For the past three years as I’ve walked to my car, I’ve passed half a wine barrel that once held a tomato plant. Tenants in my building brought the barrel there and planted the tomato, but they soon stopped watering it and the tomato died. The tenants moved away but they left their barrel, where it has sat ever since, gathering dust, stray trash and cigarette butts, plus lots of rain.
I had entertained the idea of cleaning out the wine barrel and planting something in it, but I never got around to it. The stew that was brewing in the barrel was also getting to look pretty intimidating.
When I launched The Manly Housekeeper, I finally had a reason and an excuse to clean out the wine barrel. The series “Asphalt Garden” will follow my progress as I attempt to garden above ground in some free space against the back wall of my apartment building, next to the laundry room and the gas main.
My family had a small vegetable garden when I was growing up, where we usually planted a few tomato plants, two cucumbers and two zucchinis. I worked in the garden with my mom, but this will be my first time growing anything on my own. It will no doubt be a learning experience.
I hope you, dear reader, enjoy following along, and consider starting your own above-ground garden. Do you know of a couple square feet of space that get 8-12 hours of sunlight a day that you could claim? How about in your apartment building’s parking lot, near the dumpsters? The startup costs are pretty minimal, especially if you’re planting in only one barrel, and the rewards are (theoretically) very tangible: fresh tomatoes, herbs, zucchinis or peppers – whatever you want to plant.
Tomorrow I’ll describe how I settled on planting in four wine barrels, and show how I prepped those barrels for planting. Wednesday I’ll write about the vegetables I settled on and the dirt formula I used for planting, and share some planting tips. Then we’ll be off and running! Over the course of the summer I’ll share updates on my garden and recipes that use ingredients from my backyard, plus I’ll muse about topics like whether having a vegetable garden is cost-effective.
But first, back to crazy, foaming, green concoction near my parking space. Wine barrels are designed to hold a liquid, which means they can’t leak (Captain Obvious sighting!). The original owners of the parking lot wine barrel didn’t put any drainage holes in the barrel, so each winter the barrel filled with water, where it marinated with the old dirt and trash until the water evaporated months later.
I knew the first thing I needed to do to start my asphalt garden was to empty the old barrel. When I took a close look at the water, I saw thousands of mosquito larvae swimming about. I gripped my shovel with determination and started emptying the water and mud directly into the dumpster. When I disturbed the water I knew my reticence was well-founded. The putrid smell from the barrel was powerful, even in the fresh outdoor air.
I emptied most of the barrel; enough to make it light enough to tip over. As I dumped the wine barrel upside down I got two surprises in quick succession: First, the barrel really was leak-proof. It was bone-dry underneath, and the underside of the barrel was fresh, with light-brown wood. Second, the dry habitat was the perfect home for a family of black widow spiders. I actually can’t unequivocally say they were black widows; I couldn’t see the trademark red hourglass markings on the underside of the spider’s abdomen. The adult spiders certainly did have a pair of bright red spots, however (another type of marking), and the juvenile spiders looked just like these ones.
I did a very thorough job of cleaning the underside of the wine barrel, then scrubbed out the inside of the barrel even more carefully. I’ll take poisonous spiders over stinky green sludge any day of the week.
Tomorrow: fewer spiders but just as many adventures – this time in the rain!