A garden in the sky

Mara Gay of the New York Times recently referred to Central Park as our city’s “back yard.” It’s true.  We New Yorkers covet our green space with our big and small neighborhood parks and tree-lined streets. Many urban dwellers like to try out our green thumbs at home, too. If you live outside of a city, this may hardly appear remarkable.  However, if you reside in an urban environment with vertical living, it is worthy of note if for nothing else for its differences from conventional gardening.

Words from my gardening muse 

Even if it is merely a geranium on a tiny balcony, or a single pot of basil on a kitchen counter, there is a primal satisfaction watching a plant grow.  Nancy Jessup, executive chef at Blake & Todd—and my gardening muse—sums it up best. “I love the process of growing vegetables from seed.  It amazes me to watch seeds germinating under a grow light in the kitchen turn into green sprouts that in no time will be up and blooming in the garden pots.”

 Gardening in the city is fraught with challenges such as dealing with limited space, weight restrictions and the availability of water.  Of course, like any farmer you also need to manage what Mother Nature throws your way: sun, wind, and birds, bugs and bees.

When my Ed, late husband, and I sold our weekend house in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, we agreed to look for an apartment with room for “a garden in the sky.” Our search yielded a three-sided, wraparound terrace with plenty of space for large and small containers to grow a whole myriad of different decorative and edible plants.

A prized American crop, corn

Ed was a big kidder.  He determined right off the bat that he wanted us to grow corn.  When we mentioned this to some of our snooty, new neighbors, eyebrows shot up.  “Who are these people who just bought the penthouse apartment who now want to cultivate corn?  What’s next? Breaking co-op rules to raise pigs?”

Truth be told, we chose corn primarily to tease our Iowa friends, the McCombers.  They told us once about a local farmer who had installed a time-lapsed video camera in his field to literally watch the corn grow.  Our New York City experiment with corn looked promising, at least initially. Then, we left for a two-week vacation before installing a watering system.  You can guess the outcome.   When we returned, we “harvested” miniature corn cobs, like those you find in glass jars at specialty food shops.  As two nascent urban gardeners, this failure taught us that we needed to seriously plan out what we wanted to grow and equally important, to then water it properly.

Mistakes cost time and money

Our current gardener, Codie Conigliaro, has this advice for anyone wanting to install an urban garden: “Consult a professional (even if you have to pay a fee) to determine the most cost-effective method of proceeding if you don’t know where to start.”

And, we did. Twenty years ago, we brought in an expert named Roger. He installed a watering system—a necessity for anyone who travels a lot which Ed and I both did—and helped us map out a manageable garden. Roger recommended a single specimen each of a peach and nectarine tree plus two pears trees which were supposed to cross pollinate but never did. Next we planted one sour and two sweet cherry trees as visual anchors to our three-sided garden.  At the risk of spoiling our enthusiasm, Roger philosophically lamented that once a tree is planted on a terrace, it begins to die.

Living by co-op rules

Roger was careful to observe our co-op rules for the weight of our containers, another handicap for urban gardeners.  All our containers must be of a lightweight material such as fiberglass.  Our building also required these containers be on wheels so they could be moved should any repairs be needed on the terrace.  

As Roger dropped the ball and forgot to manage the growth of the trees—which meant pruning their roots—we eventually changed gardeners.  The new one, Codie, had to start with demolition as our trees had burst through the side of their containers. 

Lightweight is “the” word

Codie put back the old, root-pruned trees into new containers.  She started with three inches of non-biodegradable Styrofoam p-nuts with two layers of landscape fabric above and below to separate the drainage material from the soil fill.  Next she added a soil mix combining lightweight Metro-Mix, (a growing medium) with bagged topsoil.

For this post, I asked Codie what the most important challenges container gardeners have. She glibly replied: “The need to control drainage and irrigation frequency are your biggest issues. Then, inside delivery of plants and planting materials. “  She remarked off-handedly with a chuckle that with a normal garden you don’t have to take an elevator and then romp through someone’s apartment like you do in Manhattan.

Urban gardeners like to share their experiences, good and bad.  My friend Michele Scicolone, a cookbook author specializing in Italian cuisine, has always been generous with her advice.  Before major construction which recently destroyed her garden—yet another obstacle for urban gardeners—she grew blueberries, lots of herbs, cherry tomatoes and flowers, especially geraniums, impatiens, marigolds, dahlias, day lilies and hydrangeas.  

Challenges unique to urban gardeners 

Like other urban gardeners, Michele faced certain issues: “My garden gets full sun practically all day and can be very windy since it is on the 20th floor.  Watering has probably been my biggest challenge over the years.”   Just like Codie said. 

For three years, Michele tried her hand at growing fig trees and enthusiastically shared with us her source for the best nursery where to find them.  We planted two fig trees from her recommendation. Alas, none of our respective fig trees made it through the harsh New York winters even when we wrapped them in burlap.  

