Interview With Apartment Gardener Helen Kim

We got a lot of emails after posting the image above of Los Angeles based photographer Helen Kim’s astonishing windowsill garden. It’s a great example of what you can do with a small amount of space, and brings to mind William Morris’ advice, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. Helen graciously sat down for an email interview to talk about her beautiful and useful garden:

HOMEGROWN EVOLUTION: What’s your advice to folks who would like to try growing plants in an apartment windowsill?

HELEN KIM: Well, since I didn’t start with any particular plant knowledge or skills (just a feeling that it would be lovely to have living things around my apartment–besides my dog–to take care of and watch grow), I guess I’d just say just ‘hop in!’ For me, it’s been something of a hit-and-miss experimental approach: finding out which plants do well in which windowsills (I have six sets of large windows facing every direction except north). It takes a little doing, and I’ve lost a few here and there. I started years ago with French breakfast radish seeds, which didn’t go so well–they needed too much attention and too much water–and the few small radishes I ended up with a few months later were eaten and gone in a few seconds! Then I planted mint because I felt increasingly silly buying plastic packets of it in the supermarket, only to watch it wither in my fridge since I only needed a couple leaves of it for whatever recipe. To my surprise, the mint grew like crazy with minimal care–good for me since I’m running around a bunch and not particularly attentive. That was pretty encouraging, so I got more and more… figuring out, as I went along, which plants could survive my temperament. Rosemary seems to be pretty kill-proof, too.

HE: What have been some of the other successful/unsuccessful plants you have grown?

HK: Now that I’ve realized the south-facing windows are best for edibles, the most successful have been: lemon grass, rosemary, green onions, mint, mustard greens, parsley, cilantro, oregano, thyme, basil, Thai chili peppers, okra, chives, stevia, lemon verbena, tarragon, dill, and sorrel. The least successful have been: beans, cucumber, arugula, tomato, squash, Swiss chard, leeks, spinach, and corn. All of these were a complete wash last year! But the happy upshot is that, this year, I planted them at my mother’s house – in the two huge beds she has there. All that space and sunlight has made them pretty happy. While it was a bit of a bummer to not have them at arm’s reach at my place, it was nice at least to figure out I could use my windowsill as a kindergarten (I started a lot of these from seed in little peat pots) before sending them off to bigger pastures. And, since I visit every two weeks, I always come back home with an armload of this or that. I’ve had a strawberry plant that is doing pretty nicely these days at my place, but not bearing much fruit… so I’ll be shipping him off mom’s in a couple weeks.

HE: What do you use as fertilizer?

HK: Shockingly, I suppose, before this year I didn’t use anything! I always thought plant vitamins, ‘food,’ and fertilizer were a bunch of hooey. But a friend recently gave me a little lecture on the importance of fertilizer and I thought I’d finally give it a whirl… and I have to say that, yes, the plants are a bit happier than they were this time last year. I’ve been using Dr. Earth fertilizer and making fertilizer tea.

HE: Did you choose your apartment with the idea that you’d be gardening in it? If so, what should a prospective renter look for?

HK: I had three main things on my mind when I was looking for an apartment: the place would need to comfortably house me, my dog, and my plants. There were so few buildings that would take a pet, so that narrowed the field considerably. This small field became even smaller when I noticed many of the buildings had windows that swung outwards (impossible if you intend to water your plants). There was only this one building that fit the bill, so I moved in. On the first day, I realized the screens were impossible to remove (to water, etc…) without mangling. The building manager at the time told me that the screens were non-removable (what?!). So I measured all the windows, went to the hardware store, and had them make removable screens, voila. Maybe I should mention, too, that the management recently ripped out all the shrubbery in front of the building. I assumed they were going to put in something else in imminently, but a couple months went by… so, a few weeks ago, I started putting succulent cuttings around the perimeter.

HE: We understand you had some trouble with the MAN. What happened and how did you handle it?

