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A Touch of Green

“What could be nicer, really, than to go up to your roof or out in the back and pick some fresh oregano or cilantro to add to your dinner that night in your apartment?” asks Barbara Hobens Feldt. A former board president of a West 44th Street co-op in Manhattan and the garden-designer author of Garden Your City (2005), Feldt says that such ideas are not just wishful thinking. More and more co-ops and condos are planting trees, strawberry bushes, herb gardens, flowers, and vegetables.

“There’s a passion, I think, for greening up the city little by little,” says Kevin McManus, board president of a 48-unit prewar co-op at 242 East 87th Street in Manhattan, “so, why not create a communal space we can all enjoy and use and that adds value to the building?” His co-op did just that four years ago, and now fresh fruit and herbs grow in the 15- x 70-foot back yard, where there’s also a table with a shade umbrella, a barbecue, a bird bath, and a dart board.

In New York and other cities, urban gardening has become a trend, and the current wave of urban gardens is in private buildings. McManus says his building’s garden came “in baby steps, with a plant here and a plant there and trips to Home Depot. It wasn’t really [a board] approval situation, but an organic process. People saw what was happening and it grew from there.”

“I have to give the board president a lot of credit,” notes Andrea Bunis, president of Andrea Bunis Management, the property’s manager. “We had a tremendous sinkhole in the back yard. The board said, ‘Why can’t we do something there? It’s deserted and ugly.’ We filled in the hole with cement, and then planted back there.” Feldt favors a less ad hoc approach: “I tell co-ops and condos there should be a line item in the budget allocated to this.”

Whether or not you have a green thumb, you can take a garden in hand by following these basic guidelines:

(1) Find a suitable space. This could be a rooftop, a back yard, or even a concrete patio. Investigate issues of access and noise: you don’t want to be tromping over someone’s apartment or making ground-floor dwellers uncomfortable with people outside their window. Rooftop gardens and decks are plentiful around the city, but just be sure you’re following both Department of Buildings and fire department codes. Says Feldt: “With backyards and cement patios, you don’t have to worry about roofing issues.”

(2) Organize. See who’s interested in tending the garden, decide what to grow to start, and research how much money is needed for seeds, plants, containers, pro-mix, and such bigger concerns as pathways (to keep people from walking all over the roof proper). Then, go to your board for permission and possibly some money. Some costs are nominal and might be borne by the gardeners; others might require a budget item.

“Sit down and decide what your
initial goals are,” advises Feldt. “Vegetables? Herbs? Decorative plants? Then decide on containers – a mishmash, or are you going to purchase a matched set? Same with soil, drainage material, seeds, plants. What I’d suggest is that if it’s a building project, it should be a line item: ‘We have decided as a board we’re going to establish a garden, and this is who’s going to be on committee, and if anybody wants to help, contact Susie or Joe, and let them know.’”

Beans, cucumbers, lettuce, peppers, potatoes, squash, tomatoes, and zucchini are easy to grow, urban gardeners say. “Tomato and pepper seeds have to be started indoors,” Feldt observes. “But almost everything else you can start from seed up on the roof or in the backyard.” Anything foolproof for first-timers? “I would say an herb. What herb do you love on food? Thyme? Oregano? Plant it.”

(3) Plant. This can take many forms: buying sprouted plants in containers at a nursery and replanting them in your pro-mix or large containers; buying seeds and starting them; or buying a kit, such as the EarthBox (earthbox.com). For seeds and plants, Feldt suggests the online sources whiteflowerfarm.com, Reneesgarden.com, and the organic Seedsofchange.com. Such sources “unconditionally guarantee their plants,” Feldt says. “It costs more, but for first timers, it’s worth it.”

(4) Establish a watering schedule. At Feldt’s co-op, “We had a signup sheet that we posted in the lobby; we also had a newsletter. The sheet would say, ‘Bill takes Mondays, Barbara takes Tuesdays, etc.’ If somebody was going away, they had to find somebody to fill in for them.”

