Shoots & Ladders: Office gardens

story by char vandermeerFear that cooler temps and shorter days will put an end to your garden-fresh produce? Fear no more, my friends, fear no more. The time is ripe for an office garden.

First, determine how much light your office gets. If you’re lucky enough to have a south-facing window all to yourself, you’re in good shape. If you’re one of the windowless masses, ask around the office to see if you can convince someone to share their sunshine. And if that fails, set up a broad-spectrum grow light, as your crops will need at least eight hours of light per day.

Once you’ve found a suitable sill, dig up a few smallish containers—28-oz tomato cans, quart-sized take-out containers, or whatever pots you have lurking in the basement will do the trick. Poke a few holes in the bottom of each receptacle and toss them into that oversized courier bag you schlep around. Ignore the weird looks security guards and co-workers send your way as you clank past them with your oddly-stuffed bag.  Next, grab some fresh, sterile dirt and bring that in, too. The key word here is “sterile”—you certainly don’t want to invite creepy nasties into the workplace; after all, you probably work with a few already and you don’t want to actually deserve those weird looks. And unless you’re into excuses like, “I over-watered that report you asked for, boss,” you’ll want to remember some kind of catch tray for any runoff that may drain through your mini-container garden. An old, warped cookie sheet works well, as does a tray fashioned from lightly-used aluminum foil.

Line the catch tray with an inch or so of small pebbles, marbles, beer caps or seashells (anything small will do). Not only will you find this to be rather aesthetically pleasing, but it will also provide a little additional humidity for the plants once your office hits that Death Valley dry stretch in early January. Before nestling your pots into your pretty little catch tray and filling them with clean soil, sprinkle a handful of those pebbles or marbles to help promote drainage.

Herbs do pretty darn well in the office. Thyme, rosemary, chives, garlic chives, oregano and tarragon adapt well enough indoors and serve as excellent additions to winter stews, tomato sauce or roasted chicken. Do yourself a favor, though—don’t start these from seed. Spring for a young start at your local nursery, or if you have healthy plants in your garden, bring pieces of your outdoor stalwarts inside. (A word to the wise: inspect all outdoor-to-indoor transplants carefully. If you see any pests or indications of disease, leave them outdoors.)

Starting plants from seed is super fun, though, and nothing says super fun like an office garden. Leaf lettuce, Thai chilies, spinach, parsley and cilantro are good candidates.  For instant gratification, plant a few radish seeds in pre-moistened soil, cover with a quarter inch of soil and cover the pots with plastic wrap. The mini-greenhouse effect accelerates growth rates. You’ll want to plant another crop every two weeks to ensure semi-regular harvests. Carrots, such as the thin-skinned Parmex, which produces golf ball-sized vegetables, can be grown the same way. However, they’ll take much longer to mature.
If you’re very ambitious, I hear Tiny Tim tomatoes, which reach a towering height of 15 inches, aren’t out of the realm of possibility, either. If you try to grow tomatoes, you’ll want to rig up a supplemental light system, regardless of how swank your south-facing office window happens to be. And you’ll need some luck, too.  

Char Vandermeer tends a container garden on her South Philly roof deck; she chronicles her triumphs and travails at plantsondeck.com.