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April 30th, 2008 Deeda Schroeder | Special Section Stories
 

Let A Thousand Balconies Bloom

Even the landless can reap the harvest.

     
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Derek Hanson of Nutshell with his herb garden.
IMAGE: Jenna Biggs

Sure, digging in the dirt isn’t for everyone, but plenty of us city dwellers would love to hoe a row—if we could. For those of us who live in apartments or condos without lawns or garden space, though, there’s a serious shortage of arable terra firma.

Fear not. From edible ecoroofs to clay pots of herbs and veggies on an inside window ledge, landless Portlanders from all walks of life are using containers to grow food. With a little thought and planning, most of us can grow enough vegetables to replace a significant portion of what we buy.

“Anybody can do it,” says Lucy Hardiman, a Portland native and veteran garden designer, writer and educator. She currently grows mini-gardens in some 60 containers spread across her property, but as owner of Perennial Partners, a gardening consulting company, she’s helped clients transform decks, porches and roofs into bountiful and beautiful oases. “As people are living in more urban spaces, access to outside garden space is getting harder to come by,” she says.

Hardiman says she’s seen a surge of interest lately in container gardening as a way to get around the soil shortage, as more people move into high-density areas like the Pearl District and downtown. “It’s a wonderful, satisfying and viable way to have a connection with nature,” she says.

There are as many varieties of container gardens as there are gardeners—from students living in downtown studios to older folks in assisted-living residences—and a number of businesses have sprung up to meet demand. Practically any empty, open vessel can be used for planting: a cake pan can grow radishes or green onions, a plastic laundry bin can grow potatoes and even a recycled bucket or garbage can makes a fine garden bed in a pinch.

Heather Hanselman owns and operates the Blue Heron Herbary on Sauvie Island (27731 NW Reeder Road, 621-9627) with her parents Mike and Penny Hanselman, and will be selling herb starts and small potted herb gardens at the Portland State University and Hillsdale farmers markets in May. While she has pre-planted containers for sale, she says some customers choose instead to use her starts to fill their own.

“There are so many great benefits to container gardening—no weeds, they’re portable, and with herbs, you can grow up to five varieties in one pot,” Hanselman says.

As she explains to her garden-phobic customers, such benefits can be had for a small investment. Seven of her starts cost $21, and save the months it takes to start your own seeds. Containers can be economical, too, especially if they’re recycled. And herbs, she says, can transform both indoor and outdoor spaces, with their fragrant scents and varied visual textures.

Gardener Erin Altz has built a business around that upsurge as well, focusing on growing food in underused spaces. Altz developed Edible Skylines after she noticed a growing number of roofs with plants around town and wondered why they weren’t used to grow produce. With food costs rising and agricultural land becoming harder to come by, using rooftops to grow food could become increasingly important for city dwellers.

Thanks to 37 inches of annual rainfall, Portland is one of the most ecoroof-friendly cities in the nation. But adding food to an ecoroof is a process that adds extra steps to an already complex undertaking.

Altz helps her customers plan and manage rooftop food garden projects from start to finish, shepherding would-be gardeners through the city’s daunting permitting process for small do-it-yourself garage-roof conversions and larger commercial projects alike.

“Restaurant owners, developers and architects

have all shown curiosity in pursuing rooftop vegetable gardens on sites that otherwise would have been installing a traditional green roof designed for stormwater mitigation,” Altz says.

She’s currently working on a $100,000-plus plan to transform Trillium Charter School’s roof into an elaborate series of containers and raised beds that will allow kids to incorporate food gardening into their curriculum.

“Because so much learning at Trillium comes in the form of garden-based education, it really connects students with where their food comes from,” Altz says.

Altz worked with organic farmer and educator Marc Boucher-Colbert to install the rooftop garden at East Burnside restaurant Rocket. The two retrofitted the building to include a small ecoroof and littered it with a patchwork of creative and inexpensive growing containers that don’t put too much weight on the structure.

Many of their ingenious containers—plastic kiddie pools filled with a few inches of soil and planted with lettuces, and bags of potting soil insulated from the extremes of hot and cold and then cut open to contain a single, larger plant—translate nicely to a residential rooftop, stoop or deck.

A conversation with Boucher-Colbert, who has a master’s degree in sustainable education from PSU, is both reassuring and enlightening. He demystifies what many people think is a difficult process, breaking down projects into easy, step-by-step instructions (see “Try This at Home,”).

While chef Leather Storrs uses empty roof space to garden at Rocket, other chefs have brought food plants into the kitchen, greening the working environment and enriching diners’ connection to the food on the plate.

Derek Hansen, chef of Nutshell, a popular vegan restaurant on North Williams Avenue, likes to keep fresh herbs growing in his open, light-filled kitchen to use in everyday cooking. Everywhere you look, surfaces are covered with small pots, filled with edible plants. From over a dozen herbs to an avocado tree, Hansen has been resourceful, letting things grow from natural seeds he finds in the food plants he works with.

“Adding fresh herbs makes a simple dish special,” Hansen says. His dishes, he adds, rely even more on the true flavors of the vegetables and herbs because of the absence of animal ingredients.

Hansen shares some of his easiest recipes using fresh herbs he grows in the restaurant (see “Container Cuisine”), providing inspiration for anyone needing another reason to start your own container garden. As if saving money and eating fresh, homegrown veggies weren’t reason enough.

 
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