Thursday, May 30, 2013

Ethical Dilemmas

Last summer, I was not the only gardener on our rooftop. Midway through the summer, three pots showed up, much prettier than my reclaimed versions. However, they were horribly overcrowded. 

The small pot in the back had four pepper plants, and the big one in the middle had both an eggplant and a strawberry plant. I can't remember what was planted in the medium pot in the foreground. When I finally ran into the gardeners, I didn't have the heart to tell them that they hadn't even planted their strawberries until long after strawberry season was over, not to mention that there was no way there was enough room in those little pots to grow all those different plants. Besides, I was pretty much a novice at this myself - who was I to correct someone else? I think they got one pepper on one of their pepper plants, and that was the extent of their harvest.

Now, I'm pretty sure that last summer's gardeners are not gardening this summer. I haven't seen them over the past few weeks, their pots haven't been moved an inch since I put them back after the hurricane,* and last season's dead stalks haven't been removed. But . . . they're not all dead stalks. The strawberry plant is still alive, and this year - in season - it's bearing fruit.

When I noticed it flowering, I started watering it occasionally. I haven't babied it, but whenever I've had a bit of extra water after I'm done taking care of my plants, I've given it a drink. Now it's got four strawberries, one of them approaching ripeness. 

Like I said, I don't think the couple who planted it are still paying attention. They may not even still live here. Or I could be wrong. I could have missed them. Maybe I've just been giving this plant extra water, because its owners have been taking care of it all along.

I'm pretty confident that's not the case, but I can't be sure. So the big question is:

Do I eat the strawberries?

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Doesn't it just look good enough to eat?

*Being the only person to spend so much time on the roof gives me a feeling of responsibility for it. When Hurricane Sandy was approaching, I pulled all of my pots in off the roof, but felt like I couldn't leave everything else up there to become projectiles, so I pulled in the other pots, too, as well as all of the chairs (whose origins and ownership are uncertain). Then I put it all back where it came from.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Gardening Resources: Your Local Library

Every time that I venture down to my local branch of the Queens Library, I make sure to do two things. The first is to stop by the "Go Green" shelves that are conveniently located right in the entrance. This is invariably full of books with titles like The City Homesteader, Urban Gardening for Dummies, and The Essential Urban Farmer.  I like to browse, and pick up whatever strikes my fancy. This has led to some spectacularly good reads, as well as some quite mediocre ones. (The Bountiful Container was an excellent resource; Paradise Lot was pretty good; and A World without Bees, despite the important subject matter, was barely worth the paper it was written on.)

The second thing to do at the library is to check out the bulletin board and the card rack, which advertise upcoming library programs. In the past few months, I've been to a program on backyard chickens, and one on growing mushrooms. Just today, I picked up cards for "Plant Propagation Workshop," "Bike Repair: Fix-A-Flat," and "Urban Cycling 101." There have probably been a dozens of other cool programs I couldn't attend but would have liked to. Most of these programs are free of charge, and lots of them even include free giveaways. Several people went home from the mushroom workshop with mushroom growing kits (I wasn't one of the lucky ones!) and apparently participants in the upcoming plant propagation workshop get to take home cuttings to grow at home, while both biking workshops are giving out flat repair kits.

Upcoming Queens Library workshops!

The other key resource at the library is the request function. Although my small branch doesn't have every book I need, the Queens Library system has almost everything I could imagine.* Whether I'm looking for Suzanne Ashworth's Seed to Seed or Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz, I can request it and have it at my library in days. (Or sometimes, in months - someone must keep renewing Wild Fermentation, because I've been at the top of the queue for months now and still haven't received it!)

If you're a gardener on a budget, you don't need to go out and spend a fortune on gardening books. Your local library may offer everything from classes and workshops to fun and interesting books to practical instruction guides.

*I recently used WorldCat to discover that a book about my great-grandparents' Italian hometown exists no closer than Switzerland, but I suppose you can't have everything!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Form and Function

I spent last weekend at my parents' house, which is in the suburbs. When we pulled in on Friday evening, Ben remarked on how pretty it looked. In the dark, I was hard-pressed to understand what he was talking about, but the next morning it was obvious. There were tulips blooming in front of the house, and low, bushy flowers creating carpets of color along the driveway.

We spent some time on Saturday afternoon helping my mom fill hanging  pots with flowers, and it was a glorious day. The sun was shining, and I even have a bit of a tan to prove it. There's just something so much more enjoyable about gardening in a pleasant, beautiful environment, as compared to my dreary, mostly barren rooftop. The soundtrack to our work was birds singing and insects buzzing, not the intermittent roar of the 7 train.

I approach my rooftop garden with a pretty utilitarian viewpoint: yes, I love it, and I love the process of creating it, but I put most of my limited time, energy, and resources into plants that provide at least some return on my investment, whether that return be in the form of tomatoes, carrots, beets, lettuce, zucchini, basil, or even just attracting pollinators to my otherwise infertile roof.

