How One Man's Foodscape on His Rooftop Garden Managed to Feed His Family
Get ideas and plans for small garden spaces to grow your own food.
My garden is a lousy place for a garden. Located on a tenth-floor terrace a few hundred yards from Manhattan's Ground Zero, it's a little like a sentry post high above humanity's campaign to annihilate nature. A 743-foot obsidian skyscraper to the south robs my terrace of all but four hours of sunlight and throughout the year a gritty wind whooshes up the concrete canyons. Unchecked, the wind can shear my tomato plants of their leaves and scatter blueberry blossoms all over the Financial District. It all can feel a little, well, fruitless.
But after about six years of failed and successful experiments, I have a garden that supplies as much as half of my family's vegetable needs from May through September. I've persisted partly because of the Michael Pollan-esque mandate so many of us feel nowadays about having our food be more local. But overlaying that is something else, something specifically and abrasively New York. Sometimes when I fight my way homeward along Broadway and look up, I take a particular pleasure seeing my grape arbor jutting out victorious from all the gray grimness. To my eye it looks like nature has joined the Occupy Wall Street protestors camped out nearby and is giving plutocratic New York the finger.
My garden's ability to defy its environment did not come about all at once. It took some money (but not that much) and some serious physical labor. But perhaps the most important factor was my patient observation of the sun-a slow and almost pagan thing to do in a neighborhood that favors state-of-the-art technology and nanosecond securities trading. Just as the ancients may have used Stonehenge to mark the sun's progress, in my first year I used the different skyscrapers around my terrace as solar markers. I came to understand these markers signaled both when and where to plant.
Most city dwellers would consider my terrace huge-nearly 1,000 square feet, shared with two other neighbors. But when I observed the sun's progress, I understood that only 400 square feet got enough light for gardening. By focusing on this smaller area and mounting a series of solar reflectors (read: old screen doors covered with tinfoil and packing tape), I have managed to boost the ambient light to the point where an unsuspecting tomato will issue timid blossoms as early as mid-June.
Along the eastern edge of the sunny spot, I positioned a row of potted pine and cedar trees, establishing a windbreak in the manner of the anti-Dust Bowl measures of the 1930s. And soon my very own microclimate emerged. In the calm air behind the trees butterflies drifted in. By the second season of gardening when my blueberry bushes began to bloom I heard a familiar buzzing. Bumblebees had somehow stumbled in and were going about the important work of pollinating my plants.
Perhaps the most important factor in an urban ecosystem, I realized, is the plants themselves. When people think of starting a home vegetable garden, they fixate on the "money" crops-the heirloom tomatoes, the honking mega-squash. But when your sun is limited and you have pots instead of fields, you need to focus on crops that make the most of the resources at hand-ones that are edible from stem to leaf. And so, in early March when the sun first emerges, I plant not peas but arugula. Two weeks later, lettuces and spinach go in instead of, say, carrots. Two more weeks, chard, not beans. Week after week this continues until the entire spring garden is planted. And by May when these tender spring greens are harvestable, I replace each picked pot with a seeding of heat-tolerant greens-collards, kale and a climbing vine called "Malabar spinach"-all of these can withstand the 100-degree hothouse of a New York City summer.
Of course I cannot resist rolling the dice and growing some heirloom tomatoes. But here I have tended to take a New Yorker's survival-of-the-fittest route. In my greenhorn days of Ground Zero gardening I planted six different varieties of tomatoes, most of which produced only a few fruits each. The exception was a little number called "Mexico Midget," which yielded several dozen grape-size tomatoes per plant. Over a season a handful of Midgets usually go unpicked. These end up in my row of compost bins (read: three garbage cans with holes) and then eventually the Midget seeds find their way back into the garden. By April they have sprouted and by May I select the best and put them in a place of honor on the highest, sunniest places.
What all this has meant for me is something somehow larger than the sum of calories produced. I am a writer, and like any writer, I have a storehouse of failed experiments thrice as large as my published oeuvre. I apply the writer's trial-and-error philosophy to my garden-the dinner plate acting as the publishing house. I haven't written here of my broccoli that failed to flower and yet provided a perfectly acceptable (if woody) stem-based stir-fry. I didn't really mention my Burgundy grapes, which yielded a scant seven servings of Italian grape pudding one year and a single bottle of bad wine the next. Nor did I detail the slow decline of my blueberries, which my 3-year-old took great pleasure picking clean one year only to find the bushes flowerless and unyielding the next season. And the whole plan my father-in-law and I have for an aquaponic tilapia pond is a story in and of itself.
You try hard at a lot, you fail at most, you make good use of what made the cut. This to me seems the essence of growing.
Paul Greenberg is the author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food and has been a Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy Fellow.
Photo by Maryanne Rafter