April 23rd, 2014
12:00 PM ET
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Eatocracy's Managing Editor Kat Kinsman attempts to vegetable garden on a roof deck in Brooklyn, NY in USDA Hardiness Zone 6b. Feel free to taunt, advise or encourage her efforts as this series progresses.

I have a rotten knack for turning any pleasurable pastime into an exhausting and pricey project and in doing so, sucking all the joy and fun out of it. Gardening is no different.

It started in college as a cheap, meditative hobby that kept me grounded in the midst of academic mayhem, and occasionally introduced a vitamin or two into my ramen-based body. The undertakings grew grandiose and far less calming as I got older and set down roots in futon-free apartments with my name actually on the lease.

What was once a matter of nestling dollar store seeds into soil-filled buckets on the roof, or poorly deer-proofing my $15-per-year community garden plot next to the town's sewage treatment plant, became an expensive indulgence. Then it became an obligation.

New York City has a way of cooping up its people in little containers, stacked neatly just a few feet from one another, but never cross-pollinating. For a big chunk of my late twenties and early thirties, I freelanced from home and did the usual amusing, but dead-end dating. I'd often go days at a time chatting with friends and potential fellas online, but remain mute, save for a croaked-out "thank you" when the cashier at the coffee shop handed me my usual egg and cheese sandwich.

In my Brooklyn apartment building where pets were disallowed, a living, budding, blooming gnarl of tomato vines was the closest thing I had to steady companionship. The responsibility for their upkeep was a passion and a distraction – and then something began to wither. I'm pretty sure it was my sanity.

I'd gotten to a point where I'd begun to invest some serious cash in hardware devoted to my hobby: an indoor growing cart with lights, an elaborately-hung chandelier of containers strung from my fire escape (the landlord had a thing or two to say about that), mail-ordered heirloom seeds from far-flung lands and all manner of eco-friendly, pesticides, fertilizers and organic tinctures.

And yeah, I sang to the plants. It’s not as if anyone was going to hear.

But about ten years ago, I dated a man who dumped me at the height of tomato season. Sad, sure, but he’d never especially dug my dirt fetishism. OK, scratch that, he was kind of a jerk about it.

He mocked my belief that even though Datil peppers are never going to answer back, they're happier when sung little ditties about the Scoville heat index. There were loud harrumphs at the suggestion that we hit a later movie showing so I could shlep home to water my okra before the midday blaze. I was often accused of anthropomorphizing. (There are worse crimes against the world.)

In the past, I’d certainly managed to cultivate love and lettuce at the same time without either withering, and I know now that not getting (or at least mildly tolerating) my obsessions means that you just don’t get me.

But at the time, I was considerably less clear-headed and Teflon-hearted about the rejection. It seemed like an indictment against my entire being and the possibility of anyone ever loving it, and I needed to get some miles between myself and the weird little home I’d made.

Minutes after the final hang-up, I was on an airline website. My finger hovered over the “purchase” button for a flight to Reno, when it occurred to me that in my fragile state, missing him and my grown-from-seed tomatoes at the same time would be just too much to bear.

I stayed in Brooklyn, and it was lucky that I did, as I spent the bulk of the ensuing weekend battling a nasty and garden-wide bout of late leaf blight. I sat on my fire escape until daylight, with swiftly diseased leaves and branches crumbling in my hands like teeth falling out in a fever dream. I was at the doors of the garden store the moment they opened in the morning, and at home in a matter of minutes, dousing all visible foliage with a fairly serious copper fungicide.

The plants bounded back. The gentleman in question did not.

And midway through the winter, my heart began to thaw to someone new. He cleared space on his windowsill for some thyme I’d grown for him. A year later, he insisted to the real estate broker that our new apartment have space outside where I could plant a proper garden.

He built raised growing beds on the roof deck, hauled sacks of soil up the stairs and smiled at the wedding vow in which I made him promise to put up with my strange food and gardening experiments unto the end of all time. And of course I got weird about it.