Last weekend had me doubting that approach for the first time. Maybe my vegetables would do better if I spent more time on the roof, which I'd be more likely to do if the roof was a glorious oasis in the middle of the city - or at least had some pretty flowers. Maybe I'd spend more time outdoors, and less time watching Netflix, if my little outdoor space was a more pleasant place to spend my time.

A week has passed, though, and the memory of that beautiful sunny day with the chirping birds has begun to fade, while budget concerns remain pressing and a particularly busy week and some very full weekends have proved that I have even less time to devote to my garden than I thought. The thought of spending money on ornamentals, and then having to find extra time in which to tend them, has started, again, to feel like a bit of a wasteful luxury. And after a few sunny days early this week, in which I could barely find the time to water, and a few rainy days following them, in which I didn't even bother to visit the garden because I knew I didn't need to be there to water, I checked on my plants Friday morning, and wasn't sure what I needed decorative plants for at all. After all, what's more beautiful than a pot full of arugula, newly sprouted? What's more enjoyable to watch than carrot seedlings turning into carrot plants? What's nicer to look at than spinach that finally looks like spinach?

Friday, May 3, 2013


I haven't had a lot of luck with my cool-weather crops so far this year. The collards that surprised me by overwintering bolted almost immediately. (I cooked them up for dinner, buds and all.) Something is eating my baby bok choy seedlings, and only my baby bok choy seedlings, and yet I can't find anyone living in that container. And all of the new collards I planted this year have failed to come up, or have died immediately.

However, I have a number of bunching onions that seem to be doing well, although I think they could use a little fertilizer. (If only my worms were quicker with the compost - don't they know I have plants who need nutrients?!) My beets and carrots are still tiny seedlings, but so far they're doing well. And I have some lettuce seedlings that are doing better now that they're getting full sun on the roof (they had been mostly in the shade on the balcony), but I fear they won't last very long once it starts to get hot up there.

I'm hoping for better luck with my warm-season crops. I have a successful little tomato seedling that I hope to transplant into a larger pot soon, and another one that seems quite happy but is in no rush to develop its first true leaves. I also planted a bunch of squash and melons from saved seeds - watermelon, zucchini, and spaghetti squash. The spaghetti squash and the watermelon both got super-long only a couple of days after planting. I hadn't though that a seedling could get leggy before it developed its first true leaves, but the squash in particular is 6-8 inches long and floppy. Now that it's in a sunny windowsill with a light added, it seems otherwise quite happy, and I'm not sure whether I should be starting over or just seeing where these seedlings will go.

I'm also trying something new this year by planting potatoes. I ordered seed potatoes from, and am excited to see how they do!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Land, neighborhood, culture

My garden consists of a number of modified 5-gallon buckets on my rooftop, because I have no yard. Meanwhile, from that same rooftop, I can see two vacant buildings, sitting on two unused lots, right next door. Their only occupants, as far as we can tell, are a cat and several raccoons, the latter of whom occasionally have loud screaming matches on the roof in the middle of the night.

I'm planting in 5-gallon soy sauce buckets with all that land sitting right in view. It's torture.

These parcels of land, by the way, figure prominently in my contingency plan for the apocalypse. Infrastructure just has to last long enough for me to get down the street to Home Depot and buy bolt cutters. The bolt cutters get me inside the fence, and then I cultivate the land heavily to give my family something to live off of, and something to trade with. It occurs to me now that the cultivation might go a little easier if Home Depot were still functioning well enough to sell me some additional tools as well. I'm no doomsday prepper, but I will admit that it has crossed my mind to think about buying a bolt cutter before the apocalypse so that I can immediately put my plan into action, should the world as we know it end anytime soon.*

My first plan for gardening, once I'd seen all the land next door and after I decided that bolt cutters and trespassing were best reserved for the apocalypse, was to use the bits of ground around the abandoned stoop and the piece of soil that juts into the sidewalk (what may have once been a driveway) to do some real, live, in-the-ground gardening. I didn't for a number of reasons that mostly involved the distance to a water source, the uncertainty about the soil quality, and the apparent habit of the locals of using the stoop area as a public bathroom for their dogs. It just seemed easier to use the roof, essentially.

Then one day last summer, I realized how close I'd come to being a destructive, gentrifying, homogenizing force for evil in the neighborhood. I had the day off from work and was walking down the block when I noticed an older Asian woman on the sidewalk, bent down over that plot of soil, filling a plastic shopping bag with the plants she was picking. I didn't recognize the leaves she was harvesting, but I was suddenly horrified to realize how close I'd come to cultivating her wild harvest right out of existence.

When I recently read Paradise Lot by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates, I learned that one of the basics of permaculture is observing a plot of land for a full year - all four seasons -  before beginning to cultivate it. This allows you to understand the ecology, the microclimates, the different environments that make up your piece of land. It occurred to me that this philosophy applies to almost any situation, not just agriculture. By letting 18 months pass - though it wasn't my intent - I had the opportunity to see even the culture of the neighborhood in action, and how that affects the land.

*N.B.: I don't expect the end of the world any time soon, but there's no harm in a thought exercise (and maybe some bolt cutters), right?