The Garden Dude

Ever get really into something, like say, owls, and tell everyone only to realize a year later that you’ve become the owl person? Suddenly, your place is filled with tons of owls that people give you: owl cookie jars, owl clocks (with moving eyes), robotic owls that hoot when they detect movement. You’re living in a G-d owl bonanza. That’s how I feel about gardening. I’ve told the world, and now… people give me gardening stuff, all the time. Which.I.Love.

As most people I know were getting ill-fitting and unwanted clothing at Christmas, I got a rather generous gift certificate to Gardener’s Supply. Now that I can literally taste the pollen in the air, I pulled the trigger on some extremely fly gardening gear.

Like a fine watch, these Felco pruners are both Swiss and have WEIGHT. They make a very sharp slicing noise, as demonstrated near the ears of a nervous co-worker. They have a SAP GROOVE, which I suspect is like a blood groove on a combat knife. Can’t let sap get in the way of a good cut right? These plants will not even know what they just had chopped off, cuts clean as a damn chrome whistle on a sunny day.

I also bought a hose to replace the very sad excuse for a hose I’ve had for years. I unintentionally got it in the exact color of my sun-faded cooler, er rainwater cistern. And what goes well with hoses? You guessed it, spray nozzles.

Do you see the various types of HOLES in this thing? Can you possibly imagine how many different ways I’m going to water my plants with this?

Oh you want something gentle? Maybe a lil’ mist? Nice right? Oh hang on, you want more? You want the full force of an NYC fire hydrant? No problem, I gotchoo.

My garden has never been more well kempt or well-watered in all its years.

I am the garden dude. I’m into gardening. And I’m prepared to accept all that comes with that title. I’m also prepared to accept any and all of your generous garden-related gifts. Thank you in advance.

The Roof

The second thing I do in any new apartment, after getting the keys, is figure out how to get on the roof. I’ve never turned down the chance to get to get onto the roof of a building and I’ve never once been disappointed. In my younger days I never missed a chance to throw something off said roof. But those are tales for another day.

There’s something really liberating about being up there, slightly taller than the building you’re standing on, seeing for miles when just minutes before you could maybe see the end of the block.

I got lucky and got onto the roof terrace of one of the tallest buildings in Brooklyn. The pictures can’t possibly capture how awesome it was. The wind was strong enough to whisk the glasses right off your face, the city’s ambient hum was quieter than I expected. The Brooklyn Bridge you see there, was the tallest structure in North America when it was built. Further back, the new Freedom Tower has just become the tallest building in the city, eclipsing the Empire State.

I clung to my phone trying to snap these pictures. There were some rose bushes and boxwoods up there, hanging on for dear life. I don’t blame ‘em. Taking in the entire skyline of New York in one gulp, I kind felt like I was clinging on for dear life. “Wow, this is pretty amazing. Wanna go inside now?”

Kale: Nature’s Grappling Hook

A few years ago my office brought in a wellness expert presumably to correct our wayward habits: poor posture, over-caffeination, and love of Chipoltle.

Among the many things we learned from her (including how to participate in awkward massage circles) was that leafy greens are “nature’s feather dusters”; a nice way of saying that if you eat enough of them no food remnant in your intestines would ever be safe again. And this would be good for you, after all, you’ve been eating cheeseburgers all winter, and well, you could stand to lose a couple.

My kale is starting to bolt so it was time to harvest. I’d been pretty leery of the stuff, particularly after said wellness expert recommended baking it into “chips” as a healthy alternative to potato chips.

Truth is, it’s pretty great. It tastes like broccoli lettuce, if that existed. Describing it as a “feather duster” would be a gross understatement, this here is nature’s grappling hook. I’m fairly sure you could thatch a roof with it.

With a few bits of other leafy things I was able to scrape up from the garden, some Swiss chard, spinach and some mint, it will become tomorrow’s lunch. I literally ate a cheeseburger for dinner, my last for a long time. And by “a long time” I mean roughly two weeks. I’m not sure how things will work out, but I’m confident I’ll be a better person for it. Wellness expert, this one’s for you!

