Larry Hodgson published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings accessible to the public. This text was originally published in June 1998 in Fleurs, plantes et jardins magazine.
Today, I’m a well-endowed laidback gardener. After all, I have a house, a plot of land, flower beds and several gardening tools. However, I wasn’t always so lucky. For years, my only garden was on a windowsill or balcony, depending on where life took me. The funny thing is, I’ve never had as much success with a vegetable garden as when it was on my fourth-floor balcony.
One of the Secrets?
Much of this success was due to its south-south-west exposure, with no shade whatsoever. Try finding a ground-level vegetable garden that isn’t shaded by a tree, fence or house! Only clouds could block the sun. The balcony, on the fourth and top floor of the building, was not overlooked by any other balcony, and the surrounding buildings were only three storeys high.
But There’s More…
Another part of the success was the absence of harmful insects and weeds. I don’t know if, from gardening on the fourth floor (we only lived in this apartment for two short years), thrips, beetles and aphids would have found their way in, but I never saw any. Luckily, the bees had found us, otherwise I’d have had to pollinate my peppers, squash and tomatoes by hand!
However, my garden wasn’t particularly aesthetic. Most of the plants were grown in metal cans or buckets salvaged from the local restaurant, or in flower boxes I’d made myself from bits of wood and, therefore, of the most motley shapes and sizes. It was the style I call “Salvation Army”, a style that matched perfectly with the furnishings of our apartment, not to mention our clothes.
At that time in my life, every penny was important. It’s a good thing that gardening in the fourth floor wasn’t expensive. My only real expenses were potting soil, fertilizer and seeds. Despite the small investment, what a harvest! From the first radishes and lettuces in June to the leeks and Jerusalem artichokes in November, I could easily supply a vegetarian family of three with fresh vegetables for six months of the year. We had enough preserves made from the surplus to live on for half the winter!
How Can You Produce So Much on a Balcony?
Making maximum use of the space available, of course! My “kitchen garden on the fourth floor” resembled the hanging gardens of Babylon: everything was in tiers. The first level was made up of motley pots littering the balcony floor: there was barely room for your feet. Level two was made up of flower boxes hung on the inside and outside of the railing, making a double row all around the balcony. The third level? Wires and netting suspended from the edge of the roof and firmly attached to the pots for climbing or weeping plants.
The hardest part of the job was the watering. With no water outlet (really, what do architects think of when they design balconies for apartment buildings?), we had to carry watering cans full of water from the kitchen tap to the other end of the apartment: excellent exercise, by the way. I had started to plan an irrigation system from a hose running from the kitchen to the balcony, but our move to a ground-floor apartment with access to a courtyard made this unnecessary. As did my idea, no doubt unfeasible, of converting the roof of the building into a garden. A gardener can dream, can’t they?
An Incredible Vegetable Garden
My subsequent vegetable gardens never even came close to matching the productivity of this heavenly garden. At my ground-floor apartment, where we stayed for 10 years after that, the small courtyard was too shady for vegetables. As for the community garden… well, a 15-minute walk away, I could easily find any excuse not to go there, with the results you can imagine. What about my current house? On the northern slope of a hill as it is, I haven’t yet found a sunny enough spot for my tomatoes.
In fact, the real secret of my “vegetable garden on the fourth floor” was that I had to get it right. Today, if I want any vegetable, I can afford to buy it. Laidback as I am, that’s what I do most of the time. In those days, which now seem so long ago, having a successful vegetable garden made all the difference between an abundant and varied table and a “…not rice again!”.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way!” So well said, in the garden as in life!