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How to Plant a Victory Garden, Even on a Windowsill

By Zio Baritaux

A planter box in the window of Zilah Drahn’s Los Angeles apartment, where she grows cherry tomatoes, parsley, rosemary, cilantro and basil.
 
Courtesy of Zilah Drahn
A planter box in the window of Zilah Drahn’s Los Angeles apartment, where she grows cherry tomatoes, parsley, rosemary, cilantro and basil.

In 1943, when food was scarce during World War II, Americans were urged to grow their own crops wherever they could. It’s estimated that 20 million victory gardens flourished in the United States that year, and New York City alone produced 200 million pounds of tomatoes, beans, beets, carrots and lettuce. Seventy-seven years later, as millions of Americans are self-quarantined, and many worry about trips to the grocery store and the strength of the food-supply chain, the coronavirus pandemic has revived the victory-garden movement. “There is a simple, beautiful logic to having food security within your own home,” says David Godshall, the principal of the Los Angeles- and San Francisco-based landscape architecture studio Terremoto. “In my lifetime, I don’t think there’s ever been a more pertinent moment to start gardening.” For those wondering what will thrive in a limited outdoor space, the short answer is lots. A small garden on a rooftop or balcony can produce abundant harvests. Even inside, a sunny windowsill can yield fragrant clouds of herbs such as mint, lemon verbena, thyme, rosemary and Thai basil. Below, a handful of urban-garden experts explain how to grow your own food in a space of any size.

Marion BerrinA rooftop garden on Paris’s Rue Vieille du Temple designed by the French landscape architect Arnaud Casaus.
A rooftop garden on Paris’s Rue Vieille du Temple designed by the French landscape architect Arnaud Casaus.

“The first step to creating a victory garden, no matter the dimensions, is figuring out where you get the most sunlight,” says Zilah Drahn, the owner of Plants & Spaces, a houseplant styling service in Los Angeles. In her own apartment in Hollywood, the most sunlight enters through her south-facing windows, so Drahn installed planter boxes on each sill. “It’s a joy to see the progress of my basil, parsley and cherry tomatoes every morning,” she says. “Gardening provides a tranquil challenge with tangible results.” To measure the light, as Lauri Kranz, the founder of Edible Gardens LA, outlines in her 2019 book “A Garden Can Be Anywhere,” take a photo of the area being considered every two hours between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Your garden should go in a place that gets six or more hours of direct sunlight a day.

Left: Marion Berrin. Right: Courtesy of Katrina CasoLeft: Casaus’s own terrace, in Paris, planted with Guernsey lily, society garlic, Hardenbergia violacea, star jasmine, red yucca, ghost plant, garden thyme, common sage and more. Right: For a client’s small side yard in Los Angeles, Drahn used fabric pots to create a vegetable garden of kale, celery, zucchini, mint, dill, chives and more.
Left: Casaus’s own terrace, in Paris, planted with Guernsey lily, society garlic, Hardenbergia violacea, star jasmine, red yucca, ghost plant, garden thyme, common sage and more. Right: For a client’s small side yard in Los Angeles, Drahn used fabric pots to create a vegetable garden of kale, celery, zucchini, mint, dill, chives and more.

Once you’ve identified a sunny spot, assess how much space you actually have available for planting, advises the Parisian landscape architect Arnaud Casaus, who maintains a small herb garden of sage, chives, tarragon and bay leaf in terra-cotta pots on his 108-square-foot terrace in the Second Arrondissement. Then, make sure the area can bear the weight of the soil, plants and water (if you’re uncertain, ask your building manager or consult with a professional). For rooftops and balconies with raised beds or planters, Cecilia de Corral, the design and build director at the rooftop farm Brooklyn Grange, suggests low-maintenance crops, such as rainbow chard, dinosaur kale, snow peas, hot peppers, purple shallots and “any and all” herbs. Tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces and sweet peppers will also work but require extra attention. For those with just a sunny windowsill, crops such as carrots and radishes can be grown in containers or coffee tins (just make sure to punch holes in the bottom for drainage). “If you’re a beginner, consider store-bought herbs or experiment with fast-growing seeds like beans,” says Taryne Messer, a designer at the New York-based plant-focused creative studio ETVERNAL, which specialises in planting gardens for clients in the tiniest of spaces. In her own container garden on a rooftop in Brooklyn, Messer cultivates bronze fennel for salads, nasturtiums for a spicy pesto and geraniums, which “quickly become dynamic, sculptural houseplants,” she says.

