Starving, the Prequel: Manhattan rooftop gardening

I never quite understood the allure of gardening. I certainly understood the allure of the bounty of gardening (i.e., food) but, until recently, I’d spent a lifetime reaping the bounty while letting others do the actual gardening. Well, almost a lifetime. We did have a garden on the side of the house I grew up in. I have hazy memories of peppers and tomatoes, and vivid memories of mint. Mint, you see, grows itself. All you have to do is put one little plant in the ground, once, and it comes up, year after year, bigger, brighter, and mintier. Now that’s my idea of gardening.

My husband, Kevin, has a different idea of gardening. It is undoubtedly a more robust and realistic idea, but it involves many things of which I am highly suspicious – research, special equipment, regular maintenance, and dirt. But Kevin wallows in the nuances of soil types and plant varieties. He relishes the idea of a summer-long commitment that will culminate in a few vegetables. He enjoys – enjoys! – cramming 50-pound sacks of dirt into the back seat of a car made for carrying things like groceries and golf clubs, and then lugging them up to the roof. Why the roof? Because that is where our Manhattan garden was.

When we lived in New York, we didn’t even have a balcony. Our building had a roof, though, and that was where we put our experimental urban garden – a few containers filled with tomatoes, peppers, berries, and herbs. For me, it took some convincing. As much as I love tomatoes, peppers, berries, and herbs, I wasn’t convinced they were going to be worth the research, special equipment, regular maintenance, and dirt. But Kevin was very sure, and since he was going to be choosing the special equipment and dirt, and doing the lion’s share of the research and regular maintenance, I agreed to participate.

First came the research. As with all highly technical subjects made more complex by the conflicting opinions of both so-called experts and crank amateurs, there’s only one place to go to ferret out the truth – the Internet! And so Kevin and I sat up late into the night, trying to figure out what would and would not grow in a pot. (I thought we could skip this step because Kevin had once told me he was an expert on pot plants, but he explained that this wasn’t quite the same.) I learned that botanical distinctions are not the same as gastronomic ones. For me, tomatoes are small or large, red or orange, local or imported, good or bad. For gardeners, though, tomatoes are determinate or indeterminate. They might also be VNF, or open-pollinating. They’re Celebrity or Brandywine or Big Boy.

We did our research, and the next day we discovered its value. We went to the nursery and asked the nursery guy, Mike, which tomatoes would do well in pots, and he told us to try Celebrity and Sweet 100s. That’s what we bought. The peppers would all do fine, he said, so we got some sweet and some hot.

Once we’d settled on tomatoes and peppers, we moved on to the fruit section, where Kevin’s one shortcoming as a husband reared its ugly head. I’m not complaining — Kevin is interesting and smart, funny and kind, responsible and considerate, so I’m certainly willing to overlook the fact that blackberries are his favorite fruit. It’s a choice I can’t get my mind around. It’s not that I dislike blackberries, but it seems to me that the fruit pantheon offers so many better choices. Mangoes! Cherries! Nectarines! Pineapples! Even raspberries, Kevin’s second-favorite fruit, are a more understandable choice. But blackberries have a mysterious hold on Kevin, and so we headed for the blackberry section.

On the way to the blackberries, we passed the mint. I stopped and picked up one of the little pots. “Can we have mint?” I asked, hopefully. “No,” said Kevin, “No mint. It’ll take over the pot.” No mint. Blackberries.

Blackberries are different from other plants in that they come up every year. That makes them, I was given to understand, a perennial. Kind of like mint! My spirits brightened, but were immediately dashed when Kevin explained that yes, they come up every year, but they still require special equipment and regular maintenance. We have to train them to grow up the wall, quite probably put nets around them to keep the birds away, prune them down to their stems when the season is over, and carefully preserve them for next year. Sounds like a lot of work just so you can get those little seeds stuck between your teeth. We bought one blackberry and one raspberry.

To round out our garden we chose basil and cilantro, both of which apparently have a shallow root system, to cohabit with the tomatoes. That ended the plant portion of the program, and we moved on to special equipment.

Most of the regular maintenance of a garden involves water. I had always called the process of delivering water to plants “watering.” It seemed, though, that when you do it outside it’s called “irrigation.” Irrigating is way more complicated than watering, and you need more than last night’s dirty water glass to do it. You even need more than one of those green cans with the long spout. You need – you guessed it — special equipment.

