Thursday, May 29, 2008

Rooftop Gardening

Go read's recent tour of Rocket Restaurant's rooftop garden.

Cool, cool stuff. I would feel nervous about the weight, although he talks about using light, fluffy soil. I just have visions of buckling and crashing through the roof. I don't like heights, and I don't want any extra stressors while I've up there, like wondering whether the landlord is going to discover the roof beginning to cave in. However, I think this would be a really interesting opportunity, especially if you have a water spigot up there. (Hauling water is bad enough with a wheelbarrow and/or bucket, and yes, I've done both; up flights of stairs would be unbearable, especially during Pdx's dry summers when pretty much all water would need to come from the gardener.) I wonder how much more it would cost to build buildings with stronger roofs with spigots?

What I love most is that this is a business. I bet it is cheaper (or a close call) to grow salad greens yourself if you're a restaurant, given the steep cost of greens and assuming that they're sourcing local and organic/eco-friendly. (We can get a bag of spinach for $2-3 here in season, but Portland's market is usually more expensive. And how many bags would a restaurant go through? Even with a discount, I bet it's a pretty high amount.) It's nice when restaurants have a garden attached, but it says something really great about Rocket that they're willing to go an extra step when the space isn't easily available. I envy their year-round climate, though - even mache would be better than nothing. Also, having grown the crop, they're sort of obligated to use it, which makes seasonal eating that much easier.

I still think gardening in the earth, on the ground, is most inviting - container and balcony and roof gardening doesn't appeal much to me, partly because I haven't ever had a sunny exposure and/or accessible flat roof in my apartment, and if you're going to travel to garden, you might as well try to get into community garden. And it shares a problem with the community garden in that you have to go there. Ideally, at least by our current standards, you don't have to travel to your garden because you live there, or you're there naturally, all the time. Under normal circumstances, I do think this is ideal, and it certainly makes it easier to do a little weeding or a little enjoying of your space without making it an event. I don't know many people who hang out on the roof enough so that gardening wouldn't be a separate activity. Of course that's not possible everywhere, and of course it's good to have plants in many places (as long as they're "good" plants - seeding your roof with kudzu would not be good. Although think about how horror-movie cool it would be to watch the building being consumed.)

It would be interesting to consider the environmental impact of something like this garden vs. growing under grow lights inside, especially with crops that can be raised under energy-friend fluorescents, like lettuce. There's probably no right answer - how to you calculate the pump power needed to get water up to the roof vs. the power to do fluorescent lights, or compare the tiny amount of mercury in a fluorescent to the additional steel beams needed to make a stronger roof? I imagine plastic breaks down faster outside, and more water is used. The soil probably contains more elements that need to be shipped (i.e. perlite). Still, it feels better outdoors, and no doubt the conditions - if you're growing the right crops - are much healthier. I think something like this garden in Chicago (above) might be even better - the roof is lower, reducing wind - I bet those extra stories make a big difference. Or maybe I just like sunflowers. Hmm.

But looking at these pictures, I get a strange sensation . . . and further google imaging proves it. The uniform for men doing rooftop gardening is khaki shorts and a white T-shirt. (Picture yoinked, then lost the url, but it's from a Canadian rooftop garden news article. I'm extrapolating that the gardener is not the guy in the tie.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


The clouds are moving out, the barometer is changing, and like magic, I can feel a migraine tightening around my head. No aura this time, just blam, migraine, complete with nausea and lights dancing around the edges of my peripheral vision.
Damn, damn, damn.
Hopefully something magic will happen and I'll be better enough to go sweat in the sun for awhile.

Planting Out

Today I carried my first pots to work, with the intentions of planting them out in the garden later today. I put my peat pots in little Gladware containers, and carry them on the bus like that. For the bigger tomatoes, I think I'll need to carry them in a 5-gallon bucket, since they're both large and top heavy. I'm setting out one tomato in honor of the traditional "you can plant tomatoes on Memorial Day in Madison" folklore. The weather is wavering between hot, thunderstormy, and cool - 44 this morning. By far, I'm not the first person to put out tomatoes - there were some in the garden at least two weeks ago, but they appear not to have grown much. Some people even have peppers out. So my goal is to carry a few to work and then to the garden each day until the only thing beneath my grow lights is my indoor sprout/salad mix collection, and an indoor tea garden. The lemon balm is finally shaping up nicely under the lights; I think with a little outdoor time, it will be perfectly happy.
The Amish Paste I'm setting out today is among the least happy. Thin, leggy, and small. I'm hoping that it will either thrive or die quickly so I don't have to kill it myself. I'm also setting out a lemon balm, a lovage, and what I suspect is a sweet marjoram. Cooking delinquent that I am, I'm not really sure what to do with sweet marjoram, but fragrant plants are always welcome. (Unless you're mint.) Or comfrey, which is actually an issue around the edges of my plot.
Anyway, these plants give me an opportunity to see good green in the plot, and to experiment with my hole-digging technique. The tiller has stood me up for the third time, so I think I'm just going to start working the soil the old-fashioned way- lots of sweating, blisters, and water gulped from the hose. (Beer is a luxury reserved for people who live in houses and don't have to haul the bottles up a hill and find a way to keep them cool.) I've got 1-3 inches of leaves over the whole plot, which makes it look nice and really does cut down on weeds. Not as much as I'd hope, but some.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Remembering the Fallen