In some rough and rocky part of my psyche, I’d planted the seed that if this new garden didn’t flourish, I’d be failing at a lot more than fennel, corn, melons, squash, potatoes, beans and tomatoes. So I charted and plotted, composted and calibrated, de-slugged and weeded, deadheaded and obsessed until my now-husband came out to find me slump-shouldered and sobbing next to a blight-leafed Black from Tula tomato plant I’d been unable to save.

“I can’t feed us,” I said. “We can go to the store right down the street,” he said, and hugged me.

And the next spring, instead of painstakingly tucking seeds into multi-celled flats of peat pellets to germinate indoors under grow lights, taking soil pH readings and hand-tweezing aphids from my Beaver Dam pepper leaves, I threw caution to the wind.

I tossed seeds in the dirt, got my nails dirty only when I felt like it, and watered and weeded from time to time. Not everything made it, but all in all, I enjoyed the best, biggest, brightest bounty of produce of any season yet.

All I had to do was step back and let it happen.

This is the year you garden
Tubers on the roof
Letting failure bloom
A kernel of wisdom

soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. Vivian Wright

    I had a home for many years in the Luberon region of France, where I became enamored of the light, the food and, of course, the gardens. I now live in Florida, and when renovating, I wanted to bring a bit of Provence into my home and garden. Imagine my joy when I walked into Authentic Provence in West Palm Beach (also online at http://authenticprovence.com). The owners have sourced the most incredible French and Italian garden antiques and products: statues, fountains, planters (note especially the classic Caisse de Versailles, and Anduze pottery), terra cotta shields, stone animals, copper pots, garden spouts, and on and on. They have created an environment that took me right back to many afternoons spent in the beautiful homes and gardens of Provence. They are also very helpful in giving advice and even sourcing special items, and can arrange shipping anywhere in the USA. I highly recommend this business!

    July 8, 2014 at 1:56 pm |
    • Right Viivianaut

      Your feble attempt to hijack an old thread is amusing. Is your business failing?
      Thanks for your self(ish) promotion.

      July 8, 2014 at 2:26 pm |
  2. Cat Lover

    There is simply nothing better than a tomato sandwich from a homegrown (sometimes misshapen) tomato, still warm from the sun.

    May 13, 2014 at 9:07 am |
  3. laurenhooper18

    A whole new perspective on gardening! I love this blog. If anyone is interested in the sustainable gardening movement or learning gardens, you should check out Cayisa at http://www.cayisa.com, or the blog at http://www.cayisa.wordpress.com!

    May 1, 2014 at 9:56 am |
  4. marisab67

    I could read pages of this stuff. My 3 x 3 space on my porch gives me such joy and is a science lesson every time. MAGIC is really what it is. Happy plucking!

    April 25, 2014 at 10:09 am |
    • Kat Kinsman

      It's really fun to know that other people out there get as much from their gardens as I do. Sure, we're a little goofy, but it's good for us.

      April 27, 2014 at 12:28 am |
  5. Thinking things through

    Great article, stimulated a lot of thoughts here, I see. Two years ago I planted zucchinis. I'd been told, do no more than TWO (2) plants. Otherwise you'll be overrun. I did three. Nada. Nothing. Zip.

    Oh, they flowered like crazy. But not one single one turned into a zucchini. I can grow cucumbers here, so I don't understand this. By mid September I realized that any flowers that bloomed from then on weren't going to have a chance with cold weather coming on, to make zukes. So I picked the last flowers and made fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with goat cheese... Anyhow, I'm great with peas, and with volunteer raspberries - birds planted those, not I. And I can't keep the Jerusalem artichokes at bay...

    April 24, 2014 at 5:59 pm |
  6. hellojustme

    Singing (or just talking) to your plants is a good thing. The little fellers are enjoying and ingesting the carbon dioxide of your breath. So keep singing – they are not critics!

    April 24, 2014 at 5:54 pm |
  7. Truth™

    LOVE the article, and I also love how you make it clear that anyone significant in your life WILL accept your gardening. I have always had a cat and was always amused when any woman thought that she could get into my heart without first accepting the feline...ain't going to happen...

    April 24, 2014 at 3:35 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      One thing that I learned through dating is how important it is to be honest with yourself about what you can and cannot do without. I realized that I had to be with someone who understood and appreciated my weird passions, even if they didn't share them.

