Welcome to the Jungle

We have had an amazing Spring so far – with lots of sunshine and warm summer temperatures. This is quite a treat since we live in a pretty grey-sky-ladened region of Germany.

Here are some pictures of “the farm”. I was at our local garden market this weekend and couldn’t help but buy a few plants from my favorite organic farmers. Thank goodness that the balcony in our new apartment is much larger!

Now growing on the farm:

Flowers:

Peonies

Clematis

Tulips

Hyacinths

Achillea

Scarlet Beebalm

White flowering Catnip

Herbs:

Chocolate Mint

Grenada Mint

Spear Mint

Strawberry Mint

Lemon Melisse

Savory

Italian Basil

African Basil

Krim Basil

French Tarragon

Leafy Mustard

Lavender

Koriander

Parsley

Sage

Pineapple Sage

Mandarin Sage

Scented Geraniums

Chives

Green Onions

Bay Leaf

Thyme

Creeping Rosemary

Oregano

Fruits:

Raspberries

Strawberries

Pineapple Strawberries

Wild Strawberries

Blueberries

Cape Gooseberry

Tangerines

Grapefruits

Bergamot Lemons

Figs

Vegetables & Co:

Cucumbers

Tomatoes

Wild white Tomatoes

Brown Japanese Tomatoes

Tomatillos

Purple Jalapeños

Pimentos del Padron

Sweet Habaneros

Purple Potatoes

Pink Potatoes

Yellow Potatoes

mini Striped Eggplant

Cambodian Chilies

Cayenne Chilies

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Expanding my mini urban farm & some good news

I am really excited to share that we will be moving! I have been living in downtown for the last 14 years and we are moving to a neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown – so still central with a bus stop in front of our new home and a train and subway stop a few minutes walk away – but it is green and there is no main road that runs by my bedroom window AND there is a really large balcony included! Yes, that means that our urban garden will be growing (even though we will be downsizing in living space – more on minimalistic living another time) and we will have a south facing balcony with enough room for outdoor dining and lots of planters to provide us with more food. Ideally we would be moving to a small house with a large piece of land that we could farm, but the time is not right. Luckily, this doesn’t have to keep us from farming our balcony. The move is not for another 2 1/2 months but there is a lot to do until then and planning the move of all my plants will take some thought.

So, I have decided to separate the wine crates that I have had stacked on eachother which originally allowed the roots of my plants to grow deep into the lower crates. At least that was what I thought my plants would do, but I recently realized that they were only staying in the upper crate and that I had 2 crates full of soil just sitting empty waiting to be used.

I have not decided how my new mini urban farm is going to look – I feel that I have to be there to make those sort of plans and it will be a project that will grow over time. I have to see how the sun shines on the different spots of the balcony and observe the wind and rain directions – there is a bit to take into consideration to get the most out of a small space.

Yesterday I visited a local garden market with a large variety of organic growers. I wanted to take at least half of everything I saw at the market home with me, but I decided that it would be wiser to just take a few plants and wait another few weeks for the next market since the danger of frost is still possible and would damage or kill my new plants. That would be terrible.

My youngest son loves raspberries more than anything, so we decided to take 2 raspberry plants home – a Summer and Fall fruiting one to make sure that we have fresh raspberries from July until the first frost (about mid November). The gardener that sold us the plants said that they would both fit in one deep planter that was about 60cm long and that a good companion would be strawberry plants. Both strawberry and raspberry plants like well drained soil and raspberries even like drying out periodically. So, when we got home we planted our raspberries in one of the extra wine crates with soil and transplanted 4 pineapple-strawberry plants that I picked up last Fall at my local organic grocery store. Then, we covered the soil with shredded wood to keep the soil from drying out so quickly. Usually, I would use straw, but I am all out and this is what I had lying around.