HK: After a couple years of living here, another building manager informed me that the plants on the windowsills were violating building codes and that I’d have to remove them all. I wrote him a letter back saying that the plants were supported by steel mesh baskets and lashed to building with 50 lb. picture wire. I never heard back from him and he was replaced by another in a long line of building managers. Several years of walk-through inspections have come and gone, and nobody has mentioned it since. While I still wonder as to what the actual law is on windowsill plants, I’m not about to stir the pot by clarifying it with the management here.

HE: You’re an amazing chef–you won me over to the concept of cold soup with that delicious leek soup you dropped off the other week. What sorts of things do you cook with plants you grow on your windowsill?

HK: Aww, thanks, glad you liked it! Personally, I wouldn’t have made it through this summer without cold soups! The potato/peas/leek cold soup was made with sorrel from the windowsill. A couple weeks ago, I grabbed the lemongrass and Thai chilies and cilantro from the window and made tom yum goong soup. The chives are great with egg salad and capers. With the dill, tarragon, thyme, and parsley I usually make grilled fish. Whenever I come back from my mother’s I use the tomatoes to make bruschetta… and add my basil. Or I make salsa and add the cilantro. Or I use the oregano to make spaghetti sauce. Cactus salad is also good with the cilantro and oregano. The spinach and chard from my mom’s I usually blanch, then cool… and add garlic, sesame oil, salt, pepper, and green onions from the sill–good with the fish as a side. I use a bunch of the green onions whenever I make hot soup with noodles. And, for awhile there, I was making pasta with Swiss chard and mushrooms (with garlic and a bit of butter) just about every day! The mustard greens I like to have with my scrambled eggs… or, of course, for some pizzazz in any salad. I pounded the heck out of some dried stevia yesterday morning and added it to my coffee… and was surprised at how sweet it was. The mint is great to slice up and just throw in a glass of ice water. And it’s a must for my favorite summer beverage: glass of ice, shot of tequila, top with tonic water, squeeze in half a lime, and add a bunch of crushed mint. The okra plants are going great guns and I’m looking forward to cooking something non-slimy with them! … but I still haven’t gotten around to making any tea with the lemon verbena…

HE: We heard that some of the plants have a special significance for you

HK: Yeah, shortly after I moved in, my grandmother died and I inherited some of her plants–mostly succulents. So when the building manager told me I’d have to remove all the plants, I kind of panicked–but you know how that story worked out. They’re now living happily on two of the east-facing windows. The two windows on the south house the edible plants–which pans out nicely for my lazy self, since they’re right by the kitchen. And the one west-facing window (the shadiest) has my wonderfully-weird euphorbias. it took me awhile to come around to the sensible idea that it’s best to separate the edible plants from the poisonous ones!

HE: There was quite a reaction when I posted the photo of your garden.

HK: I was happy that some folks commented on the windowsill (blog picture) being nice looking! But, really, that was a new transformation from the beginning of this summer. I mean, I’ve had many of the same plants over the years in, more or less, the same arrangement. But, several months ago, a new neighbor moved into the apartment building next door. Their window is a little below my kitchen window, just three feet away. In the nine years I’ve lived here, the various neighbors have always kept the blinds and the window mostly shut. When this new neighbor decided to keep the blinds open day and night, I saw clear into the living room and kitchen… and, whenever I puttered around with the plants, I was looking straight onto their mattress. Without any effort on my part, all of a sudden I was getting way too much aural and visual information! So I worked a little bit at creating some visual privacy for all of us: I hoisted the further-back plants up on multiple bricks and replanted so that the taller plants blocked the bed-view somewhat… and left the closer plants on sill-level. The step-terrace-thingie was a nice aesthetic result – but totally an accidental by-product stemming from dumb necessity. But, rats, this new plant curtain hasn’t shielded me much from the squabbling. Sigh…

HE: Thanks Helen!!!

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  1. I live in Geneva and since yards are only for the filthy rich and even having a balcony is beyond my means, I have also decided to make the best with what I have and to plant on the windowsill.

    I have had screaming success with autumn strawberries (had no idea before that there were different ones for different seasons), and have heard that proper peas can be problematic but had a good go of snow peas and snap peas.

    I also grow mint, parsley and basil on my window ledge, but managed to kill a coriander plant good and proper.

    Grow where you can!

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