A Little More Respect

A day late and a dollar short I got my seeds started for what I’m hoping will be an EPIC 2012 season in rooftop gardening shenanigans. My tomatoes are going to explode off the branches with flavor!

My peppers are going to get so big they’re going to crush curious guests… in their mouths! My Dwarf Siberian Kale is going to get… appropriately little! Panthy is practically jumping out of his skin.

Some people get extremely nerdy about their seeds. They fawn over the quaint packaging, rattle off the obscure names, and collect them in precious little files. I respect it to the fullest, it just ain’t for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some heirlooms and everything they stand for, I just hate planting them. I’m more of a dig a hole and dump a plant in it kind of guy. If I could somehow use a chainsaw to plant seeds, I just might.

Trying to get into the spirit, I pulled out an appropriately tiny notebook and a very fly Swiss pen and got down to the tedious business of planting and marking down exactly where each of the 144 seeds went.

Keeping a record is almost as important as planting the seed. Today I ate part of this mystery plant to see if it was a weed or the obscure Corn Dutch Salad I planted last summer. I think it was a weed. Hard to know, I don’t think anyone has ever eaten Corn Dutch Salad. Probably because it looks like a weed. Or tastes like one. Or is one?

After a quick soak, each tiny divot in these puffy little shit disks received a pair of precious seeds.

They’ll sit in the window until they start to sprout, after which my grow light will take over, combining its beaming light with the grooviness of this patterned cloth to make the magic happen.

Almost my entire flock of sweet veggies will emerge from these humble plastic trays; ground cherries, jalapeno peppers, tomatoes, cukes, eggplants and bunch of other exotic heirloom vegetables. Hard to believe actually. An entire season of obsession, dutiful watering, constant complaining, and occasional success; all from these little seeds. Maybe I better start showing them a little more respect.

Mulching With Trash and Composting With Dead People

Brooklyn continues to be an inspiring place to grow, filled with unique approaches to gardening, including mulching with trash.

The top priority for Panthy’s Garden is “re-charging” the potting mix in my containers. There’s absolutely no way in hell I’m hauling 25 of those massive bags of potting mix up five flights again and no need to really. I can just swap in a third of the mix with new mix and/or compost. Boom, all set.

In my case, I’ll do some of both. While potting mix is easy to find, compost is not, at least not in New York City. I’ve got my own stash of homemade compost made from Chinese food leftovers and sawdust, but I’m gonna need a whole lot more to get the garden up to speed before planting.

My search led me to Shannon Nursery and Florist located just across from Greenwood Cemetery out in Brooklyn. It’s possible that the compost is made from dead people but I’ve always been a fan of composting meat. (Sorry.)

Actually, it’s completely legit, high-quality organic compost. The service was great, unlike Home Depot where you have to be on the winning side of a knife fight to get one of those giant carts, get your goods, and get out in one piece. The guy at Shannon’s told me, “Relax! Looking around is free!”

Shannon also specializes in “Funeral Designs” being a florist across from a cemetery and all. I’m not sure which I found more depressing, the “I Miss You Mom” or the New York Yankees arrangement. To be fair, the stuff was nice, just a little uh, perspective enhancing.

Loaded up with my compost I got back to my crowded garden, still jammed on one end of the deck while the other end is being put back together by the roofers.

I used my junky clippers to chop down the remnants of last year’s crops and found a few little surprises. What’s this? Wanna guess?

It’s an eggplant, a tiny petrified eggplant. How bout this?

That’s also an eggplant. I know, it’s bonkers. How bout this?

Oh that’s a ceramic sheep my pal Matt stole from a nativity scene out in Los Angeles sometime in 1994, which subsequently made the trip cross country with us in the trunk of this car. In 1995. No big whoop. Please note my huge glasses and bold sense of optimism. I’m wearing flip flops for chrissakes!

