From Too Many Chefs -

May 15, 2006
This is as local as it gets


I've been an enthusiastic, if only randomly successful, balcony gardener for about five years now. My first year - the one where I was most enthusiastic - was the most successful and I managed to harvest a few dozen tomatoes and three misshapen zucchini. I even had a web site about the garden, a forerunner of a blog. (It was updated about monthly to the expressed delight and fascination of my friends and family.) And this year is the year. This is the year when I am going to invest the money and the time so that I have a proper garden that is pretty AND useful. (I say that every year, by the way.)

When I read Barbara's recent post about grubbing in the dirt, I was eaten up with envy and frustration. I did plant quite a few seeds this year - enough for 8 tomato plants, 2 cayenne plants, 4 zucchini, 4 pea plants, coriander, parsley, and a few others that never sprouted (and the notes on the cardboard containers have leached away). I have two cayenne seedlings, a zucchini and a pea plant. So you can see where I get those negative feelings.

This weekend, I purged them at the organic market. I found two stalls selling tomato plants and herbs and was so excited that I had to drag the stroller to a cash machine 15 minutes away to get some more money. Oh joy, oh bliss! I have a nearly complete herb garden, ten tomato plants and four strawberry plants covered with flowers and strawberry buds. Now begins the race to get them into planters before they wilt. Does anyone know of a store that delivers (non-peat) soil in Paris??

For those who are curious, the plants are as follows, starting with the tomatoes at the bottom and working counter clockwise around: ten tomato plants, lemon thyme (I already have two classic thyme plants), four strawberry plants, a basil (bought that at the supermarket, it's not as healthy as the market ones), a daisy plant, mint (also from the supermarket earlier this week), rosemary (the one I have seems to be reaching the end of its life cycle), two more basil plants, Thai basil and - in the center - oregano.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at May 15, 2006 2:33 PM

I had a deck garden for years before we bought our house (albeit not in Paris! ;o)) I still grow a lot of herbs, peas, lettuce, spinach and tomatoes in deck boxes, along with my garden. They seem to do well there.

Posted by Dianne on May 15, 2006 at 3:38 PM

Meg (or anyone else)--do you have any experience with a good book for container-gardening? We have no balcony, but do have a sunny sill in the kitchen.

Posted by Justin on May 15, 2006 at 4:28 PM

Meg, is your wormery still producing? I would think that would provide compost to mix in the soil.

Posted by Meg's MOM on May 15, 2006 at 6:22 PM

The plants look lovely, Meg.

I highly suggest getting at least tomato plants from professionals. They are kind of finicky to start from seed, and you have to start them very early and have a lot of warmth and light to do it well.

The seeds I was most successful with starting on my own were basil seeds. I ended up one year with over 130 basil plants that lived from three packets of seeds. I ended up giving them away in peat pots, and overflowing the planters and garden area I set aside for the kitchen garden.

So, I just went to my flower borders and beds and started tucking basil plants hither and yon. It worked--they all grew, and I ended up harvesting wedding bouquet-sized bunches of basil for pesto twice a week, and still had enough to give away to everyone and their cousins.

Starting plants from seed is an art, unless you pick a really easy plant like basil. Then--the trick is to not overplant....

I can't wait to look at pictures of your garden as it grows!

Posted by Barbara on May 15, 2006 at 10:28 PM

Mom, the wormery is still going strong and in fact I used a bucket of compost when I planted four tomato plants and half the herbs in the planter you gave me. I'll be posting photos shortly!

Barbara, that's interesting about the tomatoes because until now they have been the only plants I've consistently succeeded in raising from seed! In fact, I've always been too successful and I'm stupidly tender-hearted about weeding out the less hardy seedlings when two or three sprout in the same pot. In fact, last year I didn't even have to plant tomatoes in one of my pots, as it self-seeded from the year before!

It has been a very cold and wet spring here in Paris, though, which probably explains the low success rate this year.

And I have NEVER succeeded in getting basil seeds to sprout! So go figure!

Justin, I have a lot of books on container gardening and I have to say that none of them have worked as well as trial and error. I have one small volume that was very enjoyable to read but I can't find it on Amazon - will look up the title when I get home tonight and let you know.

For your sunny sill I would recommend dwarf tomato plants and every herb known to man - they all seem to do well in containers, providing they have lots of drainage and are fed well. Except thyme and rosemary: for some reason, the worm tea I gave them once nearly killed them. Since then, I water them sparingly and they do fine!

Posted by Meg on May 16, 2006 at 3:13 AM

Justin, the book I found most enjoyable is Window-box Allotment, a beginner's guide to container gardening by Penelope Bennett. It's a month-by-month description of an amateur gardener's experiences. I like the informal, diary-like style and the notes at the end of each month that tell you what's in season and what should be planted.

That said, the biggest problem I had/have with gardening books is that they are by necessity geographically based. I expect this will make it especially difficult for you in Bogota, where you have a very different climate from, say, Chelsea (where Ms. Bennett lives).

So this book is a fun read and you will probably pick up some useful tips from it, but you might also want to get a book on gardening in a climate similar to the one you are in!

Posted by Meg in Paris on May 16, 2006 at 12:06 PM

You can get regular gardening soil delivered via houra ( However, the delivery charge may be cost-prohibitive: 12 euros.
If you can put together a mega-grocery order to go along with it, if you buy a minimum of 150E, you pay 5E for delivery, and if you buy at least 225E it's a euro.
Also if you're ordering for the first time, I can refer you and I believe you get free delivery on your first order regardless of amount.
How are the violets doing from the Salon des Saveurs?

Posted by Taina on May 18, 2006 at 12:51 PM

Bonjour Meg, I have a terrace in Paris and was stumped over the soil question for awhile, but as it turns out just about all the neighborhood petit plant stores around me have "livraisons" and carry soil. Don't know if the 17th is near you, but I will give you the names if it is.

Ms. Glaze

Posted by Ms. Glaze on May 19, 2006 at 5:10 AM

Taina, bless you - Houra is perfect! I actually already hauled two 20-litre bags home from Porte Maillot earlier this week (thank heavens for that folding shopping trolley and the bus!) but I need more.

Ms. Glaze, I am in the 17th myself and should have thought of asking about delivery! As it is, I've made a mammouth order on (we needed diapers and beer anyway) and so it will arrive tomorrow.

It seems quite a bit cheaper on houra too - only 7.80 euros for three bags of 16 liters.

Of course the weather forecast is for a rainy weekend, just my luck!!

Posted by Meg in Paris on May 19, 2006 at 8:43 AM

Oh and I forgot to mention, Taina - the violets are thriving so far! I haven't yet planted them as the fellow who sold me to them told me to wait until the roots are well established in the pots.

So far the only casualty is the supermarket basil plant, which isn't that surprising. I find the herbs that Monoprix sells do not last well, and especially if you don't repot them within 24 hours of purchase. The other three basil plants look great, though, and are in a huge planter and so have lots of room to spread. (She said hopefully...)

Posted by Meg in Paris on May 19, 2006 at 9:43 AM

Justin, I forgot to suggest the best and easiest thing (aside from herbs) to grow on your sunny windowsill: strawberries! I haven't succeeded in growing them from seed (I seem to recall that the package suggested it can sometimes take two years?) but the store-bought plants do GREAT in containers. They are pretty to look at, easy to care for (just water once a week or so) and give delicious fruits. The hardest part is waiting until they are fully ripe!

Posted by Meg in Paris on May 22, 2006 at 4:47 AM

You have to curse at basil seeds when you plant them, like the ancient greeks.

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