Yesterday, I made a last-ditch attempt to rescue some of my seedlings. It's at least another week before I put out the first of the hardiest of the summer seedlings (tomatoes) and probably two or three before I think about eggplant, peppers, or cucumbers. So a little tidying up was in order.
Two 4' shelves seems like a lot of space when you begin planting things, but as the plants expand, the space quickly becomes tighter and tighter. Sacrifices must be made. Up-potting must be done (again). And as in eany good expansion effort, some must give their lives to the cause.
There's the eggplant that the cat ate the first leaves right off of. The Sandia pepper I accidentally brushed with the force of falling water. The tomato I crushed with my elbow. The tomato I forgot that was sandwiched behind the bigger, meaner tomatoes (I'll get to them in a moment) and so, cut off from water and light, shrank to nothing. The cucumber that got caught in a draft on a cold spring night, and remained sullen for weeks - it was just recovering when I ripped it out so I could rescue a pepper from the clutches of the giant tomato plants. An eight-pack of onions, and another of nasturtiums, given for the same cause.
A mass dispersal was necessary because some of my tomatoes have grown large and mean under their pampered conditions. Without the aid of fertilizer, they grew stews thicker than pencils, branches that extended across the lights, and tendrils that shaded out shorter, less aggressive plants - mostly eggplant and pepper, but even some of the smaller tomatoes. These bullies are almost exclusively Fedco heirlooms tomatoes. I don't know if it's the freshness of the seed (most of the other seed was packed for 2006 or 2007), or the variety (Big Mean Bully will be the name of my first created cultivar), or what - I treated these tomatoes exactly the same as the others. To be fair, one of my yellow tomatoes (Giant Yellow Gourmet Stuffer, I think) is also large, but less invasive. My tomatillos are very happy, too, but my peppers and eggplant remain healthy but not enormous. So the shorter plants got moved into space vacated by less important plants. It gave me a chance to eat a large portion of plants - onions, nasturtiums, cucumber roots, a basil, a thyme, a lemon balm. Sort of a weird impromptu salad. It was fun.
Pepper update: I have *one* Sandia pepper sprout, among 12 seeds planted. I'm praying it survives. I have two Thai hots, two Georgia Flames, and a couple others, but peppers are definitely not the winning species at Chez Chick. I overplanted on the seed, with good results for everything else, but not so much with the peppers. I know the germination is supposed to be erratic, but still.
So: several small tomatoes I hope will thrive eventually, plus 4-7 big tomatoes I have high hopes for, plus a few "rescues" that replanted themselves and thus have been allowed to live for awhile. 2 enthusiastic tomatillos. 5-6 eggplants that seem very happy, plus one or two that don't. 6ish peppers, plus rescues. Sage, thyme, lovage, 10ish happy basil plants, 2 sullen holy basils. All in all, not a bad haul. If even 25% of these make out, I should have home-grown tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and herbs. If they all do, I will have to start sneaking around the farmer's market, dropping eggplants and tomatoes into baby carriages and unattended bags. Next year, I want to start peppers earlier, and tomatoes later. The eggplants have worked out fine.
Interesting note: Cucumber roots have an aftertaste *just like* cucumber. Who knew?

Organic matter should be easier than this

Plot is still not tilled; the worker missed my appointment. I have half the plot covered with leaves; today I'm hoping to finish the job. I have 9 big cart-loads on the plot, which doesn't sound (or look) like much, but by the time I get down the hill, to the mulch pile, load the leaves, and get back up the hill, it's pretty tough. Sometimes the leaves are wet, and that really adds weight.
The plot catty-corner to mine is full of raspberries. And when I say full, I mean full. No-way-in, gouge-out-your-eye full. I met the gardener who gets to deal with that, and she left not ten minutes later, after being poked in the eye and gouged deeply down her arm. I have to admit, I felt a little smug as I bent back down to wrangle the spiny joys of a thistle. (Bull thistle? Canadian thistle? Who knows. Let's just say that I have removed this particular plant three times, and each time is appears, completely whole and hale and bursting with enthusiasm, and bigger than before. The taproot I dug up was a foot long, as big around as my wrist at the top, and still an inch round where it broke off.)
So the plan is to cover the rest of the plot in leaves, and then, if I can stand it, add more. I'm convinced only organic matter can turn my soil into anything worth planting over.