With last year’s plants gone, the slate has been wiped clean. I’m this close (imagine my fingers making that “this close” gesture), to getting it all up and running again.

Sun shining, city shimmering, it was hard not to feel like my 1995 self up there.

Mystical Confluence

It’s 68 degrees right now and I’m told that thanks to a solar flare I might be able to see the Northern Lights from my roof tonight. In a mystical confluence of events, my deck, ripped up for the last few months, is being put together as we speak. It’s not impossible that in a few hours I will be able to stand in a semi-funcional Panthy’s Garden, drinking in the weirdness of the season in all its glory. I may also drink in a beer.

Last year around this time, I dumped out a pot only to find it was a giant dirt popsicle. Thanks to our globally-warmed, non-winter, my garden is coming back to life, the garden equivalent of a cat nap. The soil is completely workable and lots of my plants never really died back, they just got ugly.

The beach rose that enchants guests with its flowers and stabs pigeons with its thorns has a single, promising bud on it. A tulip is coming up in a pot I didn’t realize had a tulip bulb in it. I’ve got kale! I planted it hoping to eat it last fall, but hell, I’ll take it. Kinda like when the delivery guy brings you a cold pizza after an hour. Keep calm, carry on, eat it anyway.

Appropriately, the Department of Agriculture has revised its zone map to confirm what we all know already: it’s warmer these days. They were careful not to say this was direct evidence of global warming, God-forbid. Rather, this map revision was based on “more information from a longer period of time.” Uh huh. The new map also takes into account how land features affect climate (proximity to water, pockets of air in valleys and hills, and relative location to Walmart).

The release of this map, now on the interwebs, comes at a good time for those of us in the Northeast. Consult it to be sure what you want to grow, actually grows in your zone. What I haven’t yet seen is a map that accounts for the amount of wind and heat on my roof; to say nothing of the garbage birds and squirrels. If indulging in bureaucratic language is your thing, peep the full gub-ment press release.

While bizarre, and a little disconcerting, today bodes well for Panthy’s Garden and really, gardens everywhere. May your season be early and fruitful.

Doomsday Roof

In between episodes of Doomsday Preppers, I stepped up to ol’ Panthy’s Garden to see what our bizarre weather has been doing to my garden. Half of it is still pretty dramatic looking.

The other half just looked a little discouraged. Not dead, just, uh… deflated.

Even St. Whatshisface was a looking a bit sullen up there.

The crazy “passive” brownstone being built nearby has completed it’s infrared, radar blocking rooftop.

It’s hard to know what’s going on over there but I suspect it has to do with stealing cable and converting it into plant food for the hidden aquaponics system in the basement. Talk about doomsday prepping, damn son… take it easy!

Green the Season

While I’ve been busy sourcing the most locally-grown, organic, heirloom Christmas tree, Panthy’s Garden has patiently been awaiting long-overdue attention. Winterizing Panthy’s Garden sort of hinges on having my roof put back together. Right now it looks like this:

Good news is, we settled on a tree brought down from Canada by weather resistant hippies who don’t mind living out of a trailer in the parking lot of my supermarket. Nice folks too!

It’s local in the sense that I bought it on my block and I didn’t use ANY fossil fuels dragging it back to my crib. Pretty good. Its heirloom status really depends on whether or not someone “inherits” it off the curb the week after Christmas, perhaps to celebrate a late, cheap Christmas? It’s up to you Brooklyn! Do the right thing!

In the tradition of being an environmental good doobie, I re-used almost all of my Christmas ornaments including such 70s Christmas classics as Yellow Beardy Lion and Disco Squirrel.

While I’m making half-assed excuses for not being more environmentally sound during my holiday, my damn neighbors are getting it done. Take for example this here solar-powered Christmas bush!

Or my favorite green garbage can receptacle with seasonally appropriate cabbage! They even thought to put a little yellow “Namaste” sign in there.

And lastly, there’s a brownstone a few doors down that is being gutted and turned into a passive house, which basically means it will be hyper insulated and energy efficient. 

