And so we moved to the city. Into an apartment. Four floors up. The thing that I thought would save me was the balcony. We had a corner unit which meant a larger balcony and that equated more gardening space. Every square foot mattered.
My initial plan was to start off with half a dozen pots of tomatoes, kale and assorted herbs and then slowly add on from there. I didn’t want to alarm the neighbors. Unfortunately I soon got carried away. Half a dozen, turned to a dozen and then to 32 and finally 45 pots were crammed onto the 189 square foot balcony.
Even so it was a huge downsize from the 6000 square feet of vegetables, fruit trees, berry bushes and flowers I was used to looking after, but it soon became mesmerizing. My living room chair was against the window looking over the balcony, so in many ways it felt like I never left the garden. In the country I could see bits and pieces of the garden out the window, but mostly I only saw it when I was in it, and when I was in it I was too busy weeding and watering to really see it. With such a massive garden and so much to do, I was constantly being startled by six zucchinis ready for plucking or peas that seemed to go from ivory flowers to fat emerald pods in a heartbeat.
The balcony garden, by comparison, was positively Zen. I watched the plants grow, marking their progress day to day, even minute to minute. Using the indents on the pot behind it, I watched a fern grow from a fiddle head into a frond in the space of three days.
It amazed me how much food I managed to grow in such a confined space. Every time I thought a pot was full to the brim, I managed to find room for one more shallot bulb or another handful of beans.
By July I could step out onto the balcony with colander and scissors in hand and gather Red Sails and Drunken Woman lettuce, Russian kale and Italian parsley and put together a fresh picked salad for supper every night. It amazed me how little we needed. On the farm I had dedicated entire beds to each type of green. It was always too much, but better too much than not enough, right? Now I knew I was wrong. I never needed such a massive garden, I just thought I did.
When Darcy discovered the letter slid under our door I was on the phone. He handed it to me and then–unable to witness my reaction–fled the building for the recycling depot. I scanned the letter while I talked, my brain highlighting sentences as I went.
“We have been requested by Strata Council to issue a breach of the following bylaws”
“Issue: serious staining and water draining from the balcony of your deck as been observed.”
“This drainage must cease immediately or you may be subject to penalties as contained in bylaw 23 which provides for fines up to $200 for each bylaw contravention. Bylaw 24 provides that if an activity or lack of activity constitutes a contravention of a bylaw continues without interruption for longer than 7 days a fine may be imposed every 7 days.”
“The strata requests permission to enter your strata lot to observe the deck area to determine if damage has occurred to the limited property.”
“We trust you will comply with the bylaws and incorporate proper drainage of your pots to prevent any further damage and costs.”
I wrapped up the phone call in a numb fog and sat there for several minutes just holding the letter. You could say what happened next was a bit of an overreaction. I went down to our storage locker in the basement, brought up our cart, loaded it with plants and wheeled it to the elevator. When the door opened there stood Darcy home from the recycling depot.
He took in the cart spilling over with its load of tomatoes, kale, herbs, squash and flowers.
“So you’re getting rid of them all?” He asked.
“Every last one,” I replied.”Take them to the store and leave them outside the gate.”
At our store stuff left outside the gate was the equivalent of leaving things on the curb. Free for the taking, things that were damaged, expired or simply “dead stock” were put outside the gate and almost always disappeared within 24 hours.
It took two pickup loads to empty the balcony. When the strata manager showed up 48 hours later to inspect the balcony she was momentarily speechless.
“You got rid of all your plants? You didn’t need to do that! You just needed to make sure not to over water and to use saucers”
But I had already been fanatically careful not to over water and I did use saucers. Which worked fine for hand watering. Nature, as always, is harder to control. We were on the top floor without any overhang so when we had a big downpour there was no way to control it or keep the saucers from overflowing.
That night, unable to sleep, I slipped out of bed and went onto the empty balcony and threw myself a pity party. This would be the first summer of my life without a garden. I never realized how much the planning, sowing, tending, weeding and reaping grounded me. Half a box of Kleenex later I returned to bed. I never blamed the Strata. I never should have got so carried away.
A week later the Strata returned to say that they no longer thought it was the plants causing the staining at all. When they cleaned the residue off the building it was sticky and they suspected it could be coming from an adhesive or some building substance that wasn’t performing as it should. I said I was pretty sure I knew what it was. Since I was growing mostly vegetables I had added compost to the containers without thinking how this could result in brown colored manure water running down the building. They weren’t convinced.
Looking back, it was kind of funny how they were arguing that it wasn’t my plants, while I was arguing that it was. A reversal of what you might expect in such a situation. We decided to wait and see. If it happened again we would know it wasn’t the plants, but if it didn’t then I would pay for the cleaning.
So far there has been a little more staining on the fronts of the balconies, but not on the building itself. However, it has been a dry summer, so that makes it hard to know for sure. A few days of rain would probably give us our answers.
As for the plants, Darcy refused to leave them outside the gate. Instead he piled them on pallets and moved them into an unused corner of the lumber yard. It’s not ideal. The days are long and it’s hard to find time to water them and at the end of the day I just want to go home, not hang around to water the plants that I barely see, but I appreciate the gesture.
A few days after the plants arrived I went down to visit my parents in a town about an hour south of ours.My father, who has congenital heart disease and vascular dementia and has been in a nursing home for the last year and a half, took a turn for the worse while I was there, so I ended up staying the week with my mother until he stabilized.
I had meant to round up some hoses for watering the plants in their new home as soon as I returned from my visit, but then everything happened with Dad, days passed and the hoses were forgotten.
“Forget about the plants,” I told Darcy over the phone. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll just dump them out somewhere when I get back up there.”
He reluctantly agreed.
But instead the staff took it upon themselves to water the containers.They found a bunch of buckets and loaded them onto the front end loader of the forklift and drove them over to water the plants. An act that touched me so much it made me cry when I found out about it. So now the plants belong to all of us and we all wander out and pick a few tomatoes to snack on or gather some lettuce and kale to take home.
It’s not the garden I imagined, but then again, nothing about this move has been.