The executive chef of Parish Hall in Williamsburg, Even Hanczor is more than aware of where his produce comes from. That’s because restaurant owner George Weld has a 6-acre farm upstate, where Hanczor frequently goes to help harvest the squash, beets, beans and lettuces that will eventually constitute the evening’s meal.
Of course, in his own life, Hanczor has to make due with the constraints of city living, which means culling his dinner from a tiny community plot, instead of the lush, expansive pastures of Goatfell Farm. So whether you’re fortunate enough to have a backyard or patio, or are merely making do with a windowbox or fire escape, Hanczor has a few helpful tips for the at-home urban gardener.
Getting Started: You’d be surprised how similar urban gardening is from growing things traditionally, in raised beds. Either way, you have to plan well. And in extra small spaces, it’s particularly important to maximize productivity while minimizing waste, which means, only grow what you want to eat. Also, you’ll want to practice succession planting, which means putting down seeds or plants a couple of weeks apart, so you have things ripening continuously. If everything comes up all at once, it’s difficult to make sure that everything gets used.
Basic Plant Care: Start with good quality, aerated soil, seeds and plants from reliable suppliers. Otherwise, you risk breeding diseases right into your produce. Make sure to be thoughtful about where to place your plants. Some require more sun and some less, so plan accordingly based on the sun exposure patterns of your windowsill or plot. Water each morning or evening, once the sun is low (wet leaves scorch, otherwise). Weed often…plants need all the precious space and nutrients they can get in windowboxes and pots.
Seeds vs. Plants: We’ve had better success with herbs when using starters, but have been totally fine with vegetables from seed. Since the season can be kind of short here, it's helpful to start things like tomatoes, peppers, chard, etc. indoors while it's still a little too cool outside, and then move them out to your windowsill/pots/garden plot as soon as the weather allows!
What to Grow Indoors: Plants that seem to do well are mainly herbs, like basil, mint, parsley, oregano, chervil or thyme, as long as you have them near a window that gets some sun.
What to Grow Outdoors: Most vegetables do better outside, in a raised bed in a community garden, or a large pot on a stoop or patio, because they’ll have the space and nutrient availability to stretch out. Tomatoes, peppers, kale, chard, cucumber and peas all seem to work well in our garden. A great herb called lovage has taken solid root in our plot and produces like crazy! Skip zucchini, squashes or pumpkins, which need a lot of room to expand along the ground.
Handling Herbs: Herbs are generally easy to grow in small places in the city (especially hardy herbs like sage, parsley, mint, chives), but be careful, or they can take over your plot! To harvest, either pick a couple leaves off for a small quantity, or snip off branches where there is other new growth, to allow the new growth to continue while you use the fully-grown portions of the plant.
How to Harvest: The basic rule for harvesting is, if it looks ready (and is easy to pull off the plant), it is ready. Remember, we're hardwired to notice ripe fruits and vegetables, so trust your instinct! Better to harvest a little too soon than let something get overripe and rot. Besides, I've learned from experience that there's a good chance I won't get to cooking or eating a vegetable I pick on the same day, so if something's a little underripe when I pick it, a couple days in the fridge or on the counter may give it time to fully ripen. Of course, picking the “perfect” tomato is always ideal!
Parish Hall: 109 N 3rd St.,(718) 782-2602