Every morning you can find my mom upstairs, tending to our rooftop garden, fully equipped with garden gloves, a wide brimmed hat and a hose in hand. They say Mom knows best, so here she is, doling out gardening advice and talking about plant sex. -Veronica
To our delight, the rooftop garden last year was a meeting place for buzzing bees, fluttering butterflies, vocal songbirds and, ahem, migrant workers – a colony of mail-order ladybugs that worked for food and board. Since we’re in a mid-rise building in Long Island City with plenty of sun, seasoned gardening experts assured us that bees and butterflies can still grace our plants. The bountiful abundance of vegetables — beans, tomatoes, peas, zucchinis, cucumbers, radish, lettuce, eggplants, pepper, green onion and a host of other experimental fruits and herbs — throughout May to October last year pretty much exceeded our expectations. We had enough not just to indulge in “flower pot to cooking pot” dining, but also to share with others. Our little baskets of fresh-cut garden produce became a great diplomatic gesture to reach out to our new neighbors in the community.
Ironically, the spacious backyards we had while living in the suburbs of California and New York did not yield nearly as much food or fun. Our yard was a source of frustration and costly maintenance – dealing with chauvinistic gardeners who habitually overbilled us for all types of “additional services” – from grass seeding, weeding, tree grooming and removal, lawn patching, grub-killing… Then we had to pay for all the supposed fertilization, replacement of sprinkler heads (knocked away by snow ploughs), not to mention weatherization.
We took the long growing season in Southern California for granted, and the 20-pound bags of fresh oranges for $5 from the weekend farmers market were not exactly an incentive to try growing edibles. While we did have some basil, cilantro and tomatoes, we focused more on fragrant species to perfume our yard. There were bushes of gardenias and sweet olives that rendered intoxicating aromas to welcome us home after a long day at work.
After moving from Los Angeles to a New York suburb a train ride away from Manhattan, our first attempt to grow produce and herbs was met with a rude awakening. Our vegetable patch was practically an all-you-can-eat salad bar for the neighborhood rabbits, deer, woodchucks and other cute but hungry animals. Our grueling work schedules, forced to accommodate to the Metro-North train times, made it difficult for us to devote time to our garden. We simply gave up planting vegetables and herbs and settled for amusement from the parade of animal visitors that dropped by.
Now that we have moved permanently to the city, we have actually become more inspired to make the most of our precious rooftop space. Lugging potting soil home was not exactly a breeze, and those planters are not cheap either. But we had this urge to maximize our outdoor space, and it’s still cheaper than our monthly payment to the gardener! This time around, we do not have any 4-legged animals dining on our salad bar. Frankly, I am still rejoicing about the liberation from our tyrant gardener. No mowing, blowing or sowing. Oh, and we have time saved from shorter commute.
Armed with the experience from year one, realizing what worked and what did not (which included a couple of short-lived yet beautiful banana trees and some succulents), we attempted to launch our indoor seed nursery in mid-April. Apart from being caretaker for these seedlings, Veronica has become more vigilant, playing chastity police to adolescent herbs, snipping any buds to prevent them from bolting (unwanted pregnancies) for healthier edible foliage.
Emboldened by other rooftop growers’ success in growing taller trees in spite of the wind, we added a collection of new trees – Asian pear, peach, jujube, cherry, persimmon and some colorful Japanese maple. We also installed a ladybug house behind a pear tree, offering deluxe accommodation for our visiting ladybugs.
Our delicate, fern-like asparagus grew stronger and taller, and our strawberries came back to our surprise. Other perennials woke up in the spring and exuded charm and beauty with colorful blooms like never before, and our blueberry plants are promising a bountiful crop.
But it really bothered us that our healthy heirloom tomato plants have not been bearing fruits. Unlike our Asian pear trees (we bought 2 to cross pollinate), tomato plants self-pollinate, and do not need cross pollination. It’s perhaps time for some human intervention! The “no-sex please” only applies to our herbs, and we totally want our fruit plants to be sexually active and fertile. Of course it is troubling that our bee population seems to be dwindling – and there seems to be no conclusive reason why. Let’s hope more bees will find their way to our rooftop soon.
After some research, we learned that we could use our electric toothbrush to perform pollination! Who knew – our Oral B toothbrush is a sex tool for our tomatoes! Hallelujah! After watching a how-to video online, my husband was thrilled with the idea and volunteered to offer experimental artificial pollination for our under-sexed plants, giving them some serious vibrations.
The idea that we’re artificially inducing the fruiting process is a bit weird. But hey, we need tomatoes. We crave for those deliciously sweet vine-ripened brandywine black beauties that possess a depth of tomato flavor you can’t find in any aisle of the supermarket. So, fingers crossed for some signs of success.
Our lesson learned here is that there are times we need to be involved with the reproduction process. We just hope that our crop can still be classified as “organic.”