Adventures in Urban Gardening: The Fire Escape Farm

Adventures in Urban Gardening: The Fire Escape Farm

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Nancy Mitchell
May 18, 2016
(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

I love New York and I love my itty bitty apartment, but one of the things that's been the hardest about downsizing from nearly 1,000 square feet to 250 is not having room to garden. There's something about growing things, I'm convinced, that is good for the soul. So this year I decided that I would try my luck with a little garden on the fire escape.

For everyone concerned about safety: I live on the top floor, on the opposite side from the stair, so the portion of the fire escape to the right of my window forms a little dead end, outside of the escape path. I can still easily climb out my window (well, as easily as one can climb out a window) in the event of a fire. If you do decide to garden on your fire escape, keep your plantings small, and make sure they're not blocking anyone's exit. Hanging planters off of the railing is a good way to keep the fire escape itself clear.

It is also advisable to exercise caution while photographing your fire escape garden.
(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

Also, be aware that even if you make an effort to be safe, storing things on your fire escape is still a violation of the fire code (at least in NYC). This doesn't keep a lot of people from doing it, but it does mean that your landlord may ask you to cease and desist. NYC fire escape gardens are ephemeral and constantly in danger from outside forces, much like life itself. But that's the risk you take to grow things in this city. Balconies are hard to come by.

My plan for the garden is simple: a couple different kinds of herbs, some strawberries, and two blueberry bushes. Blueberries may seem like an odd choice for a fire escape garden, but Brazelberries makes a couple different dwarf varieties that only grow to about 18" in diameter. I'm opting for two bushes because, although I've heard it said that these varieties will self-pollinate, blueberries generally produce more when they have a friend.

(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

I started with the herbs, which live in a planter box that hangs off the railing. I've got some basil and a little bit of genuine Long Island mint, which a friend of mine kindly dug up from his garden. The herbs could perhaps use a little more room but right now I don't want to push my luck with too many planters, so we'll see how they get on.

Planting the strawberries was... interesting. In the comments on this post about DIYing in a small space, Tiff B suggested repotting plants in the bathtub, which worked beautifully for the smaller herb planter, but was a bit of a disaster with the 3.5 gallon grow tub I bought for my strawberries. Adding dirt and plants to it made an enormous mess, and carrying the filled planter from the bathtub to the fire escape nearly killed me. If I had it to do again I think I'd get a planter like this one, which can be broken apart into smaller sections for moving. Also, I would put down paper or dropcloths in the path between the tub and the window, so I wouldn't have to worry about dripping dirty water all over my apartment.

(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

My strawberries are a combination of plants bought at the nursery and 10 bare root plants I bought from Amazon, most of which are settling in quite nicely even though I only planted them two days ago. (There may be a couple of casualties but I'm trying not to worry about it too much, because it means that I'll have room to plant a couple of runners when my current strawberries start having babies.) The blueberries, which the folks at Brazelberries are kindly providing for my little experiment, are still on the way from the farm, so those will get planted when they arrive.

Thinking about starting your own small space garden? I'd recommend first figuring out how many pots you can fit (don't forget that you can hang them overhead, too!) and then deciding what to grow. Do your research first — different kinds of plants have different needs, and you want to make sure you're selecting ones that work with your climate and providing them with enough space, the right kind of soil and fertilizer, and the right amount of sun. You can find lots of great advice online, and also in our Gardening School.

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