Can you re-use container garden soil?

Yesterday we winterized the balcony garden. Here it was in its prime:
Tomato Cages

Here it is now:

There was a lot of soil to deal with. Can you re-use container garden soil? Most of what I’ve read online advocates for starting fresh each year, but that’s expensive. And I don’t know how we would dispose of this year’s piles (I’m imagining some kind of illegal midnight dirt-dump at the edge of Fresh Pond).

I was encouraged by this chat thread and this website to try recycling our soil. Mixing in new organic matter (manure, compost, etc.) replenishes the minerals and improves the drainage, so I emptied our backyard composter and refilled it with alternating layers of maple leaves and container soil.

The (mostly) composted kitchen scraps from last year got added to the potato box. I sandwiched them between layers of soil and then threw all of the pulled garden plants on top with another layer of maple leaves. We’re going to buy soil amendments next year, but that’s still cheaper than starting from scratch.

The winterizing project left us with a clean porch, dirty hands, and a little container of tiny green tomatoes.

I’ve always wanted to make fried green tomatoes. The film of the same name is one of the first PG13 movies my mom let me watch. Some of the plot points escaped me then…like the fact that Frank was actually turned into BBQ for the whistlestop patrons, or that Ruth and Idgie were in a loving lesbian relationship…but I came away from it loving Jessica Tandy. And wondering what fried green tomatoes tasted like.

Turns out they don’t taste like a heck of a lot. That was our initial impression anyway.

I salted the slices, waited 15 min, then blotted off the extra moisture with a towel. They got a dip in beaten egg, then dry Jiffy cornbread mix (cheap, tasty, and self-rising). I fried them in the iron skillet and laid them out on paper towels to drain.

The cornbread mix gave them a great crunchy texture, it’s just the taste that was under-whelming. They need something to help draw out the tang of the tomatoes. I mixed up a little dip for them that was 1 part plain yogurt and 1 part Tapatio hot sauce. WHA-BAM they came alive! Much, much better.


Potatoes in a Box: the Results Show

Digging up potatoes is, by far, my favorite garden activity. It reminds me of the sawdust pile game they had at our county fair as a kid (did anyone else do this?)- the whistle blows and all the kids start pawing through the sawdust like mad. Buried in there are tokens that can be traded in for prizes. I remember some kids tunneling like groundhogs. It was wild.

Anyway…potatoes. Before I open the results envelope, let’s take a look at the potato box’s journey thus far:

Potatoes in a box

I did some preliminary pawing this summer and couldn’t find much. Certainly not the 100 pounds touted on tipnut. Today I emptied the whole box, and only came up with a few pounds.

This potato harvest is disappointing, but not surprising. Other container gardeners – Grow Organic Food and Imperfect Urban Farm – logged similar results. So did my friend in Portland who grew potatoes in stacks of old tires. Maybe they need more shade? More nutrients? I might try again next year and use more leaves than soil when covering the growing plants.

I’m giving the biggest potatoes to our friends who helped us construct the balcony garden. The baby ones I roasted in the oven tonight. Some olive oil, rosemary, and seasoning salt in our smallest cast iron skillet at 450 F. Mmmmm.

There were some winners this season. Most noticeably, the Smart Pot that grew bigger and more prolific tomato plants than it’s blue plastic tub neighbor. The Smart Pot is reusable and pretty cheap. I’m going to get a few more next year.

Garlic Scape Pesto

Today the NYTimes reported that 1,400 heat records were broken across the country. As a kid this would’ve been the kind of week where we played in the basement and then slept on the porch. My coworker said they used to stick their feet in buckets of cold water and go to the movies (not at the same time). What’s your tactic for sticking out a heat wave?

My rule is NO KITCHEN HEAT. Maybe some flame for the morning coffeepot, but definitely no dinnertime stove or oven. This week we got two bunches of garlic scapes in our CSA, and after googling them to find out what they were, I set about finding a heat-less recipe for them.

Garlic Scapes

Pesto seemed to be the big winner. Most recipes called for blending the scapes with basil, and guess what else came in the CSA? Perfect. My pesto is an amalgamation of recipes from Soup Addict, The Hungry Mouse, and SkinnyTaste.

Garlic Scape Pesto

1 bunch of basil, washed and patted dry

12-15 garlic scapes, flower buds cut off and roughly chopped

1/2 cup of olive oil

1/2 cup pine nuts

1/2 – 1 cup shredded parmigiano cheese

salt to taste

The food processor I used isn’t big or powerful, so this is as smooth as I could get. A better processor could provide a creamier consistency. Just blend the basil and scapes until they’re paste-like, slowly add the oil so it emulsifies, then add the pine nuts and cheese and pulse til smooth. Salt to taste.