A fig tree grows in Brooklyn

Wine expert Tony diDio has had better luck with growing figs.  Why?  Because his Italian grandfather planted a fig tree in his brownstone’s backyard in Brooklyn where Tony lives now.  (Being a borough of New York, planting something in Brooklyn qualifies as urban gardening!) “My Grandfather planted the fig tree in 1940, when he bought this house. It has flourished all these years. However, because of two recent late frosts, we lost the tree for half of two seasons. The roots run deep, like a grapevine, and in mid-summer, both years, the tree came back.”

Once Tony decided to be exotic and planted an olive tree. “After the fall I wrapped it and covered it with mulch. Alas, no Mediterranean climate in Brooklyn. It didn’t survive. “

Perhaps not as grand as an olive tree but with a name even more provocative, the most exotic thing Nancy ever planted was a Fagioli di Purgatorio bean. “I thought that it would be wonderful to harvest my own batch of beans to dry and save for winter soups, but it was a disappointing experience. Lots of leaves (a bit of a space hog actually) but not much fruit yield.”  

Bragging rights for growing your own heirloom tomatoes

Many urban gardeners try their hand at planting tomatoes as they are relatively easy to grow.  When I mentioned to Nancy that I had planted a few Jersey tomatoes one spring, she exclaimed, “Oh, I can do better for you.  You must try some of the new heirloom varieties I have in my garden.” 

Within a week, a card with a hand-painted image of an eggplant on the cover arrived in the mail.  Inside was a paper napkin where Nancy had smeared some of her tomato seeds. Following her instructions, I planted them in a pot and once the seedlings were up, I pruned them back to just a few plants.  Eventually, these produced a supply of incredibly delicious stripped German tomatoes.

Nancy is a serious container gardener, as you might suspect of a professional chef.  She has twenty-four containers, all but one made from recycled water bottles. They range in size from ten to forty gallons.

 I’m going to her house for dinner

 When I asked her what she was growing this year, she rattled off a list which made my head spin. “I’m currently growing tomatoes: German Yellow, Brandywine, Cherry, Hungarian Red Heart, Czech and Whippersnapper (your seed!). Also, string beans, collard greens, kale, Swiss chard, escarole, assorted lettuces including Forellenschluss (a speckled romaine), Crisp Mint Romaine, Red Sails leaf, arugula, and green leaf. Herbs include basil, opal basil, lettuce leaf basil (Italian seed from Michele Scicolone), lemon thyme, rosemary, chives, lemon balm, spearmint, apple mint, salad burnet, oregano, flat leaf parsley, chervil and dill.”  New this year in Nancy’s robust container garden is an experimental cucumber and Badger Flame Beet from Dan Barber’s Row 7 Seed Company.  

 When I first started gardening, the thought of birds stealing my ripe fruit, or not having adequate bees for pollination, or slugs devouring my plants never crossed my mind.  Now it does. Plus, Codie constantly reminds me that “When one has a terrace garden, one will encounter every insect, pest and fungal disease known to plants.” She also explained recently that the devastation is often worse on a terrace with its condensed space (versus a normal garden’s larger expanse of land) which allows bugs to do more concentrated damage.

Bugs to the rescue

 As I recall early on when I was growing peonies for the first time, I mentioned it to Lucy Wing, former food editor of Country Living Magazine. I expressed my concern for the lack of insects in the flowering process. Within a week, there was a ring from our doorman asking if we were expecting any lady bugs.  While our home has always been open to a wealth of individuals from around the world, we had never put out the welcome mat for lady bugs. 

Nevertheless, we said, “Send them up!” Lucy arrived, handed me one jar of lady bugs and another of ants. She explained, “The ants will enjoy the sugary syrup produced by the peony buds but won’t do any damage.  The ladybugs, they’re for good luck in your garden!”  Lucy discreetly retreated into the elevator even before I could invite her into our apartment.  And, Lucy was right.  By the time peonies were ready to bloom, ours opened magnificently into dense balls of feathery pink petals. 

Born gardeners never say “Uncle”

In case you are worried about Michele’s future as an urban gardener, she is undaunted by the construction.  She plans to have her garden back next year. “Except for some evergreens, most of the plants that I cultivated over the past years will not have survived so I will have to start all over again.” But then she’ll be able to experience again what she liked best about her garden.  “I love to go outside in the early morning and enjoy the sounds of the birds while I have my breakfast.  It’s such a peaceful time of the day.”

Nancy agrees with Michele about the many benefits of having a garden. “At the end of a long workday there is nothing as soothing as being in the garden watering the plants and harvesting vegetables for dinner.”

 Playing at being a farmer

Up in my sky garden, I’ve learned to appreciate how challenging it is for the professional farmers who grow food for a living. We amateur “farmers”, however, share with them some of the same challenges. For example, we are all at the mercy of climate change, lack of bees and infestations of different fungus, pests and blights. But the important difference is that maintaining our gardens is a hobby.  Their work is a livelihood. This post is both in honor of those soldiers of the land but also in celebration of my fellow urban container gardeners who remain impervious to construction, excessive heat and high winds as well as having to schlep bags of dirt through our homes.

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