© Valery Rizzo/Courtesy of Brooklyn Grange Rooftop FarmOn a New York City rooftop, peppers grow in a raised bed installed by Brooklyn Grange.
On a New York City rooftop, peppers grow in a raised bed installed by Brooklyn Grange.

Light and space dictate what you can grow, but you should only plant what you’ll eat. “Plan a functional palette that reflects your culinary tastes and is easily utilised for meals,” Messer says. In his home garden in San Francisco, Val Cantu, the owner and chef at the two-Michelin-starred restaurant Californios, tends essential French herbs like rosemary and thyme. “Rosemary is easy to throw on any roast dish and adds a ton of delicious grassy, piney flavour,” he says. “Thyme is another favourite and good for adding some complexity to a broth.” For something more unusual, Cantu recommends hoja santa, an anise-scented herb that can be added to quesadillas or cooked with beans; its large, heart-shaped leaves can also be used as taco shells and loaded up with whatever you want (Cantu fills his with purple masa, wild mushrooms and fermented watermelon radish). Meanwhile, Keegan Fong, the owner of the Chinese comfort-food restaurant Woon Kitchen in Los Angeles, suggests baby bok choy, a leafy green that can be grown in a window box. “It’s hearty and healthy and so good in soup or stir fry.” He also proposes cucumber, cilantro and spinach, which can be served “Chinese style,” he says, “with some garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil.” Those who cook less frequently might try growing lavender or chamomile for teas, or mint for Moscow mules.

Check the back of each seed packet to determine your plant-hardiness zone, and when you can sow the seeds. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere and able to plant directly in the ground this month, “focus on cool-weather crops until temperatures become more consistent: Direct sow lettuce and carrots, or transplant onion and broccoli seedlings,” says de Corral. For warm-season vegetables that can’t handle the cold, like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and squash, start the seeds indoors, and then transplant them after the last frost has passed (generally toward the end of April in Los Angeles, and in the first or second week of May in Chicago and New York City). And if you can’t find seeds, don’t panic. You may have some dried spices in your pantry, such as dill, fennel and coriander, that can be used instead. Even table scraps — carrot tops, onion, celery and lemongrass bottoms, lettuce and cabbage cores — will start to regrow if placed in a shallow bowl of water and set in the sun.

Caitlin AtkinsonRaised garden beds in Marin County, California, designed by Terremoto and filled with peppers, tomatoes and rosemary, among other crops.
Raised garden beds in Marin County, California, designed by Terremoto and filled with peppers, tomatoes and rosemary, among other crops.

Once you’re settled on where, when and what to grow, you’re ready to plant. Fill your container with organic soil and some fertiliser, making sure it’s “deep enough to accommodate a few more inches of soil — both in perimeter and depth — than your plant requires,” Messer says. “This accounts for future growth and acts as a water reservoir.” The arrangement of the garden will depend on your individual needs, but you can plant in single rows or experiment with intercropping (growing two or more plants next to each other in the same area). “We’ve seen it all, and it all works,” de Corral says, “as long as you’re giving your plants enough sunlight, water, good organic fertiliser and lots of love.” Lastly, adopt a regular watering schedule: once a day in cooler months, and twice a day if it’s hot or dry (the soil should be moist but not muddy). “There’s poetry in any daily practice or ritual that makes you slow down, observe and act more deliberately,” Messer says. If you need additional help, Brooklyn Grange is offering virtual consultations on planning urban-vegetable gardens. But, as Godshall advises, “I wouldn’t get stuck trying to design the thing too much.”