Garlic Scape Pesto

Garlic Scape Pesto

Tomato Cages

As we ate I surveyed the heat’s toll on our balcony garden. There’s bad news and good news. I’ll start with the bad news first: I’ve thrown in the towel on the pallet garden. It’s been a long slow demise, and this heat is the final nail in the coffin. I don’t think I made a good soil choice; the plants have remained stunted and the flowers that do emerge wither and die instead of bear fruit. Also – and I’ve complained about this before – it’s very difficult to water. I about have to lay it flat every time I want to give it a good soak. Goodbye pallet garden 😦

Last Chapter

The other containers are better. I harvested several bowls full of peas before replacing the plants with a cucumber start and it’s spreading along the railing. Tomatoes are ripening. Basil is getting taller. The potatoes are still going bonkers, but I’m a little nervous because when I dig around in the box I can’t seem to locate any baby potatoes. Am I right to be worried?

Potatoes in a box

Teeny but tasty


Pea pods! They’re itty bitty and they might stay that way, but they win the prize for first edibles to come out of the balcony gardening experiment (high five).


I’m gradually learning about the camera the best way I know how – by taking pictures of one distinguished dog and two good-for-nothing cats. Take a cue from Teddy…kick back, stretch your limbs, and wear a big smile. It’s FRIDAY!


Initial results from the balcony garden innovations

Still no camera, but I’m getting closer to making a selection. My friend Rachel in Chicago (whose tutorial on reverse-painting garments with bleach is a lifesaver for those of us who’ve ruined a shirt with bleach spots) is also a kickass photographer. She pointed me to Snapsort which is a delightfully user-friendly camera comparison site.

After spending the morning drinking coffee, reviewing lists like Best Entry-Level DLSRs, and playing around with my own selection criteria, I’m close to picking the Panasonic Lumix LX5.

I know that there are people (Rachel?) who might think I’m crazy for paying this much for a digicam when I could almost get a DLSR for the same amount. The top DSLR for the same price is the Nikon D3000, and it doesn’t have any video capability, image stabilization, or live image view. We’ll see. I like to sleep on these decisions…

Snapsort is super awesome though. Bookmark it. Before you forget.

Here are some grainy photos of what the balcony garden is doing, courtesy of my little macbook’s photobooth. The neighbors must wonder what I’m doing out on my balcony all the time…if it isn’t holding a laptop up to a tomato plant, it’s taking a bunch of self-portraits while wearing a sweater.

In this next photo some whisps of hair snuck into the shot:

The peas are heartily and happily growing. The strawberries are multiplying and thinking about ripening. The African basil is the saddest – I may try repotting it in different soil and see if that helps. I picked four black milk crates out of a curbside junk pile this afternoon, because the higher the plants are the more sun they’re able to catch throughout the day.

The real winner has been the potatoes. Here’s a reminder of where the potato box started:

Growing potatoes in a box

And here’s where it is today. In one month the plants have rocketed out of the box. I’ve added several bucketfuls of dirt already and soon I’ll need more wood to increase the height of the box.

While the potato box has been (so far) a successful experiment, I’ve unfortunately not been as enthused with the incredibly-promising pallet-turned-planter. When the pallet is stood on end against a wall it’s tricky to water. Do I just water through the top and let it work its way down? Watering from the front causes too much erosion. The message boards on the tutorial site suggest automated watering, but there’s no water spigot near my balcony so I have to cart it in by hand.

Since the soil isn’t very deep it dries out quickly and I worry that the plant roots don’t have enough room. Perhaps it was my mistake to try and use the method for primarily vegetables. Decorative flowers and succulents, as shown in the tutorial, are probably a better fit.

Grand opening of the balcony garden experiment

Until this past weekend, our 2nd story balcony had a very short and pitiful resume:

– place where I take self-portraits of finished knitwear

– place where I stand to shake out the floor rugs

– place where the cats crouch to spy on birds and neighbors

Edith at the windowsill

It takes a couple oblivious sparrows for Edith to venture beyond the windowsill

My new plan to give the balcony self-confidence and purpose is to turn it into a container garden. It faces west, so there’s a ton of sunlight, and I found a stack of abandoned pots in the basement to get us started. On Saturday we went to Mahoney’s Garden Center and stocked up on soil, seeds, and a fabric Smart Pot that looked very intriguing (it’s behind Read in the photo below).

Container gardening: phase one!

(front-back) Lettuce, Arugula, Peas, Collards, Peas, Read, Carrots & Radishes

Our big puzzle is going to be watering. I’m either going to rig up some sort of pulley system for the hose in the yard, or run a piece of tubing from the bathroom sink. I dunno…we’ve gotta do something. Read claims he didn’t mind watering it with bowl after bowl of water but that doesn’t seem like something I want to do all summer while he’s in Mexico.

In launching the balcony garden experiment, I’ve found a lot of tips, ideas, and inspiration on a blog called Life on the Balcony. The blog’s related Flickr group is also fun. Based on my lunchtime meanderings there, here’s what I’m planning for “Phase 2”:

– Find and revamp discarded junk (like this old metal BBQ) into more cheap planters

Plant potatoes in a trashcan

Plant strawberries and cucumbers vertically using old wooden pallets

Oregon radishes circa 2008

If all goes well, or even mediocre, hopefully I’ll have photos of Boston-balcony-garden-edibles in a couple months. What are you planting this time of year? If you have any tips for container growing, please share!