ISSUE 22  |  Outdoor Living

DIY: A Fire Escape-Style Garden

June 05, 2014 10:00 AM

BY Erin Boyle

Fire escapes are romantic places; just ask Tony and Maria. Add a splash of greenery in the form of potted plants, and an eyesore becomes an urban oasis. But if you live in New York City, remember that the law requires a fire escape be kept clear, in case you need it to escape an actual fire (or for a West Side Story-style balcony scene).

Photographs by Erin Boyle.


Walk through nearly any New York City neighborhood in the summertime and you’ll see fire escapes draped in plants, despite a law prohibiting fire-escape gardens. Whenever my sister and I visit the Union Square Farmers’ Market, we leave with some hardy finds for her fifth-floor fire escape. I don’t advocate that you follow suit, but I can offer some advice for a windowsill garden that can be just as lovely, as well as perfectly legal.


I love my wooden window box, but when you’re housing pots in a place where high winds (or the threat of fines) could mean that you’ll sometimes need to bring your plants inside, it’s better to use smaller containers that are easier to maneuver. A few pots can be more easily incorporated into your apartment décor than a bulky window box. Just make sure that the pots you use are heavy enough–or weighted with stones–so they don’t blow away.


Think carefully about the amount of sun that your particular window gets. My sister lives on the top floor of her building and has direct sunlight on her plants for much of the day. Without taller buildings around to provide shade, she needs plants that thrive in bright sunshine. Ageratum, above, and sweet alyssum both do well in full sun.

Available at local nurseries or online, Ageratum Blue Horizon is $7.95 per plant from White Flower Farm. A packet of Sweet Alyssum Seeds is on sale for $1.95 from Eden Bros.


I like to do my potting on the apartment floor covered in newspaper, but my sister prefers the easy cleanup of potting directly in the kitchen sink. In either scenario, make sure that you’re working with well-hydrated soil. Plants on windowsills need a lot more water than you might expect. Get in the habit of checking your soil every morning. If it feels dry, give it a good soak. Even though windowsill plants tend to dry out quickly, it’s still important that your pots have proper drainage holes to prevent rot.


In the past, my sister has also kept pots of herbs on her fire escape. If you’re growing edibles, make sure that they get plenty of fresh water and that they’re not placed directly below a neighbor’s air conditioner drip or other source of possible contamination. Herbs grow quickly, so resist the temptation to cram lots of seedlings into small containers.

A six-pack of Essential Kitchen Garden Herbs (rosemary, garlic chives, thyme, basil, sage, and oregano) is $29.95 from Williams-Sonoma Agrarian.

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Finally, If you amend your soil with fertilizer, make sure you’re using something organic, like the Plant-tone that I add to my window box.

For more container plant ideas, see DIY: A Window Box Grows in Brooklyn.

This is an update of a post originally published April 4, 2013.