Granted, we had special needs. Reaching our garden required a 12-floor elevator ride and a climb up a utility ladder. The water spigot was at the bottom of the ladder, and making trip after trip up those rungs, carrying a long-spouted green can, struck even me as impractical. A hose, I thought — the green thing with the nozzle that you attach to the spigot. But hoses had come a long way since my childhood mint garden, and the green thing with the nozzle was just the beginning of the hose spectrum.

And a good thing, too. It turns out that the people who create hoses created the perfect hose for us. It was a hose with five separate sprinklers, which could be interspersed at any interval. We could put one sprinkler in every barrel, run the hose down the wall, and water the whole shebang just by turning on the spigot. Who knew?

Once we had the plants and the special irrigation equipment, we had to have something to put them in. Something large. It turned out there’s a booming business in large things to put plants in, and we had many choices. I leaned toward plastic pots because they’re cheap and light. Kevin leaned toward whiskey barrel halves because they’re expensive and heavy. OK, not just because they’re expensive and heavy. Also because they will last for many years. Since it was all I could do to commit to a garden for one year, I didn’t necessarily see a pot’s ten-year lifespan as an asset, but I was willing to go along. Whiskey barrels it was.

Pots? Check. Plants? Check. Irrigation equipment? Check. Dirt? Dirt!

There’s something a little disconcerting about buying dirt. Why should you shell out good money for something that accumulates under your fingernails for free? Two reasons, it turns out: quantity and quality. You don’t realize how big whiskey barrels are until you try to wedge them into the back seat of a Saab. Filling them up with what accumulates under your fingernails would take a lifetime. Besides, fingernail dirt is the wrong kind of dirt. There are hundreds of kinds of dirt, and virtually all of them are the wrong kind of dirt. In fact, there’s only one kind of dirt that’s the right kind of dirt – dirtless dirt. Soilless potting mix, actually, but it comes to the same thing.

Soilless potting mix is a substance invented to make it easier to grow things in pots. It has special ingredients that retain moisture to make sure your plants don’t dry out, and other special ingredients that drain moisture to make sure your plants don’t get root rot. I still haven’t made sense of how those two ingredients co-exist, but I’m sure the good people at Miracle Gro would be happy to explain.

Once we’d loaded five huge bags of dirtless dirt onto our dolly, I thought we were done, but Kevin told me there was one more thing we needed. Rocks. Oh, sure, he called it “aggregate,” but I wasn’t born yesterday — I know that “aggregate” is a fancy word for rocks. Well, if you’re going to buy dirt you might as well buy rocks. Next thing you know, we’ll be buying dust, or maybe lint. I got on line while Kevin went to find the rock section.

A few minutes later he came back empty-handed. The aggregate was the wrong kind – they only had small rocks, and we needed big rocks. So where were we going to get it? “Don’t worry,” said Kevin, and added those four little words that strike fear into wives everywhere: “I have an idea.” I put my fear on hold while we shlepped our plants, our irrigation equipment, our pots, and our dirt home. We hoisted the barrels up to the roof with a rope. We hauled the bags of dirt, one at a time, up the ladder. We ran the hose up the wall. Then Kevin let me in on his idea.

Our apartment was on the Upper West Side, only a couple blocks from the Hudson River. Rivers, as anyone can tell you, are just filled with rocks.

Kevin took our cart – it was the kind that little old ladies take to the market – and headed for the Hudson. He scrambled down the bank (it was low tide) and collected his rocks. He piled them in the cart and managed, with some effort, to get back up the bank, rocks in tow.

The riverfront is a popular recreation destination, and Kevin’s rock hunt had an audience of sunbathers, dog walkers, bike riders, and Saturday afternoon strollers. What they saw was a wild-haired man in filthy shorts and tee shirt filling a little-old-lady cart with rocks. This was New York, though, and nobody batted an eye. We took our rocks home. (One of our neighbors evidently spotted us. When we got home our doorman told us someone had left something for us, and handed us a rock with a post-it with our apartment number on it.)

We finally got to the heart of the matter – putting the plants and the rocks and the dirt in the pots. That’s the part that I really think of as “gardening,” and it took about seven minutes.

The net result, our rooftop garden, was beautiful. It got bigger and greener every day, and I started – just started, mind you – to understand the allure of gardening. And then the tomatoes ripened, and the light went on.

We didn’t know then that we’d be moving to two acres on Cape Cod within a few years. If we had, Kevin couldn’t have orchestrated a better warm-up. If this was what we could do on a city rooftop, just imagine what we could do with real land! I did the math, and it turns out that two acres equates to about 20,000 whiskey barrels. I think we’re going to need a bigger car.

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