I like to think I have an open mind. So last Spring when The Edible Guy called to pitch veggie-centric gardens I didn’t blow him off completely.
“I have this gardening idea. Sorta a response to the urban farm culture .” He began.
“Great, I only have a couple minutes though,” I said. “It’s Spring after all.”
“People want to interact with their gardens more … have you noticed?” he asked. “That’s why this happened. They don’t just wanna stare at a pretty shrub from afar. It’s like their agrarian ancestors are coming back, or The Food Co-Op’s got to them, or something. They want a relationship.”
“Not enough to look beautifull?” I deadpan.
“Nah.” he said. “Not anymore. You know,” he went on, “everyone’s hunched over their computers for hours on end. Now everyone has a hankering to connect with the Earth. All that’s missing is access. That’s where we come in. So what if all they have is a little balcony, rooftop thing? Its not about how many string beans. Its about having the sustenance that is string beans at your beck and call. Along with the heirloom tomatoes, and zuchini of course.”
“Of course,” I said, trying hard to sound neutral even as I decline interest in preparing for his urban farm movement. “What will you grow exactly?” I ask, drifting back to the site plan I’d been working on.
“Something besides boxwood,” he blurted and hung up
I had all but forgotten our conversation when fate intervened. By now it was winter and Julia, a friend and potential client was on the line.
“Can you come over and look at our rooftop?”
So in December I went to her home and we started piecing together a plan for her Boerem Hill rooftop .
“I want vegetables.” she said firmly, as if to stop me before I got too far. “Lots of them. It’s really important to me that I feel connected to this. I don’t want a garden that we just look at, you know?”
Unfortunately, I did. Adding a few herbs is one thing, but a garden focused on edibles does not a low-maintenance, rooftop/balcony make. My brain was whirring, “If this happens we’ll end up with a high maintenance mess and she’ll blame me.” Further, the space was small. Once the patio chairs and table were out there wasn’t much room left. Julia and her husband were two of the most reasonable people I knew. Could it be that The Edible Guy was right? Was this “desire to connect” thing larger than reason? Surely once Julia understood the pitfalls she would scale back her plan.
A week later I came back again to help her line a planter box. As we cut plastic tarp I leaked my concerns bit by bit.
“The tomatoes need to be tied up every couple days…” I started.
“Uh-huh” She said.
“You will need to spray for bugs, fungus, that sort of thing regularly, and the zucchini vines are insane, they’ll grow everywhere. Okay?”
“Okay, Just tell us what to do,” she cheerfully replied.
“And you’ll have to water twice a day,” I tried again. Then, pulling out the stops. “Look Julia, if we plant too many veggies it’s gonna look wild and cluttered. Nothing will look framed, or anchored, there will be no color palette, no context – it will basically be a big mess .”
“That’s okay. It will be fine.” She smiled.
So it was. Veggie or bust.
A few days later I started my “research.” All over the blogoshpere were pictures of oddball Brooklyn veggie projects. Not only on roofs, but inside trucks, even boats! Encouraging, but not what I needed. Thinking I’d better get some real help , I visited Lis Thomas at Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. The resident veggie expert at BBG, Lis carefully explained the importance of choosing heirloom varieties instead of hybrids and helped me weigh the pros and cons of starting from seed.
Like me, Lis had previously grown rooftop veggies, and undoubtedly with a lot more success, so that was comforting. That I was asking her about this as if it were a novel idea wasn’t. It reminded me a lot of the The Green Roof phenom. Ten years ago everyone said Green Roofs were the next big thing. Eventually I succumbed to peer pressure on that one as well. Today only a handful exist around Brooklyn and to date I’ve only installed one. Cost is one problem but there is another: they’re unattractive.
Then I realized something. As much as the edible rooftop chatter had taken off, the installations themselves hadn’t much materialized. At least not beyond a few pots or the occasional planter box. Julia was the only one I knew trying something more ambitious.
Edibles aren’t unattractive but they have lots of unattractive habits. Further, using them en masse forces the basic tenets of design to take a back seat. When this happens, for example, a Japanese maples’s cascading elegance matters less than whether or not there’s room for beets in its container. Likewise, a Skyrocket Juniper’s stately appeal is a moot point unless a clump of thyme can go at its base.
Some of this was bound to happen. The nearly ubiquitous application of a small group of plants may be one reason people went looking for radical alternatives. Manhattan, for example, is the single largest consumer of a species of boxwood known as “Green Gem.” It’s a rather spindly dwarf cultivar and despite a host of more attractive substitutes its used for hedges everywhere.
In some ways the excitement over edibles is precisely because of their bad habits. It’s a backlash against the idea that gardens need be structured. The most spectacular images in nature are those accidental meetings between structure and chaos. One doesn’t exist without the other and neither idea should ever be struck down.
Joseph Schilling is the owner of Woodland Landscapes and a judge for the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens’ “Greenest Block in Brooklyn Contest”.