Paula Crossfield, a board member at a six-story, Lower East Side co-op, started a 400-square-foot vegetable garden on her building’s 1,000-square-foot roof, with the help of $3,000 for planters and a paved walkway. Crossfield herself bought seeds and provides gardening labor – and all her neighbors in the small walk-up share in the Amaranth greens, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, chard, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, watermelon, zucchini, and herbs.

More typically, though, says Feldt, “what will happen is one person will bring a tomato plant, for example, to the roof and start watering it. And someone else will see it and be intrigued, and they’ll go to a nursery, and you’ll see something else added, and then something else. Then all of a sudden it becomes an issue. How are you going to water the garden? Who’s going to tend it? Are the planters making a mark on the roof? Is the roof holding the weight?”

These are important concerns. “When it’s a co-op or a condo, liability issues are your main concern.” That’s a matter of following Department of Buildings and fire department codes, on which the board attorney can guide you. “Beyond that,” Feldt says, “the issues are: who’s going to use it and who’s going to tend it?”

At McManus’s building, “there’s free access for everyone to work in the garden,” McManus says. “I’ve seen just about everyone in the building there at one time or other.” There’s always the danger of overwatering by volunteers unaware of each other’s effort, so the super “helps manage the process of coordinating what everybody’s doing – sort of big-picture project management.” In terms of access, “you reach it through the laundry room, and our laundry-room power is on a timer, so [garden access] sort of followed suit with the laundry room [access].”

The choice of plants came through trial and error. “We struggled with the shade element” that precludes growing sunlight-hungry tomatoes — and besides which, “tomatoes are sloppy and messy, they attract pests, they stain the cement. We tried tomatoes and it didn’t work. But we’ve had more successes than failure. Strawberry is great ground cover. Dill is quite hardy.”

What else grows? “You can grow everything if you have eight hours of sun,” Feldt says. “People have even grown tropical stuff in the city.” Lettuce and herbs can work if you don’t get as much light, she notes – but you also may get more than you think.

“I’ve had tomatoes and roses growing in a 100-percent shade garden all over Manhattan because the sun hits somebody’s window in one of those big new buildings with lots of glass, and it ricochets and voila! You now have sun in your backyard. Just sit and observe where is the sun does hit. Just moving your [plant] container eight inches to one side can change things. I’ve even raised a container on someone’s old coffee table to get another hour every day of late-afternoon sun” that otherwise had been blocked.

The containers are the standard way that plants are sold and raised when you’re not planting them directly into the ground. They can be anything from plastic planters to coffee cans “to these fabulous fakes called ‘resins’ that look like terra cotta,” which in number can be too heavy for rooftops. Remember, containers need to have a layer of rocks, marbles, or some other such material at the bottom where water can drain so that the plants’ roots don’t get continually saturated and start to rot.

Water is probably a liability issue when it comes to rooftop gardens. “You have to do due diligence,” Feldt says. “It all depends on how big the garden’s going to be. An architect can come up and say, ‘Yes, you can do this and this.’ It’s better to spend a little money for that than to pay for a damaged roof.”

As for backyard gardens, Feldt notes, you don’t even need actual ground in which to plant. “You could treat [a] cement [slab] as a container. What we did [at one building] was put two inches of river rock on the cement, which we surrounded with cobblestone. Then we put in a whole bunch of pro-mix – which isn’t a brand name; any nursery will know it as [a type of] very light soil – and you just plant in it. You don’t use topsoil – that’s too heavy.”

She advises budding gardeners to “figure what you want to do, how you’re going to do it, how much money needs to be allocated, and what results you expect to have.” And, she warns, it’ll all work out better if you keep those results communal. “If you have 40 people in a six-story building, you can’t say, ‘You can’t have any of my cilantro.’ It has to be a community-garden thing.”

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