May 30, 2021
This may be the year to experiment with balcony or rooftop planters. Monika Fabian, AUB professor of landscape design and ecosystem management, explains for Beirut dwellers how to start with vegetables and herbs, with helpful tips for apartment gardeners everywhere.
In approaching a balcony or rooftop garden, you won’t be harvesting quantity but quality. You won’t be able to feed a group, but you will have fresh produce to add to your meals. And no matter how small the harvest, you will experience “horticulture therapy”—the stress relief of forgetting your problems and relaxing while tending to your plants.
Step 1: Pick your plants
Start by examining your outdoor space to see how much sun and shade it gets so you can choose your plants accordingly. In Beirut there are two seasons, spring-summer and fall-winter, with vegetables specific to each. Herbs, however, will grow year-round and can keep going for years. If you want basil, oregano, marjoram, lemon grass or rosemary to use in the kitchen, you can simply cut a little bit from the plants as you desire. Growing herbs is easy and may inspire you to graduate to vegetables.
For spring vegetable planting, it’s too late to start seeds, so you’ll be buying small seedling plants with 8-10 leaves. You’ll be planting not green leafy vegetables, but the fruity ones like tomatoes, peppers, spicy peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, and zucchini. Make sure to buy the container varieties so the vegetables don’t take over your patio. One pot with one tomato plant will give you 10-15 tomatoes at a time to enjoy with breakfast or to make tabbouleh.
Step 2: Plant your plants
Edible plants require enough soil to produce a lot of fruit and to give the roots water and nutrients. You’ll want five-to-ten-liter pots, 25-30 cm high and 25-30 cm in diameter. Soil dug up from outside is usually compacted, which will kill plant roots, but you can buy light potting soil that holds a lot of water and also allows for drainage. You’ll need to feed your veggies organic fertilizer every two-to-three weeks to keep them healthy and happy. Both the materials and the guidelines about how much sun and shade the plants need are available at the nursery.
Step 3: Tend your plants
Water the pots depending on the direction of the sun. Early morning sun is the best because it’s not too hot and gives just enough light. With afternoon sun, if you are west-or south-facing, the plants will need more water. Use your finger to test the soil. If your finger is moist, the plants are okay. If your finger is dry, add water, usually every day. If extra water gathers in the saucer under the pot, throw it out. Never use salty water, but drinking water is fine, or use the water you collect from your air conditioner.
Step 4: Harvest time!
Harvest when you are ready to eat, and when the vegetables are the proper color. It’s such a pleasure to pick a cucumber, tomato, or pepper to have with breakfast. I have found one fresh tomato can make someone amazingly happy.
Step 5: Start again
If you are planting in early November, you can use the same soil from the summer unless the former plant was diseased. In that case, put the pot of soil in the sun, covered with black cloth or plastic, and it will sterilize. In November, plant leafy salad veggies directly from seed like parsley, lettuce, coriander, broccoli, and cauliflower. They don’t want heat and will love the Beirut winter. Parsley and coriander will come back from the roots, while lettuce and arugula are finished once grown and you have pulled them out to enjoy.
Finally, don’t be concerned by bees and other insects. These pollinators will come to enjoy your plants as well.