Welcome to The Outsider, Brownstoner’s new garden series, in this space every Sunday at 8AM. It’s written and produced by Cara Greenberg, who also contributes Brownstoner’s interior design/renovation column, The Insider, Thursdays at 11:30.
Spinach, kale, lettuce, onions, carrots, green beans, sugar snap peas, strawberries, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, watermelon, pumpkin, and broccoli — all grown from seed — are underway this season in Pamela Reed’s and Matthew Rader’s rooftop vegetable garden (that’s a view of last year’s garden, above, in late summer). Artists who live on the fifth floor of a six-story loft building, they began their mini-farm in 2010. It has since grown exponentially, to around 500 square feet.
“You just want to keep trying new things,” says Pamela. Both are from small towns, Matthew’s in Ohio and Pamela’s in Pennsylvania, so growing vegetables is not entirely new to them. “For my 8th birthday, I got a wheelbarrow,” Matthew recalls.
Though they are renters, the building’s owners “have been really nice about it,” Pamela says. “Though at first, I think they expected just a pot or two.” Veggies are grown in wood boxes lined with plastic, or 20- and 36-gallon Rubbermaid bins, using bagged potting mix. They compost, have a worm bin, and don’t spray pesticides, but being wholly organic “is not an enormous concern of ours,” Matthew says.
Water is collected in rain barrels; they’ve also stretched a hose from a nearby laundry room. But even if the couple had to carry water up the stairs in jugs, as they did the first season, they probably would. This garden is nothing if not a labor of love.
Arriving home last August after a week away, during which Hurricane Irene hit NYC, “We got out of the cab and before we even went to see our cats, we took our suitcases up to the roof to see how our poor garden had fared,” says Pamela. There was some shredded foliage and a missing pump, but “structurally it was fine, and everything recovered.”
Both consider it a shame that rooftop gardening isn’t more prevalent in cities across the country. “Our building has a roof the size of a football field, and we’re the only ones taking advantage of it,” says Pamela. “Everyone who lives here could have a nice-size garden on the roof.”
Lots more photos and info after the jump, and if you want more still, visit Pamela’s blog.
Everything is started in winter from seed in Pamela and Matthew’s loft two stories below the roof. They “harden off” (acclimate things to the outdoors) with visits to the roof, eventually transplanting to containers there. Above, tomatoes and green peppers, which will be transplanted within the next few weeks.
The garden in winter. This past winter was so mild, they were able to keep greens like kale, broccoli, bok choy, and sprouts going in greenhouses all the way through February.
A new ‘sub-irrigated’ container with transplanted onions, kale, spinach and carrots in early spring. “It’s so hot and windy on the roof, things dry out very fast,” explains Matthew.” They’ve been experimenting with homemade containers in which a feed pipe drops water into a reservoir at the bottom; plants soak up water from underneath. “Last year, it produced insane results.”
Inside the greenhouse: newly transplanted broccoli.
Sugar snap peas grow close to 10 feet high, so Matthew and Pamela build fences for them to climb.
Fabric is wrapped around the beds to block the wind; on very windy days, they raise it up completely. Above, late summer, when the garden “turns into a pumpkin patch.”
“We monitor the pumpkins and know when they’re going to bloom, so we can help pollinate,” says Pamela. “We wake up at 6AM to introduce the males to the females with Q-Tips.”
Above, a recent photo of the garden layout, which has expanded quite a bit since its first season.
In July and August, Matthew and Pamela harvest up to 10 pounds of tomatoes a day. They eat everything they grow.
This is the third installment of The Outsider, Brownstoner’s new garden series. If you’ve missed the first two, you can find them right here.