When I think of going back to the days of apartment gardening, a chill runs up my spine. Maybe it’s because I always had small porches or none at all, but what a feat! I admire anyone who has a prolific apartment garden.
In today’s story, Benjamin vonBergen admits apartment gardening isn’t ideal, but he finds a way to make it work in My Burlap Garden. Anyone who has used burlap in their garden probably had the same questions as I did — but why? How?
In my experience, burlap is best used as a weed cloth, but it’s not even great at that because it’ll keep new seeds from coming in, but will generously open the door to last year’s weed seeds that want to grow up through it.
So when Benjamin decides to basically use burlap coffee sacks as grow bags because they were 99 cents, my thought was, “noooooooo!” But despite some initial disaster, he comes out on the other side with a cost-effective rig that actually sounds like a decent idea for an apartment garden.
I’ll let you judge for yourself when you read today’s story.
And This Isn’t the Only Apartment Garden Story
This story comes from our archive that spans over 30 years and includes more than 130 magazine issues of GreenPrints. Pieces like these that inject the joy of gardening into everyday life lessons always brighten up my day, and I hope it does for you as well. Enjoy!
My Burlap Garden
A college grad makes do.
By Benjamin vonBergen
for a would-be gardener, renting is not ideal—and renting an apartment even worse. So from the start of my search until the day I signed the lease, I did everything in my power to rent a house rather than an apartment. The problem was that I was about to be a college graduate (debt-free!) with zero cash on hand and no credit. Hence, when an apartment became my only option, I swallowed my hopes for a sprawling vegetable and herb garden.
That was the main point of a house: the garden! Yes, I wanted the lack of same-wall neighbors, no speed bumps in the parking lot—and the respectable feeling of living in a house at 22. But really, I wanted a garden. I love gardening. I even worked in a garden center. It pained me that spring to watch the vegetables and herbs trickling out, to advise customers on soil and fertilizer, and to know that I wouldn’t get to share in their joy.
On the plus side, my second-floor apartment had a garden-friendly, southeast-facing balcony that overlooked a fairway. On the minus, containers and potting soil are unreasonably expensive for a zero-cash-on-hand graduate.
But I didn’t want a “cute” garden, a token garden. I wanted a real, edible garden. And I could barely afford cleaning supplies! Where to look for a solution? The only place any reasonable person would look. I Googled “cheap container gardens.” I Googled “frugal container gardens.” I Googled “hip balcony gardens.” I found cutesy stuff. I found artsy stuff. I found weird ideas for containers. Old truck tires filled with dirt. Coffee mugs. Old cut-up furniture. Large books with holes cut out of them. Lamp shades. Pillowcases.
But wait! What about this? A container made out of burlap. The garden center I worked in happened to be selling old coffee sacks for $.99 each. Let’s do it!
I bought 12 sacks and set them up on my balcony. I intended to fill them nearly full, but found that a little less than half full was plenty. I was ecstatic with the way the sacks rounded out and sat stable. And if I folded down the top half over the bottom half before I scooped in the soil, they were double layered!
Once I had my whole garden folded, scooped, and planted—then people started sharing their concerns about my plans. They all seem convinced that the burlap would last only a month. And everyone guessed that my landlord might not appreciate wet burlap sitting on a wooden deck all season. How did everyone else know that? I guess they were homeowners.
Me, I noticed that when I watered my garden, much of the water ran out the bottom of the sacks and onto the patio below. Because the water drained so quickly, my plants dried out quickly. Then I noticed that, indeed, large dark spots were forming on the wood under the sacks. And when I tried to adjust my cucumber sack, the bottom tore loudly and effortlessly. My experiment was failing fast.
I thought about shoving large garbage bags over my burlap ones, but didn’t want broken down trash-bag chemicals in my salads. All I could think to do was buy more coffee sacks, assuming two bags would outlive one. But when I went back to the garden center, I found something else to go with the extra coffee sacks: rolls of weed fabric, safe for gardens and durable enough to withstand moisture—and only about five dollars!
Then I walked by thin plastic plant trays—each less than a dollar. I had it made. I cut the weed fabric into pieces, wrapped pieces around the existing containers, shoved these containers into the new, doublefolded sacks, and placed them on the plant trays. I also swept (that was necessary).
The plastic was every bit as durable as I’d hoped, and it held water better, too. I was no longer showering the patio below with dirty water
The best part? Come the end of the season, the outer sacks had held up like champions. Success! And even though I wasn’t looking for a cute garden, I ended up with about the hippest, most urban garden in town.
All of which just goes to show: Where there’s a will, there’s a garden. ❖
By Benjamin vonBergen, published originally in 2016, in GreenPrints Issue #106. Illustrations By Hannah England
Tell me about your apartment garden, how have you rigged it to work?