Using straw or other plants as ground cover in my planters is a valuable tip that I have picked up from my research on permaculture. It saves water and time and keeps plants happy. It tried it out on my plants this winter and it kept them from dehydrating especially when the temperature was too low to water. My experience over the years is that most plants don’t die from the freezing temperatures directly in Winter or Spring but rather of dehydration in winter or from rapidly warming temperatures in the Spring followed by frost and precipitation which damages the plants or even kills many of them.

Part of the permaculture gardening concept that I am trying to integrate into my balcony garden is a zoning plan. This zoning plan can be pretty intricate, but I am breaking it down into 3 vital zones:

  1. Zone 1 – a garden of edible goodies: this is closest to you and your home and where you plant fruits, berries, vegetables, and herbs that you harvest for personal use. For balcony gardeners this means keeping your planters with fruits, vegetables, lettuce, etc (when possible) in easy to reach places that make harvesting easy and enjoyable. You can keep cold-sensitive plants such as tomatoes in a pot or planter directly on an outer wall of your home to help extend the growing season because the wall will act as a battery when it releases it’s heat and will warm up any plants close to it when the temperature drops at night.
  2. Zone 2 – a garden of blooms: a flower “field” surrounding Zone 1 that attracts pollinators (such as bees and butterflies) to increase your harvest. For balcony gardeners this means integrating planters with local and native wild flowers and herbs. Many herbs, such as mint and chives, are good sources for bees while we enjoy their green leaves- a win-win for everyone.
  3. Zone 3 – a wild zone: this space surrounds Zone 2 and is living space for animals that helps keep your garden free of pests. For balcony gardeners this means bird and bat houses or maybe even a mini fruit tree large enough to house a nest. Did you know that a mother bird will collect up to 30kg (!!!) of insects to feed her babies in one season?

We bought a few plants for Zone 2 and are glad to have added: white flowing Catnip, Achillea, and Beebalm to our garden. I have always had various flowering herbs and plants in my garden, but the more I read about permaculture the more I learn how important this zone is.

If you are interested in reading (in German) about permaculture and homesteading, check out my favorite blog here or permaculture and insects here and here.

Up-Cycling using Nature’s best Garbage

I had quite an interesting conversation with my son today: “Mom, was there only organic garbage before?”

“What do you mean by before?”

“In the Middle Ages”

“No, there was no garbage in the same sense as we know it today. There was no packaging, everything was reused or recycled into something else.”

“Even food?”

“Food leftovers and scraps were fed to the animals.”

I had a smile on my face during the silence following our little conversation while we drove back from one of our favorite local farms “Auhof”. It feels good when my kids think about social issues and his thoughts on garbage were similar to my thoughts on the beautiful and smart up-cycling works of art that I saw in the “Augenweide”.

There is “garbage” all around this beautiful garden that has been turned into beautiful and fun ideas:

A crunchy path of walnut shells

Insect hotels

Chestnut necklaces for trees

Ivy wreaths that provide a bit of protection

Scarecrows

Pinecone garland

Folded paper wreaths

Branch ornaments

Fence wreaths

Pussy willow wreaths

Bottle Ornaments

I think these are great examples of what you can make with what you have lying around. Obviously, this didn’t happen over night and is the love and care poured into this garden over decades.

My mini Urban Farm

I would like to introduce you to the smallest and best spot in my apartment: the balcony – which I have now deemed my mini urban farm. It looks pretty dormant at the moment but in a few months we will barley be able to sit here because it will be an awesome jungle of edibles.

mini urban farm - blueberries and thyme

mini urban farm - rosemary and tulips

I have quite a few perennials growing in different planters: rosemary, thyme, tarragon, spearmint, Grenada mint, chocolate mint, strawberry mint, lavender, blueberries, clematis, wild strawberries, pineapple strawberries, mustard greens, peonies, savory, and raspberries.

