Science·What on Earth?

How to grow food in an apartment or condo

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we explore how you go about growing your own food in an apartment, the biggest green energy jobs and the backstory to an iconic climate change cartoon.

Also: An iconic climate change cartoon

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • How to grow an apartment garden
  • Which green energy jobs employ the most people?
  • The story behind an iconic climate change cartoon

Growing an apartment garden

(Taylor Logan/CBC)

A few months ago, my roommate Alex and I had a revelation. As we were hauling overfilled bags of trash down the hall to the disposal for the third time that week, it hit us: How were four people producing this much garbage?

Our three-bedroom apartment west of Toronto had no compost bin. Our kitchen blue bins were often overflowing with recycling, but it made little difference to the amount of trash. Single-use plastic made up a large part of our weekly garbage run and a lot of it came from packaging for produce. We decided to begin growing our own food.

Most people think that cultivating a garden in an apartment is impossible, especially being eight floors up. Some buildings have strict rules — ours says you can't hang things off the balcony. But finding workarounds was one of the easiest things I've ever done.

We started by creating our own vermicompost bin, which uses worms to compost food scraps. But we quickly realized how much fertilizer the worms were producing. We considered dumping it in a local forest or the flower beds outside our apartment, but decided instead to create a garden of our own.

We ran out to the store the next day, filling our cart with seeds, small compostable pots and a shovel. We began with 10 seed-filled pots sitting on our kitchen windowsill, which we watered every day with a spray bottle. We killed four within the week, but we replanted and adjusted. From over-watering to too much sun, we had to watch our emerging plants like hawks. 

Within three weeks, we had 10 little seedlings, including lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, snap peas, mint, basil, a dwarf sunflower … as well as catnip for our feline friend, Dave.

Never having had much of a green thumb, my roommate and I had plenty of pots from previously owned (and accidentally killed) house plants. This proved beneficial around three weeks later. The plants had become too big and needed to be transferred to new homes. 

Soon, we were obsessed. With the leftover pots, we planted more. Some wildflowers for the bees, another sunflower. We even started to plant and regrow the vegetables we were buying from the store. 

We moved the plants outdoors the weekend after Victoria Day, putting them in metal and compostable planters hanging on the inside of our balcony. A few weeks later, we bought a wooden ladder and hung pots from it for the flowers. Thirteen weeks after we first had the idea, our once-empty balcony was filled with blooming life. 

Soon, the benefits of our garden will be reaped and we will have delicious, fresh food — with no waste in sight.

Taylor Logan

An apartment garden cheat sheet:

  • Use the space to your advantage. If you have a balcony, hang planters. If you have a large enough windowsill, keep your plants there. Consider vertical planters to conserve space. Be creative.
  • If you don't have enough lighting or lack a balcony, consider using grow lights for minigreenhouses.
  • If you lack the funds for such equipment, grow veggies that thrive in shady areas (e.g. lettuce, carrots, garlic, potatoes).
  • For overly sunny apartments, grow tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beans and corn.
  • Watch how your plants grow. If they're wilting, water them. If they start to lose their colour, give them more light. To grow a successful garden, you have to pay attention to what your plants are saying to you.


If you've got comments or suggestions, let us know.

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Old issues of What on Earth? are here.

The Big Picture: Green energy jobs

We hear a lot about the ups and downs of the fossil fuel business (oil and gas, as well as coal), but we don't often hear about how much the green energy industry is thriving. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) recently reported that 11 million people worldwide were employed in green energy in 2018, up from 10.3 million in 2017. Here's how those jobs break down. (Note: "Solar photovoltaic" refers to solar power.)


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

'Surely we can do better than this': Cartoonist Joel Pett on the climate debate

(Joel Pett)

In December 2009, just before the opening of the Copenhagen climate conference, USA Today published the above comic by American political cartoonist Joel Pett. It neatly captured the feeling among many climate activists and quickly went viral. It became so beloved in environmental circles that a woman in Red Lake, Ont., even had it painted on her garage.

Pett, who lives in Lexington, Ky., is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a member of the group Cartooning for Peace. Emily Chung caught up with him to talk about this iconic cartoon and how the media has gone about communicating the topic of climate change.

What inspired the cartoon? 

I discovered a couple years after I drew it that I had drawn a version of it like 15 years ago — I mean, the thought [was the same].

The thought was obvious to you 15 years ago?

Probably before that. I'm 66, so the first Earth Day, I was in high school in 1970. And I went to a pretty good little school. They closed the school and let us go plant trees. What that cartoon is about is just how misdirected so much of human activity is. And I think almost everybody's aware of that — everybody with a crazy commute, everybody with a boss that they don't like, everybody who looks at the way things are distributed in the world. And I think most people look around and go, "Surely, we can do better than this."

That's what you were trying to communicate?

I don't believe the science [around climate change] to be fake, obviously, but sometimes, you know, you can disarm somebody by accepting the premise of their argument — and still win it. OK, so the science is fake. Does that mean we don't want shorter workweeks and shorter commutes and more sensible city design, more pedestrian-friendly shopping malls — and all those things I listed?

The message we hear a lot is that doing something about these problems is going to be too expensive, it's going to be bad for the economy, it's going to kill jobs.

They say that about everything. Everything is somebody's job. In theory, if you got rid of war, you have this big problem that the people who work in the war business wouldn't have jobs. Well, so what? They could go play music and the rest of us could dance to it.

How do you feel about the way climate change and environmental issues have been communicated since your cartoon was published?

You know, I'm not impressed. The leadership is not there. But the followership certainly is. I don't like to be totally pessimistic, but I don't see that working out that well. On the other hand, sometimes I hope it's the last gasp of the 70-year-old white guys, and hopefully younger people will do a better job.

If there was one message about the environment you wanted to get across to people, what would it be?

That kind of is my one message, that cartoon. Which is like, "Come on…. All the benefits are out there for us to take advantage of and none of the offered excuses really fit."

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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