Sunday, March 14, 2010

Balcony Garden

The Lebanese are shocked if someone builds a dwelling place without a balcony. In warm weather, most of the year, people live on their balcony, and all year round they leave their plants out. Many buildings in Beirut have deep dirt-filled planters built into the balconies. The result is thick vines of purple bougainvillea, jasmine and verbena grown all over the city.
Our daughter Sonya’s apartment in Beirut, where we camped out on her life for two weeks, has two balconies. The “big one,” with its wide, dense, busy viewspace offering close perspectives on several construction projects and lots of smaller, older Mediterranean style buildings, is also home to a dozen or so flowering plants. Planted in large pots from which vines emerge, climb walls on homemade lattices and twist around one another, bougainvillea and jasmine offer the biggest shows. Since it was February when we were there, the bougainvillea was beginning to offer a few cheerful blossoms. Herbs, annuals and other perennials were still awaiting their hour.
The neighbors in the lower house across a narrow street but more or less in front and center from the balcony where we sat and watched the world were already preparing for the new growing season. Their garden occupied much of a broad, flat rooftop, consisting of maybe thirty large pots and a few small trees. Many of the pots had severely pruned rootstock with short stems of what could only be rose bushes protruding above the soil. We watch them walk among their plants, conferring.
They see us.
Both parties wave.
A day later a huge conical pile of yellowish dirt appears on an unoccupied piece of the fourth-story roof. Since we were not out of bed early enough to be in good balcony-spying position whenever this dirt arrived, we can only speculate on its source and means of arrival. Helicopter? Considerable huffing and puffing up the stairs by poorly paid sherpas? Family members from “the village” (all Beruitis have a village, where growing is practiced) arriving with a truckful of this precious ultimate source of new life? Magic?
Howsoever it got there, the appearance of the yellow dirt ushered in a new era of re-potting, the shaking of old dirt off old roots, the summary disposal of unwanted plant material and other stuff over the side of the building, and the reinstallation of the fortunate neighbors’ balcony garden in its new soil.
Inspired, some days later we took action on our own front.
Owning to an unfortunate water shortage last summer (when you leave home in August you are relying on a substitute plant attendant, who in this instance did not attend well or faithfully), one of Sonya’s large, many-branched plants had died. So it was that Anne and I were pressed into service as visiting workers. We tracked down the dead branches, disentangled them from the living neighbors, and cut off about two garbage bags worth of dead vines.
The neighboring climbing plants shed a lot of deadwood also. The jasmine lost most of its upper stories, and I put in some time tying up and styling the low, new-growth green shoots, borrowing twine from the lattice work to wrap up these young branches and encourage them upward. Onward and upward with the art of balcony gardening!
Many other potted plants – from old ferns to new sweet alyssum – need repotting. Later that day, then, we tackled the challenge of finding garden soil in a densely built city. The obstacles: we didn’t have a car. Friends having a car were too far away, or had valid excuses: jobs, babies, lives of their own. We wanted to sight-see around the city on foot, but not carry bags of dirt while we did it. Nobody in the neighborhood sold dirt. In fact even by Lebanese standards, it was too early to sell plants.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day, we took a cab ride to a “department store,” an usual establishment in a distant neighborhood, whose Dubai owners had recently taken over from local owners, meaning that the store’s fabulous French food service had been replaced by an American fast-food franchise (people in Dubai apparently not knowing any better). Just as in a Wal-Mart there was a gardening section, where we bought a couple of manageable bags of potting soil, a bottle of water soluble fertilizer, and a metal fork for poking at compacted soil in the pots of balcony gardens. We took them home in a taxi. Taxi fare in Beirut is sixty-seven cents per person. Bags of soil ride free.
We held our own little happy, messy re-potting party a few days later. Sonya’s housecleaner cleaned up. Anne and I await news updates on the success of our efforts.