mini urban farm - savory, lavender and mints

mini urban farm - strawberries

And, on the way in my mini urban farm – and still growing inside: tomatillos, Japanese sauce tomatoes, wild white tomatoes, sage, pineapple sage, mandarin sage, jalapeño, sweet habañero, cucumbers, basil, Texas tarragon, bay laurel, murmel melons, green onions, cilantro, pimenton del padron, and parsley. There is definitely more on the way, but I haven’t decided what flowers I will plant to attract bees to pollinate my plants or if I will bring more fruits and berries into my life. Some decisions are best made spontaneously when it it feels right.

mini urban farm - french tarragon and mustard greens

What I have definitely realized is that I can more efficiently use the space I have to plant more by better using the different vertical spaces on and around my balcony. I have quite a few fruit trees growing indoors that I will bring out when the temperature rises and they all need to be integrated into my concept. My indoor fruit trees haven’t given any fruit yet, but they should slowly be getting old enough for the first flowers to come this year. I have raised them each from seeds that I just took out of a fruit I was eating: avocados, grapefruits, bergamot lemons, mandarins, loquats, figs, jackfruit, and (not trees) pineapples.

A napping bumblebee in my planter

What are you planning in your garden/windowsill/balcony this year?

Urban Gardening Season is now OPEN!

The snow has finally melted away for the 20th time this year, the day’s sunlight is growing by leaps and bounds, the temperature is slowly warming up, the birds are chirping, and little buds are popping up all over my planters – my balcony garden is calling.

Cucumbers and Basil

March and April are fun yet “hard” months for the urban gardener. There is a lot of planning to do but it is mostly from indoors. I have already planned what will go in my planters this late Spring and have already sown seeds that are growing on my kitchen counter.

Wild white tomatoes

This year I have decided to take up organic and permaculture gardening and am making thoughts on how to live this out on my balcony so that I can have a mini-urban homestead on my balcony that supplies us with Mother Nature’s goodies all year long – yes, even in Winter.

Texas Tarragon

I just spent a wonderful two weeks listening to interviews from the Bio-Balkon Kongress (German) and am even more certain that my plan will work. In all actually, I have been gardening using similar methods for the past 15 years without having a plan. My hope is to make vegetable, fruit, and kitchen-herb production more efficient in the small spot that we have available.

Sage

Here are a few inspirational blogs that have great tips:

Biotopica Farm

Bio-Balkon

And, don’t forget that you can find tons of information in books for free through your local library. Here is my latest cache:

Gardening Books

Meine Mini-Farm

Grüne Stadtoasen

Die neue StadtGartenLust

Vertikal Gärtnern

Pineapple Sage

There is no time to waste. If you dream of homesteading but have no yard or land you can still grow food on you balcony or even on a windowsill. Just give it a shot – it’s worse not to have tried at all than to fail.

Erlebnisbauernhof Auhof


Today we decided to visit our “colleagues” at the Erlebnisbauernhof Auhof (Experience-Farm of Auhof) which is a special-education farm run by mentally handicapped adults and caregivers.


The farm is open to the general public and has a really big playground that kids of all ages can enjoying.  Many decades ago, this used to be a real farm where they raised livestock and grew carrots and potatoes.  Today there a a few animals of each kind: pigs, chickens, rabbits, turkeys, peacocks, horses, goats, and donkeys are “scattered” around the different areas of the farm.  They sell plants in a self-run nursery and grow a lot of their own vegetables that you can enjoy in the salads that sell in a small restaurant with outdoor seating next to the playground.  The playground is capped off by a field of fruit trees and a lovely relaxation garden that is cared for by a former employee who is retired and volunteers her time to keep the garden in tip top shape.  The handicapped people who live in assisted-living apartments a block away come here regularly to enjoy the peacefulness of the garden, get their hands dirty with garden work, and do arts and crafts that are hung up in the different corners of the garden.


This is such a lovely oasis, and they are different events being held all summer long.  There is no entry fee, so this is a great palce to visit with the whole family’s.

