Summer Deck Garden (Part 1)

Bee Balm

This week it has finally gotten cold enough in the DC area that I had to bring my summer container garden indoors for the winter. It prompted me to write a somewhat belated post about our gardening adventures and exploits over the summer.

We had so much fun with our very first garden this summer! We also learned a lot along the way, about herbs, pests, and pigeons (the nasty flying vermin that were the subject of a summer-long campaign we dubbed “the war on pigeon terror.” More on that later).

But back to gardening…. here is an account of our humble efforts, along with some Garden Glamor Shots from the deck.

This summer was the first time since moving to a big city that I have had the space to even attempt the kind of gardening I always wanted to try.

Bruce is blessed with a large outdoor deck that he generously agreed to let me have my way with (garden-wise) this summer.

When planning a garden, you always have to think about the environment the plants will be growing in. Since our gardening space was a third story deck, on the top floor of a downtown row house, it had some challenges: it is fully exposed to 10 hours of glaring sunlight in the daytime. Since, I couldn’t bear the thought of plant murder by scorching, I was careful to choose only plants that were designated as “full sun” (can handle 8 to 10 hours of direct sunlight a day).

Plants with mediterranean origins, such as lavender and sage do extremely well in full sun. However, these herbs are also very finicky about water. They need regular water, but are susceptible to root rot, so drainage is important.

Terra Cotta Pots

After some initial discussion about building our own planters, we decided to go with terra cotta pots instead. These clay pots naturally do a great job of keeping the soil inside moist but not wet.

Another thing I wanted from our garden was a variety of plants that would help keep away mosquitos. Washington DC is a humid environment, and during summer evenings, mosquitos tend to feast on those outdoors. Since we planned on spending a lot of time on the deck, I wanted plants that would detract buggy predators.

French marigold Tagetes patula

Many flowers and herbs that have strong aromas contain natural essential oils that can help repel mosquitos. Marigolds are very pungent flowers, and effective bug deterrents. They are also just so dang cheerful!

Fragrant herbs, like rosemary, lavender, sage and thyme, also have the same repellant qualities. It turns out, a lot of these pest-deterrent plants are also full-sun! This was a fantastic find as far as I was concerned, and we had magnificent success with these plants.

Tri-Color Sage
Tri-Color Sage

The most visually interesting plant in our garden this summer was a species of sage that Bruce discovered at a nursery and decided was he simply had to have it! It is rather appropriately called “tri-color” sage, and has purple stems and dusty green leaves with white tips. It was pretty cool, and all our of our friends who saw it, asked “what is THAT?” with great curiosity. We also got a regular “chef’s” sage plant, that smelled incredible, though it was slightly less of a trend-setter.

Our rosemary grew very well, and smelled just fabulous all summer (it also made us inadvertently hungry for italian food).

By far the most rewarding plant I had this summer was the lavender. It was also a challenge to keep up with! The lavender plants each doubled in size over the summer, and I had to re-pot a couple times. When it bloomed, it was incredible! Deep purple flowers swaying in the breeze for weeks, accompanied by a lovely calming scent.


Any plant in the mint family is also supposed to be effective in the mosquitos arena. Peppermint is a lovely and prolific plant. Ours did well for a couple months, but then we ran  into what is apparently a common downside -it grows so fast that can eventually choke itself  in a container.


Perhaps the most surprising pest scatterer is catmint (also known as nepeta, or catnip). It is lauded by gardeners as being “highly pest resistant,” and it also a very pretty plant when it blooms. We had a good run with catmint this summer, minus one nearly tragic incident. The neighbor’s cat was apparently being driven silently mad by our catnip this summer. One day Bruce received a call at work from Jeff & Travis, telling us that the cat has escaped, made a Mission Impossible-esq leap from their deck to Bruce’s, and had somehow become trapped under the deck. Don’t worry though – Whiskers was retrieved without incident.

Bee Balm
Bee Balm

I also discovered another delightful plant this summer called beebalm (monarda), also in the mint family. Man, is it fragrant! This plant bloomed out with wild pink flowers for several weeks, and smelled deeply exotic for weeks before and after.

Tomato Plant
Thanks Mom!

In honor of my Grandpa Joe, when my mom came to town in March she bought us a tomato plant. (Side story: My grandfather was a farmer. He was the child of German farmers, and grew up farming in the midwest. By the time my sister and I came around, he and my grandma were settled in suburban Colorado. But his green thumb was still impressively active. He didn’t meddle around with herbs. Grandpa Joe’s back yard was squared off in large plots of tomatoes, pumpkins, squash, corn, watermellons, and other crops.)


Our tomato plant grew and produced 3 lovely tomatoes before falling victim to some disease or condition that seemed to kill it. Then, like a zombie, it suddenly rose from the dead, grew another 6 inches and produced 4 more zombie green/grey tomatoes, and die again. It was weird! Still no idea what we did wrong or right there.


Another favorite this summer was our basil. I like this plant because it made me work for it. We brought home a nice basil plant on impulse around mid-summer.


We put it on the shadier side of the deck, and watched in amazement as it grew tall, then bloomed lanky flower bunches at the tops of each stalk. We were kind of impressed! Little did I know that we had just “lost” the plant.

Basil has to be more carefully cultivated than some other things in the garden. Once it flowers, the plant has begun putting all its energy into creating seeds. The leaves turn bitter, and finally the plant dies. This is where the colloquialism “gone to seed” (meaning to be ruined through lack of care) comes from. You are actually supposed to pinch off any buds that appear (another colloquialism “nip it in the bud” comes from this practice). There is nothing you can do at this point.

We started over, with better results the second time around. It turns out that basil should be pruned/harvested aggressively. After allowing it to take root, you should cut it back every few weeks. This actually increases its yield of big sweet leaves and makes the plant grow bushy, not taller.

As a side note to all of this, while I was taking pride in the sheer vitality of my garden this summer, Bruce was hatching a much more practical plan than just fostering a mosquito iron curtain. He was thinking about food! (Don’t you love men?)

Lemon Rosemary Chicken
Lemon & Rosemary

One night Bruce cooked rosemary chicken for dinner. I was shocked when he told me the herbs came from our garden. The next week, it was tomato and basil salads. Then sage chicken. A week after that, he purchased a food processor and branched into homemade basil pesto! Then there was pesto chicken pasta. By the end of the summer, he had perfected chardonnay lemon rosemary  marinated chicken and lemon thyme rice! And OMG, was it incredible! (Note to self, if all summer hobbies end in man developing unknown cooking skills…. WOW!)

This was just the fun part of the summer gardening. There was a truly crazy film-noir part to our summer adventure too, which I will recap in another post.  But for now, here are some more pictures of our summer garden:


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