      April 24, 2014 at 5:23 pm |
  8. Ally

    Love this article! That's totally me...every Spring excitedly planting seeds inside and hoping they live long enough to even give me a couple of vegetables at the end of the season.

    April 24, 2014 at 3:30 pm |
  9. relmfoxdale

    My balcony garden is very lush and green. Alas, none of my flowers are turning into food. My jalapeno has put out loads of blossoms that have died and fallen off again. Hopefully, the below-ground stuff is doing better. I have massive potato plants.

    April 24, 2014 at 2:33 pm |
    • marisab67

      I had that happen last year because I didn't get any pollenators. This year I bought some different things to attract more bees and birds. Maybe this is the case for you?

      April 25, 2014 at 10:05 pm |
  10. Serge Storms

    In a garden you can do 100 things right and one thing wrong and lose the crop. But it's worth the effort, keep trying and you'll figure it out. Nothing beats fresh, pesticide free vegetables straight from the garden.

    April 24, 2014 at 9:12 am |
  11. Tully

    "with swiftly diseased leaves and branches crumbling in my hands like teeth falling out in a fever dream." Fantastic description. I know exactly what you mean.

    April 23, 2014 at 9:20 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      It was 10 years ago, and I still just remember sitting there feeling utterly helpless.

      April 23, 2014 at 11:36 pm |
      • ∞ Weeds ∞

        Reminds me of my first experience with cucumbers in a insecticide free garden. Devastating cucumber wilt.
        I use the plant and forget philosophy with my flowers and landscape plants. If they don't grow, they weren't meant to be there.

        May 1, 2014 at 11:14 am |
  12. gstlab3

    The most dangerous information to get out into public hands is the fact you can "grow your own" and live off the land and you do not need a government to make it happen and you do not have to pay a giant corporation to do it for you.
    grow your own, free your mind, free the planet!

    April 23, 2014 at 8:40 pm |
    • jcs6

      But my HOA won't allow me to raise and slaughter my own cows.

      April 23, 2014 at 8:47 pm |
      • CJ

        What?? Man, these HOAs get more and more restrictive!!

        April 24, 2014 at 3:07 pm |
  13. clint

    We live in a society where much of the joy of raising a garden seems lost to much of a "next" generation elsewhere, here in the mid-Ohio/WV. river valley areas ,,raising a garden and canning and freezing are much alive and well, de-rigor behaviors for all of us, county markets, vegetable stands....fresh sweet corn of every variety imaginable and all kinds of "heirloom" tomatoes. Its a little bit of heaven if you want squash, rhubarb and spring onions and ramps are all prevalent right now....so yea...I've been digging in the garden over 60 years and I LOVE to see what does and doesn't prosper based on weather and deer feeding....Still fun

    April 23, 2014 at 8:01 pm |
    • jcs6

      If you can get more than 5 people under 30 to do the same thing, the tradition might continue.

      April 23, 2014 at 8:48 pm |
  14. jcs6

    Weed is way easier to grow.

    April 23, 2014 at 7:54 pm |
    • clint

      Plenty that too SHHHHH!

      April 23, 2014 at 9:04 pm |
  15. MicheleG™


    April 23, 2014 at 4:11 pm |
  16. Arthur in the Garden!

    Funny! Yes, I seem to sink much money into plants, as well!

    April 23, 2014 at 3:59 pm |
  17. RC

    Wow Kat. Great read-thanks! My wife is actually going through a little of the same trials and tribulations. It's a little funny to see her obsess over her "babies". She say's "Look, I'm growing a salad!"

    April 23, 2014 at 3:47 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      I totally get that! The THRILL of seeing the tiny tomatoes is tremendous.

      April 23, 2014 at 4:20 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

      Tomatoes are friggin great. Back in high school when we lived on the farm for 2 years in SD, we had a massive garden (and apple trees). I would eat so many tomatoes and apples I was surprised I didn't constantly have the runs.

      April 23, 2014 at 4:45 pm |
      • sam stone

        homegrown tomato sandwiches are awesome

        May 3, 2014 at 5:52 am |
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