My wife and I bought a house about two years ago, and while there’s virtually no usable outdoor space on the ground level of our property, we have access to a nice flat rooftop. So when I decided I wanted to grow some food, the only place to look was up.
On the ground level, we have a beautiful sliding glass door in our kitchen. But if you took two steps out that door you’d be in our neighbors’ back yard. There’s just enough room behind the house for our HVAC air compressor and not much else. There’s also very little sunlight in this area because we live in a rowhouse and are surrounded by other two and three story buildings which cast wide shadows.
But while the folks who rehabbed our house before we bought it didn’t get around to putting in a deck (or a particularly good roof — we had to have a new one installed before we closed on the house), they did put in a flight of stairs leading up to the roof and an access door which makes going out onto the roof pretty simple. Sometime in the next few years we’ll probably out some decking to make the space more attractive and to make it easier to place outdoor furniture and planters. But for now there’s plenty of surface area, which is a good start.
Last year I haphazardly picked up a few planters and grew a couple of red pepper plants up on the rooftop. You can see the results above. I got some peppers of mediocre quality, but I wasn’t very picky about seeds, soil, or even the time of year when I planted. This year I hope to do a better job.
I’ve been making more of an effort to buy local foods for the last few months, thanks to some inspiration from Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and some good friends who have been doing the same for a while. The fun part of deciding to go local in the winter is you’re really forced to think more about your food choices. Fortunately the increased demand in local food means that more and more farmer’s markets are staying open year-round, providing winter staples like potatoes, yams, apples, onions, carrots, mushrooms and sometimes even greenhouse or hydroponic cool-weather greens including spinach, arugula, and broccoli.
I’m looking forward to the spring when I’ll be able to get a wider variety of fresh fruits and vegetables at farmer’s markets and when even local grocery stores will start stocking more local produce. Whole Foods has a few locally produced items, and there’s a great little shop around the corner from us which stocks food items from local farmers. In some ways, the locavore movement is taking on the same kind of steam that the vegetarian movement did years ago. Once there was enough demand for meat-free products, it became a lot easier to find it local shops and big chain stores. While it’s a bit tricky to be both vegetarian and a locavore, since much of what you’ll find at winter markets is meat, it’s not altogether impossible — especially if you’re not too strict about it.
We’re not only eating local food, but most of our produce is local. I’m willing to make exceptions for rice, pastas, dried beans, coffee, tea, and other items that were made to store for long periods and ship long distances, although organic and other pesticide-free foods take precedence on my shopping list. I don’t really consider myself a locavore so much as someone who is trying to eat more local foods and support the regional food economy.
But the best way to know where your food is coming from is to grow it yourself, and that’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing — although in the past few decades I’ve only lived in places with room for gardens a handful of times and usually only container gardens. The new place is no different, but as homeowners we’re planning on staying here a long time, so I figured it was time to really learn more about growing vegetables in containers.
As it turns out, most vegetable gardening books don’t really talk about containers, and most container gardening books assume you want to grow flowers. I did find two good books though, which have been a lot of help while getting started. The first is McGee & Stuckey’s Bountiful Container, which provides a ton of great information… especially if you don’t care about growing organic food. There’s literally just one page on organics, and the authors’ verdict is that it doesn’t really matter much if you go organic or not. Still, even for organic gardeners, this book probably does a better job than almost any other of putting the most information about container vegetable gardening in one place.
The second book I picked up is all about organic food. Grow Great Grub doesn’t have nearly as many details or profiles of as many food items as the Bountiful Container book. But it has a lot of pictures of plants, which is comforting for an amateur gardener looking to identify pests or make sure that things are growing properly. There are also some great suggestions in the back of the book for places to order organic seeds and other products. There are so many places online to find seeds and gardening products that it’s nice to have a few recommendations, even if they’re coming from some stranger who just happened to write a book.
Armed with these tools, and the knowledge that the time to plan a garden is in the colder months, not when it starts to get warm and you’re in a hurry to put things in the soil, I’ve come up with a basic game plan for my first year rooftop vegetable garden.
I’m hoping to grow some snow peas, spinach and scallions starting in March, while adding some Bok Choy to the mix in April. I’ll also plant some sweet pepper in April and maybe some Basil, hopefully leading to a pepper harvest in late May or early June.
Everyone seems to recommend growing strawberries from transplants rather than seeds, so I’ll probably keep an eye out for some in April.
This summer I plan to replace the snow peas with bush beans. And in August I’ll see if I can sow a second crop of spinach for a fall harvest.
Theoretically, I can grow all of that in 5 large pots plus a few small planters for strawberries.
I also learned that I might be able to do something I had thought impossible: grow apple trees. It turns out there are varieties of trees called columnars which grow to maybe 6 or 8 feet and which have little to no branching, which means I might be able to plant them in the tiny space behind our house. I honestly don’t know if they’ll get enough light, but there are trees growing in our neighbors’ yards. So the plan is to buy two very large planters for the back yard, plop in a couple of columnars and hope for the best. If all goes well, I should have some home grown apples in 2-3 years.
I don’t expect to grow enough food on the rooftop to feed the family throughout the year. But I’m excited about the prospect of adding some home grown items to the dinner plate from time to time. If all goes well, I’m thinking about adding some blueberry bushes to the mix next year.