The builder was also a bit passive in granting me an interview and/or any more information about it. But according to the renderings there will be CHICKENS  and a vertical garden on the roof terrace! I’ll be keeping a close eye on that.  

While my projects in the garden are on hold, I can tell you that Panthy’s Garden 2012 will be local. It will be solar (duh). And at times, depending on how negligent I get, it will may also be passive. Good for me. Happy holidays!

Don’t Let the Turkeys Get You Down

What’s been going on up in Panthy’s Garden? I’m glad you asked. Let’s have a look shall we?

Thanks to a persistent roof leak, we’ve had to get drastic. Completely-rip-up-the-roof-deck-drastic.

But despite how intense this looks, on the scale of whoop this is closer to no big whoop than it is to big whoop. As you can see the contents of the garden have been carefully crowded into the front half of the garden.

It is possible that sometime this week the weight of all my plants will pull the front of the building off, giving passersby a doll house view into my building where no doubt, someone will be caught washing dishes naked, or playing XBox with huge headphones on. Either way, wicked embarrassing.

If this was going down in August I’d be sobbing too hard to update you. But with every living thing in the garden nodding off into a wintery slumber, I couldn’t give two cares. Plus, St. Whatshisface is carefully watching over the last of my intentionally growing edibles; the lettuce trays.

God-willing, when spring arrives the roof will be fixed for good. And Panthy’s will be ready for action. In times like these, I pour myself a cup of chamomile tea, dump some whiskey in it and remember that great seasonal mantra of Thanksgiving: don’t let the turkeys get you down.

Portland, Oregon: The Other Brooklyn

Actually, not quite. Love of facial hair and prominent eyewear? Yes. Obsession with local, organic, awesome food? Yes. It might be Brooklyn if you replaced Mayor Bloomberg with a bicycle and swapped 30% of the street parking with hen houses. But that’s where the similarities stop.

There’s lots of things Portland has that Brooklyn don’t: a spooky elementary school converted into a complex of bars and restaurants, an overbearing deference to cyclists, and second run movie theaters that serve beer along with three dollar movies. 

The beards run strong there, as strong as their love for indoor shuffle board. I was told my beard looked “well-manicured” and I don’t think it was a compliment.

But this ain’t a blog about beards or shuffleboard or who jumped into my photos. This is about rooftop gardening. 

My pal mentioned he had one above his office. I could’ve imagined it in my head, a triple story temple of all things holy to hipsters: a roof garden, on top of a cool office for a high-end cycling apparel company ON TOP of a fucking plant nursery… with chickens. And an episode of Portlandia was just filmed in the backyard. All of which turned out to be completely true, even the Portlandia thing.

We rolled in on him finishing a PBR at his desk, surrounded by bikes and gear that I’d kill another man for, a nice man who didn’t deserve it. And then he took me to the roof. 

The owner wasn’t on hand to explain but it looked to be a green roof of succulents, sedums, and other tough-as-nails plants. Unlike my fleet of junky tomatoes, these guys were aimed at soaking up rainwater and insulating the building. And they looked great, even in their waining state. 

The view off the back was a reminder that this roof was just a tiny part of the bigger operation. And the view of the horizon seemed to hint at a great deal more of this type of thing going on throughout the city. 

Neighborhood after neighborhood of craftsman bungalows had gardens to match their charming, carefully selected paint schemes. It was downright impressive. 

So no, this ain’t New York. The police here don’t seem prone to tackling you off your bike. Gardening is more the rule than the exception. Raising chickens and riding your bike constantly is just what you do here. Growing a tomato on your roof in Portland is not a statement. It’s just nice.

It’s like the war has been fought and won there; a city filled with courteous, environmentally-minded people who have a harmless but strange appetite for innovative donuts and exotic dancers. I can’t hate it, not even close. But without the struggle what’s it all for? Oh, it’s for this: living in a godddamn urban paradise.

Photos by The Tear Sheet Project