On Sailboat Gardening
by Anne Mankovich
Everyone has dreams. We've been lucky enough to see one of ours come true.
In 1999 we abandoned our deeply embedded roots and moved aboard our 36 ft. ketch - s.v. "Roux". Her name, "Roux" comes from our fondness for Cajun food. In Cajun cooking, a roux is a base for many good things, so it is with s.v. "Roux". We are not professionals in the culinary field, but we know what we like. There are many possible reasons to keep plants on a boat, but ours were very practical: we kept a supply of fresh herbs close at hand. As somewhat novice sailors, the plan that we loosely devised was to travel to the Bahamas and then beyond, if favorable conditions would prevail. Not knowing what would be available in the countries that we hoped to visit, not to mention cost, we brought a taste of home along with us in our little garden.
Gardening on a sailboat is a lot less strange than it sounds. Groups of containers are fitted into suitable areas on deck. Space is tight on all sailboats and so a certain amount of ingenuity must be used when fitting plants into the tight quarters. Frequently, plants are kept in the cockpit area where secured fixtures are tailored to hold containers so that the motion of the boat does not send the plants flying. If the sailboat has a pilothouse - which forms a natural greenhouse and keeps plants out of the salty wind - all the better. Our plants are contained in a window box attached to the stern rail. Wherever plants are placed, they must be out of the way to accommodate the safe operation of the boat.
Many of the obstacles we faced in gardening on board, are the same as those faced by people who garden in containers along the coastline. Only the most salt tolerant, wilt resistant herbs survived. Rosemary, chives and thyme did well. Parsley and basil lasted as long as we could keep up with the watering. Cilantro perished in no time flat. Our garden received all the sunlight that any given day had to offer. There was no problem with sunburn, but high sunlight exposure along with the constant sea breezes made for a rapid transpiration rate. There was no room for mistakes in under watering - a dry plant was a dead plant.
In addition to drought resistance and salt tolerance, we selected varieties that had a high yield for the limited space. Of course, the type of cruising that one intends to do is also a consideration. We met a retired couple in Georgetown, Exumas, Bahamas, who sail down every year from Philadelphia and stay in one spot for 4 or 5 months. They were able to grow peppers and tomatoes on deck. When they were ready to leave, they simply gave their plants away.
Tending to a sailboat is very much like tending to a garden. When you follow the simple rules, you realize rewards - tenfold. Planning and forethought pays off. We had lovely plants, which saved us money, provided us with food as well as a good deal of comfort.