Fire Escape of Dreams


We’ve all been momentarily excited at the sight or sound of those two magical apartment listing words: outdoor space. With images of shady backyards and daffodil clusters flitting across our optimistic minds, we’re abruptly brought back to reality upon seeing said space — a 4×4 piece of concrete next to the garbage cans. Hmmm…

Don’t give up just yet, future green thumbs. If you’ve got window sills, a fire escape or a stoop, you’re two months away from homegrown tomatoes and morning glory vines. Read on for making the most out of your “outdoor space” in a leafy green way.

If you want to grow veggies, herbs or flowers from seed, get a plantin’ now! For three years straight in Brooklyn, I successfully grew basil and marigolds this way, using common potting soil and old tomato cans as pots, or any containers I found lying around. Instructables has a couple of short and sweet tutorials for using an egg carton or newspaper for the same purpose.

If you’d rather not deal with the extra apartment clutter, greenmarkets and plant shops will start selling outdoor potted plants and flats by the first or second week of April at the latest. In general, herbs like basil, parsley, cilantro and sage work really well in small pots and window boxes, and if you frequently cook with herbs, you’ll find each plant paying for itself after the first recipe.

Tomatoes and peppers require a pot that is at least 6 inches high for rooting and staking, so if you get ambitious with vegetables, cherry tomatoes, baby eggplants and smaller varieties of peppers will need less area to reach the proper size. And note: While I technically grew strawberries out of my Prospect Heights apartment window boxes, the squirrels usually beat me to them.

Sun, shade, temperature and space requirements vary for flowers, so check the back of seed packets first or inquire at your local plant shop. I have had great luck with marigolds, petunias and impatiens, all of which tolerate shade well and bloom alllll spring and summer, and even into fall.

Make sure your outdoor spot gets 4-5 hours of sunlight before planting herbs and veggies — most require that much sun.

For stoop and fire escape gardens, be sure to have a saucer underneath each pot so that water isn’t constantly running off. If you’re using the stoop, consider that you have to walk up the steps each day and clear it with your building neighbors and landlord first. [Ed. Note: Putting plants on the fire escape is technically illegal, so if your landlord lives on site, you may want his/her OK. Or just hope no one notices.]

Windowsill gardens require more planning because the sill or ledge can often be a scant few inches deep. If this is the case, you’re going to have to get fancy with some wire and eye screws. can help you with more detailed instructions.

Once you get your garden going, remember to water when soil is no longer moist, but never soak the plants. And to avoid battling the sun, water at night. If the veggies seem to be slow-growing and you’re not against a not-so-natural boost, try Miracle-Grow or fertilizer spikes.


Sprout Home is a spiffy little housewares and garden shop that carries organic soil, seeds and great plants. (Oh, and if you decide to forgo making use of that “outdoor space,” they sell a TON of adorable little succulents and “air plants” that require very little care).

Park Slope
Zuzu’s Petals may be on the pricier side for some, but a visit to the shop reminds you that good customer service still exists. The backyard garden has a nice selection of potted plants once the weather warms up and if you sign up for their mailing list, you’ll always be in the know about the shop’s recently acquired green things.

Prospect Heights
In addition to selling healthy plants and elegant ceramic pots, Brooklyn Botanic Garden also offers a class called “Edibles in Small Spaces: Growing Food on Roof, Windowsill, or Stoop!” that will teach you the basics in three hours, if you want a more hands-on experience (the next class is full but there’s a waiting list). They also sell window-box seed kits as part of their annual Greenest Block (and window box and storefront) in Brooklyn contest. Order one by April 24.

Fort Greene
On a sliver of pavement near traffic-clogged Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues lies the well-stocked Midtown Florist & Greenhouse (565 Atlantic Ave., 718-422-7535), where I go for most of my herbs and tomato plants. Flats are cheap and you’re only a stone’s throw from the Atlantic-Pacific subways!

Clinton Hill
Their Park Slope store is no longer but Clinton Hill’s Root, Stock and Quade carries Renee’s Garden Seeds from sustainable farmers; it includes an heirloom veggie selection. They also have a great selection of pansies and violas perfect for planting in early spring window boxes and stoop pots until the last frost date (first week in May) passes.

Red Hook
Liberty Sunset Garden Center, Gowanus Nursery and Chelsea Garden Center have plenty of boxes and plants for little patches of green. Check out our past round up on garden centers for more.

Sent by Nicole. Text by Alicia Kachmar. All photos by Alicia, except last one, by Kerry Quade. As always, if you’ve got tips to share on our emails, weigh in online.

2 Responses

  1. Andrew -

    What about laws governing the use of fire escape usage by the fire department?
    What about the laws governing the use of stoops and insurance and fire department?
    I live in a coop and was told we cannot use either for planting!
    I live in Windsor terrace brooklyn


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