ISSUE 66  |  Cult of the Kitchen

DIY: A Fire Escape-Style Garden

April 04, 2013 3:00 PM

BY Erin Boyle

Fire escapes are romantic places; just ask Tony and Maria. Add a splash of greenery in the form of potted plants, and an eyesore becomes an urban oasis. But remember that New York City law requires a fire escape be kept clear, in case you need to use it to escape an actual fire (or for a West Side Story-style balcony scene):

Photographs by Erin Boyle.

Walk through nearly any New York City neighborhood in the summertime and you'll find fire escapes draped in plants, despite a law prohibiting fire escape gardens. In fact, last spring my sister and I headed to the Union Square Farmers' Market and came home with a bag full of hardy finds for her fifth-floor fire escape. I don't advocate that you follow suit, but I can offer a few bits of advice for a windowsill garden that can be just as lovely, as well as perfectly legal.

I love my wooden window box, but when you're housing pots in a place where high winds (or the threat of fines) could mean that you'll sometimes need to bring your plants inside, it's a nice idea to use several smaller containers that are easier to maneuver. A few pots can be more easily incorporated into your apartment décor than a bulky window box. Just make sure that the pots you use are heavy enough-—or weighted with stones—so they don't blow away.

Think carefully about the amount of sun that your particular window gets. At my sister's house, she's on the top floor of her building and has direct sunlight on her plants for much of the day. Without other taller buildings around to provide shade, she needed to choose plants that thrive in bright sunshine. Ageratum, above, and sweet alyssum both do well in full sun.

Available at local nurseries or online, Ageratum Blue Horizon is $7.95 per plant from White Flower Farm. A packet of Sweet Alyssum Seeds is $2.39 from Eden Bros.

I tend to do my potting on the apartment floor covered in newspaper, but my sister likes the easy cleanup of potting directly in the kitchen sink. In either scenario, make sure that you're working with well hydrated soil. Plants on windowsills need a lot more water than you might expect. Get in the habit of checking your soil every morning. If the soil feels dry, give it a good soak. Windowsill plants tend to dry out quickly, but it's still important to make sure that your pots have proper drainage holes to prevent rot.

In the past, my sister has also kept pots of herbs on her fire escape. If you're growing edibles, make sure that they're getting plenty of fresh water and that they're not placed directly below a neighbor's air conditioner drip or other source of possible contamination. Herbs grow quickly, so resist the temptation to cram lots of small seedlings into small containers.

For a selection of seedlings that includes rosemary, garlic chives, thyme, basil, sage, and oregano, a six-pack of Essential Kitchen Garden Herbs is $34.95 from Williams-Sonoma Agrarian.

Finally, If you amend your soil with fertilizer, make sure you're using something organic, like the Plant-tone that I added to my window box last week.

For more container plant ideas, see DIY: A Window Box Grows in Brooklyn.