The University of Erlangen’s Botanical Garden 

It is pre-summer vacation here, and we are always on the lookout for a fun place to go where the kids can run around a lot.  One of out favorite places to visit is the botanical garden of the University of Erlangen.  The entire garden is open to the public free of charge and they have a nice selection of different types of plants.


My kids are camera-fanatics, so they each get a camera in their hands and click away at all the interesting things they discover.  Their favorite creatures to photograph are the frogs and koi swimming in the raised ponds outside of the garden houses.


My favorite corners are those filled with roses, and if you are a rose lover yourself, you will not be disappointed here.  The botanical garden spills out into the local palace garden that is surrounded by the university, and you can really spend hours strolling around.


I recommend packing a pick nick and setting down on the ledge of one of the ponds or a park benches and enjoying the sights and sounds of nature in the midst of the city.













Elder Flower Syrup

People, it is elder flower season and that means that it’s time for make elder flower syrup!

If you’re unfamiliar with the elderberry tress it can seem like every other green tree, but when the first warm days of late Spring and early summer roll around, you just can’t miss them.  Elderberry trees grow like weeds here in Germany.  Everywhere I have been in the last few weeks I have seen at least one. They grow on the sides of roads, at thw edge of rivers, in the midst of forest, along sidewalks, in the middle of farm fields…the list goes on.  They can be spotted by their large white flower clusters, and when you get close by their intensely sweet floral scent.


Making a syrup with the flowers is pretty easy and not very labor intensive.  And, afterwards you are rewarded withe a unique syrup for making your own sodas and cocktails year round.  My favorite combination is elder flower syrup topped off with spritzy water with a squirt of fresh lemon juice and Granada-Mint leaves muddled it – and served super cold of course!


For the syrup you will need:

20 Elder Flower clusters, debugged

400g Sugar

500ml Water

1 organic Lemon, cut into rounds

To prepare:

Place all your cleaned elder flower clusters in a large wide-mouthed jar or a bowl (if you use a bowl you may need more lemon rounds).

In a saucepan, heat water and sugar over high heat, stiring frequently, until all sugar is dissolved and the mixture has reached 80C.  Pour the simple syrup over the flowers while it is still hot.

Using the lemon rounds, layer them above the flowers the keep the flowers submerged beneath the syrup.  Let the syrup sit in a cool dark place – unrefridgerated – for 24 hours.

Strain syrup through a fine sieve and discard the flowers and lemons.  Place thw syrup in a sauce pan and heat it to 80C before pouring it into prepared jars for canning.  Pour into the jars and close with a lid and allow to sit on your counter, undisturbed for 24 hours.  Alternatively, you can leave you syrup uncanned and can use it immediately.  Once opened, keep refrigerated.

Makes about 1 Liter.

Frühjahrslust – Spring Garden Festival @ Wolfgangshof


Wolfgangshof is one of my favorite places to visit – it’s like traveling back in time.  Luckily, there are festivals heald on this private country estate a few times a year that are open to the public – and they are always great!  I always feel swept away by the rustic charm surrounding me.


A few months back we visited a rustic Christmas market held here, and now that Spring has come into bloom, the Frühjahrslust has come (and saddly gone) in one weekend.  It was such comfortable sunny weather.  After walking around all the garden stands and “acquiring” a decent amount of organic herbs to plant in my balcony garden, we sat by a stone fountain, listened to giggling children, sipped espresso, and soaked in some rays.

I was really excited to find out that this great event comes twice a year – the second event is in September and is called Grüne Lust. Even if I don’t need any new plants for my garden, it is still so much fun to visit for the day and eat yummy food!


For lunch I had a vegan Spaghetti Bolognese with Carrot-Sunflower seed Pesto and a lemon-mint soda from a local restaurant catering at the festival.  Not to mention that I also thoroughly enjoyed freshly fried handmade potato chips and an vegan orange gelato….ahhh vegan food love!