My first garden in the United States was a rooftop one. Sounds posh, like I had a penthouse or something, but sadly not so. I was working at a boarding school, and the fire escape that led out through my apartment went out onto a flat porch roof, about 4 stories up. It wasn't quite as private as it felt, but it was my little oasis. As soon as I moved in I decided I wanted to have a garden. I bought a lot of large plastic pots and saucers, and lugged tons of bags of pebbles (for the bottom of the pots) and potting soil up to the roof. I did check first with the maintenance department if it was OK to put several hundred extra pounds of weight on the roof and they okayed it.
I learned very quickly that the wide, flattish, bowl-like, pots needed to be watered too often. Ditto the smaller pots. Once a day watering just didn't cut it in the summer heat, and twice a day became too much like work, given that I did also have to work. The best ones were the largest ones I'd been able to find, and which were just about too heavy for me to move once they were full. Second discovery - ignore what the planting guidelines said in terms of spacing. When you put plants in a pot, you want to cram as many in as possible. Over-stuffed pots look far more impressive than sparsely planted ones. This also helps ensure that you don't have to do any weeding!
Pots that have water reservoirs underneath are wonderful. We have four out on the front porch right now. Two have peas planted in them, one has lettuce, and the other has flowers. No tomatoes this year. I ignored all the warnings about the tomato blight last year and planted tomatoes anyway. I don't think we got to eat a single one. The plants were prolific, but every single tomato went rotten well before it was ready to be picked. Don't think your garden will be immune from local diseases and bugs just because you love it and look after it!
Since we've had a real garden and not just one in containers, I've learned a few more things.
- The landscaping put in by the builder was intended to look good for the first 4 or 5 years. After that, most of what was put in grows too big for its location. We have some beautiful shrubs and trees that we will probably have to cut down because they were planted too close to the house or each other.
- Deer eat tulips as though they're candy. It's worth paying attention to which plants at the garden center are labelled "deer-resistant."
- Rabbits will eat all kinds of things, but they especially seem to love liatris shoots.
- Pay attention to the hardiness zones for plants. Buy plants that are guaranteed hardy for your area, unless you want them to die over the winter. Some plants that are too sensitive for New England winters can be grown here if you dig them up and move them into the house every winter, but that's too much work as far as I'm concerned. (See the exception below.)
- If you really like it, and it's not hardy in New England, it might be worth buying anyway because the south-facing flower bed at the front of the house is in a hardiness zone all of its own and stuff often survives there that you wouldn't expect. Last year we had dozens of wallflowers that had self-seeded there from the annuals I had planted the year before, and this year we had some pansies that survived the winter (only to get nibbled back to the ground by the rabbits!)
- Sometimes plants will survive multiple winters and then succumb unpredictably. Too bad. Plants are only temporary! Buy more!
- Sometimes it is worth digging plants up for the winter. I've overwintered geraniums in the basement for the last 2 winters, and it really wasn't difficult at all. Dig them out of the pot, wrap them in newspaper, put them in the basement and forget about them till March. The survival rate would be higher if I remembered to spray them with water occasionally over the winter, but that would mean remembering to do so and I have a hard enough time remembering to bring them out of storage in March in time to get them started growing again for the summer.
- If the 'soil' in your garden is mostly sand, you will need a sprinkler system for anything to grow.
- There is actually a point to the strip of mulch between the woods behind the house and the lawn, beyond separating the cultivated lawn from the wild plants in the woods - apparently it also helps reduce the number of ticks we might otherwise find in the lawn. Supposedly, they don't survive the trek from the woods across the strip of mulch to the lawn. Given that ticks can carry Lyme disease, anything that reduces our potential exposure to them is a good thing.
- No matter how many plants I think I need, and how much money I spend each year, I never have enough. Clearly this garden is going to be a very long-term project!