I do know I'm supposed to eat greens...really I do. In the seventh grade, we were shown a movie about what happened to the British sailors who got scurvy because they didn't eat their greens. But here's the reality: At the time I was a single guy living solo; I'd go to the grocery store and dutifully buy a plastic container of greens. That evening, I'd have some and then the next time I looked, the lovely fresh greens would be on their way to compost. Lucky for the chickens — there was no danger of them coming down with scurvy!
It was in December. It was plenty cold outside. My garden was asleep under a blanket of snow. With no real plan in mind, I went to the local nursery and asked if I could grow greens in small plastic pots. I had read that Swiss chard and bok choy were two plants that did well with less-than-full sunlight. The salesperson was a bit taken aback at my question, but allowed that they should grow. So I left the shop with two seed packets and a dozen used one-quart plastic pots.
Later, I planted chard and bok choy in organic potting soil, putting the pots in a recycled kitty litter tray on a bench in a sunny corner. Soon enough, there were green shoots, and then before I knew it there was a mass of green leaves, each struggling for a bit of the pale January sunlight. Another problem became evident: Watering a mass of leaves makes even watering impossible. Some were too wet, some too dry. But I was harvesting fresh greens! What was surprising to me was that chard grown indoors was unlike the chard I had gotten at the store. My plants produced tender, mild-flavored leaves, unlike what I remembered chard leaves to be (leathery with a strong flavor). But while I had found a solution to my scurvy concerns, my plants were increasingly over-crowded and light-starved.
About that time, I came across an idea for container growing call “flood and drain,” where the pots — set in a tray of some sort — are flooded, allowed to soak, and then drained. One claimed benefit was to provide air to the roots when the rising water in the tray pushed out the existing air then drew in fresh oxygen to the roots as the water level receded when the tray was drained. The other advantage to this method is that the flooding water removes any salt buildup that might accumulate from the liquid fertilizer. I also heard this method was called “passive hydroponic,” and it appealed to me, because it was kind of hydroponic, but allowed me to use organic liquid fertilizers and organic potting soil.
It was becoming pretty obvious the crowding and lack of light were real limitations to my mini garden. Then, the idea of a trough on the windowsill came to mind, combining a way to water all the plants uniformly and efficiently all at once. Great, now how to make this trough? Wood? Sheet metal? The choices all seemed expensive, clumsy, prone to leaking...then the light bulb went on in my head: gutters!
I started researching gutters. The ones at my local hardware store would not fit the pots I had chosen. The pots were 4” by 4” by 5” high, and were too wide at their base for the gutter profiles I had seen. I just love the internet. With a lot of searching I found that Lowe's stocked a vinyl gutter that had a unique profile that fitted the quart pots perfectly. And they also had a complete line of end caps, hanging brackets...the works! My Gutter Garden was born — at least in my imagination.
From there it was simple; everything went together easily. Cutting the 8-foot gutter sections into 4-foot lengths was no problem using a hacksaw. The end caps and mounting brackets snapped together with no tools required. But I needed a drain of some sort. The hardware store had lots of bits and pieces but they were all too big or too “something else” in the plumbing section.
What I needed was a piece of threaded tubing that I could put into the gutter and attach a vinyl tube for draining the water. Digging through remnants of projects and repairs at my house, I came across the remains of a lamp. And there it was: a threaded tube 3/8-inch or so in diameter with a nut to tighten it in the lamp. I had been in the wrong section of the hardware store. No doubt there are many other solutions, but this one was easy and with nuts, fender washers and rubber washers, the drains fit easily into a hole drilled in the bottom of the gutter without a trace of leaking. Mounting the gutter assemblies onto a pieces of 1-by-4 lumber attached to the south window frame was all it took to complete my Gutter Garden.
That was January 2012, and I am still cutting tender, mild leaves from my original chard plants in April 2013. The amount of dark green chard that a gutter garden can produce has been surprising to me. It started as an experiment, and the results have demonstrated to me that this growing method produces a significant amount of super fresh, organic produce that stays fresh until you want it. Of all the plants I've tried since, chard has been the best producer. None of the plants have gone to seed; they just keep growing new leaves as the outer ones are trimmed off. Most importantly I've had no sign of scurvy, just lots of the best-tasting greens I have ever eaten.
Lee Bentley blogs about life on Magpie Farm, located in the mountains of Northern New Mexico. Check our cottage industry product at www.PrimalCare.net.