro, spring onions, spinach, and potatoes, of which the carrots and peas had already begun sprouting.
I’m confident the vegetable seedlings will do well in our absence, so long as the slugs show some mercy; I am slightly concerned about the meadows sown last fall, as they are supposed to be mowed by mid-May for the success of the project. It would be a shame to see the hard work from the garden crew go to waste, but there is a more concerning issue that needs to be carried out by June: the winter rye cover crop.
For the three sisters project—corn, beans and squash—we sowed a cover crop of winter rye Secale cereale and hairy vetch Vicia villosa in September 2019. Cover crops suppress weeds, protect the soil from the winter elements, and improve soil structure when chopped and dropped or rolled and crimped the following late spring. As a grass, winter rye usually grows back when you cut it, but it won’t if cut at a certain time, and this trait makes it an easy annual cover crop. And the time of the cut varies from year to year based on the weather.
How it works: the rye grows in the vegetative state from late summer to early spring. Then when daylength reaches 14 hours it’s triggered into the reproductive state of forming flower heads. Part way through seed maturity, during the milk stage, is the time to cut the rye. The ‘milk’ is the nutritious sap sent up from the roots and body of the plant; it’s the perfect time to cut because the movement of sap makes the plant think it has fulfilled its purpose producing the next generation. Cut the rye too early, the roots still have the nutrients and energy to grow vigorously in order to produce another seed head. Cut the rye too late, you lose the benefit of storing the nutrients from the decaying roots in the ground because all the nutrients will be in the seeds above ground and the seed might spread.
Depending on how warm or cool the spring is depends on whether the chop and drop occurs in May or June, at least in our area; it is not done on a specific date in the year. Last year we chopped it in early to mid-June; this spring we’ve experienced some lovely almost early summer-like weather so the rye might need cutting in late May.
The maturing winter rye seed heads are also a wonderful indicator of warm temperatures and tell you, as a gardener, that it’s time to plant out the warm season crops such as the three sisters, tomatoes, peppers, sunflowers etc. I’m nervous about spreading the rye to the three neighboring plots. Once the milk stage begins, there is a 2-3 week window to cut the plant and if the German-Swiss border stays closed by mid or late June, I feel we will have a headache later in the year with the neighbors.
Though we haven’t been able to visit the Kleingarten, the Balkongarten has taken off! The flowering waves of Blumenzwiebel are a joy to observe now more than ever during these uncertain stressful times. The miniature irises and crocuses were a beautiful first act followed by the lightly scented grape hyacinths and anemones with the now grand finale of tulips. Behind the scenes of the spring bulb performance the herbs, leafy greens, and flower seedlings are germinating for their mid spring and summer debut.
This is my fourth year container gardening and second year seed growing, and so far there’s a noticeable improvement in my abilities, everything seems to be faring much better than previous years. The major change I’ve made is consistent fertilizing with liquid seaweed and adding a top dressing of worm compost to the pots. But I believe the biggest contributing factor to the improvement is the focus. My attention is not divided between the Balkongarten and Kleingarten at the moment, giving me more time to make mistakes, act quickly, observe, and learn from them. It’s also allowing me to accomplish tasks, such as potting on, at the correct time.
This year’s balcony plan was supposed to focus on herbs, leafy greens, and a few flowers but due to the circumstances I’m growing a tomatillo, a few tomatoes, carrots, and parsnips as well. In fact, because of the extra time at home, I thought of a way to squeeze more plants on the balcony by creating a string wall for the spring peas and summer beans to grow up. Will it be a problem to lose my focus growing a few vegetables on the balcony this year? Probably, but that’s the beauty of learning.
And with the extra plants comes the shrinking of space. I’m facing the small-space dilemma many gardeners are experiencing: not having enough room for all the seeds that were sown. This is not the worst problem to have, for the seedlings bring us joy and they are a way to spread joy to the community, which is needed at the moment. If you feel comfortable and have extra seedlings, set them on the street with a sign stating “free seedlings” or in my case “Setzlinge zu verschenken.” Be sure to wash the outside of your pots with a mild soapy mixture to prevent the spread of the virus, being careful not to get soap on the soil. Your seedlings will brighten someone’s day on their walk outside the home.
It’s important during this time not to lose hope. We will get through this crisis and become stronger as a result. I hope you are staying safe and if you’re feeling stressed, remember that a garden, whether it’s a large plot of land or two pots on a windowsill, is there to help soothe an anxious mind.
Living in Germany has its difficulties, particularly as a non-native speaker. In an ideal world I would be able to find everything I need to apply what I preach, but that can be challenging. The most obvious hurdle is language. I don’t know all the German terminology associated with gardening; it’s learn-as-you-go. This can be annoying since I don’t even possess the common knowledge of where to find certain products like I do in the States, not to mention not knowing the names of the products.
