If you were contemplating a garden for the summer and haven’t planted seed number one take heart, you can still grow plenty of veggies, herbs and flowers this summer. Yes, even tomatoes. We chatted with Annie Novak, co-founder of Eagle Street Rooftop Farm and the author of The Rooftop Growing Guide, about how to get a garden started right now.
Can I still have tomatoes I grew myself this summer if I don’t have any in the ground right now? And, how do I successfully grow them in a container?
If you’re starting your season late, look for crops that mature within the time frame of your growing season. For example, many tomatoes will bear fruit within 55 – 90 days, depending on which variety you are growing. If the transplant doesn’t have a tag that says how long it takes to grow, you can look up the variety online and look for the phrase “days to harvest.” Then just do the backwards math of how many days you have left until the frost. In New York City, we typically get our first really cold weather around Halloween through Thanksgiving. A hybrid cherry tomato like Sungold will start bearing fruit within 55 days, and continue to bear fruit for a couple of weeks after. If you plant them as transplants on June first, you will have tomatoes as early as late July/early August, and they’ll fruit for about a month afterwards.
Container growing depends on a lot of variables: the material and size, the growing media you use, how much sun (and heat!) your site gets, etc. The key thing is drainage! Make sure water can move through your soil, as well as air. Healthy soil promotes bigger populations of the right microorganisms. The microorganisms in your growing media are the key to plant health–it’s those tiny guys that control pH, the ability of your plants to access mineral nutrients, and keep the growing media healthy so your plants stay healthy. You’ll know if your growing media is too dry or too waterlogged by the look, feel and smell. I spend all of Chapter Four in The Rooftop Growing Guide giving “the dirt” on rooftop soil, focusing on the best techniques in containers and growing on green roof systems.
It’s been such a mild spring I think a lot of us sort of forgot to do anything about a garden until recently. How can we catch up?
It’s never too late to plant! Succession planting is the technique of planting a crop or a set of different crops within the same season. Typically speaking, any crop you eat for the root, stem or leaf you can plant twice within a season; plants that you harvest for the fruit, flower and seed–the last plant parts that a crop grows–do best planted once. For example, you can plant lettuce in the spring, plant your tomatoes between the lettuces, harvest the lettuces, then plant lettuces again underneath them in the fall: leaf, fruit, leaf. If you’re looking for tips and techniques, chapter seven of The Rooftop Growing Guide covers how to manage this technique.
What are the specific challenges to growing on a rooftop in NYC and what are some good bets for a rooftop, or deck garden that doesn’t get a ton of shade?
Extreme conditions can be trying on plants. There are a few simple workarounds. First, start with a higher volume container, which helps stop the growing media (your off-the-ground soil) from cooking. Five gallons and up is my recommendation. Second, if you’re using a basic potting mix, add in compost, which helps with water retention. Water also adds weight, so do so carefully. Finally, if your plants are really struggling, continue to select for plants that handle hot growing conditions well. After years of trying to grow perfect tomatoes, I switched to their plant family cousins, peppers. Peppers can handle the heat a lot better than tomatoes. You have to work with what you’ve got!
Do you have advice on what to look for when you’re buying young plants, instead of starting from seeds? How important is it to go organic on these?
In The Rooftop Growing Guide, I emphasize the fun and freedom of starting from seeds because of how much it opens up your options for the varieties of plants you can grow. Growing plants from seeds is an art and science in its own right–it’s fascinating and terrifically empowering. It’s okay to start from transplants, too. Sometimes you don’t have the time or the right quality of light to start plants from seeds. When you buy transplants, flip over the container and check that roots aren’t growing out of the bottom–a sure sign they’ve been in the nursery for too long. Check that the leaves are healthy looking (varies plant to plant, but typically there’s not odd discoloration along the veins, tips, or older or younger sets of leaves). I prefer to purchase organic because I don’t want to inherit any practices from the nursery grower that I don’t practice on my own farm and garden. Honestly, most transplants are sprayed in some way or another before they get to you. It’s a big reason why I start my plants from my own seeds.