For a southeast Brainerd man, apartment living in the city hasn’t stopped his ability to grow his own vegetables.
Tomato plants that resemble bushes in containers line the walkway outside Luke McCapes’ apartment. Each is loaded with tomatoes.
McCapes grew up on a farm on South Long Lake where his family had a large garden. He transported his love of fresh food to the city but didn’t let a small space or lack of yard stand in the way of growing his own food.
Tomatoes, chives, lettuce, zucchini, cucumbers, basil, catnip.
Now as summer draws its last breath, McCapes is reaping the benefit of fresh produce that grows just outside his front door.
The window garden, filled with a thick spring mix of lettuce, was so productive McCapes took several cuttings to work to share with coworkers. The lettuce, which was planted from seed just after the first frost, can be replanted in the fall to get a second crop.
McCapes looks for non-genetically modified seeds when ordering seeds. Some of his tomatoes may not win a beauty contest but McCapes said they can best be described as something else — tasty.
He likes the striking organic ananas noire heirloom tomato with a darker skin and shades of purple, green, orange and yellow. The ananas noire, with roots in Belgium and translates to black pineapple, has a bright colorful interior which makes the slices stand out on the plate or in a salad or dress up a burger.
“The flavor on heirlooms, you can’t compare to a store,” McCapes said. “The flavor is amazing.”
McCapes plants his seeds in April and uses heat lamps to start the plants. Besides the ananas noire, he likes a pink brandywine tomato variety. He gets his seeds from Baker Creek in Missouri.
McCapes said he waters his tomatoes a couple times a day, uses regular soil, crushes egg shells into the soil and a little Superthrive, a vitamin and mineral supplement.
In addition to the tomatoes, McCapes has grown hanging cucumber plants so the vines trail down to the ground. Urban gardeners with little space may also use a trellis to get cucumbers to shoot vines vertically. There aren’t many flowers in McCapes container garden.
“I’m like if you can’t eat it, don’t grow it,” he said.
After the spring start, McCapes moves his container tomatoes in and out of the house to let them benefit from warm days and be protected from touchy late frost.
“That gives you a real good head start,” he said. And in the fall as the tomatoes continue to produce, the last green tomatoes may be picked before the first hard frost and ripened inside in paper bags or covered in newspaper. McCapes buys green onions, uses most of the bulbs for cooking or eating and then submerges what’s left in water in glass jars. The onions continue to grow in that environment, creating more options for meals. He said keeping the celery heel this way will also produce fresh shoots of celery.
McCapes is a fan of roof gardens in metropolitan areas, which add plots for apartment dwellers, provide food and oxygen, all while helping to lower the temperature of the urban heat effect. That’s something McCapes would like to see more of, along with urban community gardens for smaller cities like Brainerd.
McCapes said the catnip he grows acts as a better insect repellent than DEET.
Tips on how to construct a raised bed and information on healthy soils is available online through the University of Minnesota. The Extension Service and area Master Gardeners all offer to help people get started such as http://www1.extension.umn.edu/garden/ where questions may be answered by phone, email, online or in person for any garden topic from identifying an insect to diagnosing a plant problem. The website has data to help urban gardeners take root.
Inside his apartment, McCapes has a coffee plant his cat has enjoyed nipping. It may be six to eight years before it will produce beans and then is unlikely to produce enough for much coffee.
An avocado plant may have more luck as it is expected to grow up to 8 feet in height. McCapes said the plant produces enough oxygen in a year to sustain a family of six. But it will have to be three to five years old before any avocados are produced.
However, it may be another of McCapes indoor plants that’s considered the greatest conversation piece. It’s a min-banana plant. Although it looks much less “mini” than it once did. The plant, which came in a 4-inch pot with two leaves now has a thick trunk and leaves that are getting larger with each sprout. McCapes replanted it into bigger pots about five times since getting the plant in May. It could grow up to six or eight feet in height and eventually produce little bananas.
Even McCapes’ friends ask about the plant’s progress.
“Every few days it puts out a new leaf,” he said. “It’s a conversation piece in the works. It will be nice in the winter to have all this green when it’s so white.”
McCapes said reports from the garden seed industry point to an increase in sales in the last couple of years, which makes sense with the economy.
“People are starting to go back to basics again and grow their own food,” he said. There are seed exchanges where people can also share or trade varieties. “Urban gardening — it would be awesome to see more.
“The flavor of heirlooms is amazing. You can’t compare it to a store.”