For example, where can one find speciality spring bulbs? In the US, I can instantly name a few familiar nurseries (Brent & Becky’s, Burpee, Spring Hill, Gurney’s, etc) and then rank them in speciality, quality, and expense to decide which nursery to order from.
Now, tell me, where I can buy spring bulbs in Germany?
Let’s walk through the process.
The literal translation for spring bulb is Fruehlingszwiebel but Zwiebel also means onion. Search ‘Fruehlingszwiebel’ brings up sites selling green onion bulbs.
Let’s use a specific spring bulb in order to refine the search: Tulip. What’s the German name? Head to a translation site, find “Tulpe”, search, and the first result is a company named Albrecht Hoch.de. It looks like a nice spring bulb site, with no mention of the word “spring bulb”.
Next result, Samen Mauser.ch, a Swiss site. I can’t easily order from there since it’s out of the country and uses a different currency, but it lists Blumenzwiebel. Of course! Flowering bulb! Why didn’t I think of that? Type in ‘Blumenzwiebel’, search, and finally multiple results.
Now, it’s time to sort through and rank which nurseries are best to order from. Start the next research process.
Most of the time it’s fun to research and learn the German name of a plant. A favorite of mine is Stiefmuetterchen which translates ‘little step mother’ for pansies Viola tricolor hortensis and Fingerhut, ‘finger hat’ foxglove Digitalis purpurea.
But it’s also a pain when I want to quickly look something up, or if I’m in a store trying to decipher a label. Not only do I need to learn the new word, I have to retain it, something that does not come easily to me.
A huge hurdle when learning German is memorizing words. I’m terrible! And yet, I love learning the language. I’m not entirely sure why: it’s not the prettiest to listen to, although I’d argue that it’s not as ugly as most make it out to be. Many examples Americans hear are in anger, which emphasizes the harshness of the language, but in everyday speech it’s pleasant. The grammar is difficult, to put it mildly. It’s frustrating when you don’t understand a rule but so satisfying once you finally do and can move on to the next frustrating one. It’s definitely a love-hate relationship.
The owner of the garden constantly has to repeat the German names of the plants in the garden. I’ve started to think that I should start labeling them with hanging tags in order to memorize everything. Can you imagine seeing large brightly colored tags with bold names hanging off of everything in a garden?
However, I am also attempting to memorize latin names too since it’s the international identification language. This might not be a bad idea. I think that this weekend I might just become that crazy American who labels everything.
Bicycling is one of my favorite things about living in Germany. There are clearly-marked lanes specifically for bicyclists and should you accidently wander into one, you will be reminded by angry shouts and ringing bells, or simply run over.
Motorists, the majority of the time, are fairly respectful of bikes, at least in the city I live in. But there is one major downside when you don’t have a car and that is space.
Think about it, when you go to the nursery you’re able to fill up your car with trays of plants, a few bags of soil or mulch, maybe the tools you’ll need and still have some room leftover in your car or pickup.
Me? I have this.
You can barely fit 5 plants in that basket! The one advantage is it prevents impulse purchases. I always have to go in knowing what materials or plants I need and then figure out how to squeeze them on my bike without damaging them. Although this isn’t always the case. In the above photo I went to the store to buy large bag of potting soil and ended up leaving with 70% off houseplants—and no potting soil.
And since I own a men’s bike, which requires swinging a leg around the back, forget about tall plants too. I learned this the hard way with a climbing rose and clematis I purchased in 2017.
Picture a woman in the parking lot hesitantly raising her foot 20 times deciding whether she’ll make it over the bike without falling over. I wandered around the parking lot eventually finding a curb to make the swing distance shorter. Only issue was forgetting when I arrived home and proceeded to fall into a bush next to the building. This is the one time where learning the splits would have been useful.
Point is, space is an issue. And in relation, so is weight. I’m not able to buy giant bags of soil. If it can’t fit in my backpack or basket it can’t be transported. Luckily my store has some compressed soil, which barely fits in my pack, but is lighter than everything else. It just requires more water to rejuvenate it during planting. Now that I think about it, it might be compressible if it’s full of peat which is great for plants but not for the environment. I’ll have to read the bag again to see if it is full of peat. I might lose my convenient soil bag.
Thanks to the owner of the garden I do have access to a kid trailer it’s just a matter of coordinating when to pick it up. The city also has special cargo bikes people can rent too.
There is also the matter of inclines. In order to cross the Rhein bicyclists must go up spiral bike ramps to reach the bridges.
Or in the case of some unfortunate plant-loving friends, they must climb a large hill to reach home. It’s definitely a planned effort for them when they starting planting their large balcony garden.
Thankfully I only have to worry about the ramps to reach the garden center. I will admit when carting heavy items around town I do not find biking fun anymore. Just another love/hate relationship while living in Germany.