August 12, 1999
Old MacDonald Had a Penthouse
Up on the Roof (10 photos)
Join a Discussion on Gardening
By CHRISTOPHER MASON
HAT'S astounding to people is my Silver Queen corn,"
Barbara Schwartz said, pointing to a bumper crop -- 10
teeny ears -- growing 16 stories up on the terrace of her
Park Avenue penthouse.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Key Limes at the penthouse rooftop garden of George Gund.
Slide Show (10 photos)
So exotic is the spectacle of espaliered apples, wild strawberries, blueberries, sweet potatoes, purple basil, runner beans, garlic
and cabbages thriving in containers amid Manhattan skyscrapers
that visitors invited to admire Ms. Schwartz's contemporary art
often reserve their gasps for her over-the-top rooftop cornucopia.
Immaculately manicured in keeping with its owner's daunting
standards for esthetic perfection, this vegetable patch in the sky is
tended by Jon Carloftis, a landscape designer, who also set up a drip
irrigation system, which kicks in at 5:30 A.M., and it is harvested
daily by Ms. Schwartz's housekeeper, Beatrice Murry.
"My garden has to be as perfect as my living room," said Ms.
Schwartz, a decorator and art consultant, whose collection of vegetables vies for glory with works by Ross Bleckner, Cindy Sherman and
Julian Schnabel. "I can't stand to have anything that's not fresh. I'm
always out here pruning and deadheading before I go to work," she
added, pausing to garnish a glass of iced tea with a fresh sprig of
pineapple mint as she led a visitor on a summer tour of her potager.
"We have to clean the drains every day to avoid clogging."
Call it living off the land, penthouse style.
In a city with 11,788 retail food stores, 18,500 restaurants and 43
farmers' markets to support, scarcity of fresh produce is hardly the
motivation for New Yorkers to cultivate their own trophy rooftop
vegetables, from professionally tended Upper East Side orangeries
to walk-ups in Brooklyn where water is hauled up rickety ladders to
nourish minor forests of tomatoes and basil.
Folks in New Jersey may be siphoning bath water for their
lawns, but no such drought measures have reached this city, whose
reservoirs are close to normal capacity despite exceedingly dry
conditions. Some Manhattan vegetable gardens continue to thrive on
a 150-gallon-a-day habit, the equivalent of flushing a toilet 94 times. If
the situation changes, penthouse dwellers who run hoses full blast
may just have to resort to truckloads of Evian.
While the likelihood of roof crops being devoured by groundhogs
or deer is somewhat slim, achieving a plentiful harvest is far from
easy. Vigilant watering, pruning, sweeping, fertilizing and monitoring for blight and hungry insects -- let alone contending with co-op
restrictions on weight and watering -- are just a few of the
unscintillating chores for the aspiring rooftop farmer. And those who
lack the time or inclination to cultivate their own crops soon discover
that paying others to do it for them can be wildly expensive.
"I tell them it costs them $100 a tomato," said Tim Du Val, an
owner of Plant Specialists, a garden design company in Long Island
City, Queens. He cautions clients to avoid what he regards as the
folly of penthouse agriculture. "Most vegetables need a lot of room,
and they can suffer very easily if they go one day without water," he
noted. "And they come into season when you
can buy them anywhere." The going rate for
rooftop garden maintenance in New York
City ranges from $35 to $40 an hour for basic
labor to $50 to $75 an hour for a head
gardener. Elaborate penthouse vegetable
gardens might need 5 to 20 hours of attention a week in summer, a per-gardener cost
of some $700 to $4,000 a month.
"It's a lot cheaper to go to Balducci's, but
people really love it," said Mr. Carloftis,
who tends 24 rooftop gardens in Manhattan,
six of which are resplendent with fruits,
vegetables and herbs. "It's about a basic
human instinct," he added. "There's nothing like going out and eating a fresh tomato
off your own vine."
Even so, he conceded, people who spend
top dollar on rooftop maintainance are usually more interested in gazing at blooming
trees than in growing their own lunch.
For those with the means and the imagination, New York rooftop gardens can yield
an astonishing variety of delicacies. On the
three-greenhouse terrace of George Gund's
Fifth Avenue penthouse, he cultivates 34
types of vegetables, herbs and fruits, including figs, blood oranges, kumquats, key
limes, papayas and guavas.
"I'm kind of proud of it," said Mr. Gund,
an itinerant entrepreneur and philanthropist, calling from his private jet. "I'd like to
grow more but the building seems to object," he added, alluding to the management
at his co-op, which has also forbidden him to
install a drip irrigation system. Consequently, each plant and tree has to be hand-watered by his gardener, Marie-José Guepin, who spends about 12 hours a week
toiling on the terrace.
So far, Mr. Gund noted, his papaya and
guava trees refuse to yield fruit, but he is
hopeful. "If someone tells me something
won't grow, it just makes me more determined, he said. "I thrive on adversity." His
dream is to grow mangoes on Fifth Avenue.
On a brief trip to New York last month, he
seemed elated to discover that a kumquat
tree in a south-facing glasshouse on his
terrace is outproducing those he grows at
his estate in Palm Springs, Calif.
"Nurturing and growing things has always appealed to me," said Mr. Gund, who
said he enjoyed harvesting his family's
corn, plums, pears and peaches while growing up near Cleveland. That early pleasure
has evolved into a passion: when out of town
for extended periods, he has fruit plucked
and sent to him overnight by Federal Express. "Sometimes I just fly in for a couple
of hours to pick fruit," he added.
When the temperature soared to 105 degrees in Fifth Avenue's largest private penthouse garden, owned by a cosmetics tycoon
and his wife, the couple's head gardener
sprang into action, hosing down a bountiful
supply of grapes, cucumbers, herbs and
espaliered apples. Phebe Jane Moore is one
of two professional gardeners who tend the
spectacular 5,000-square-foot garden year
round, putting in some 40 hours a week
spring and fall. Behind each pristine crop
lurks a catalogue of vexing horrors. Apples
are prey to unsightly cedar-apple rust, borers, woolly apple aphids and apple scab.
They need spraying every two weeks. For
esthetically perfect apples, Ms. Moore
climbs a ladder early in the summer to thin
them so that they're six inches apart. "You
don't want them to touch each other and get
deformed," she said.
A seasoned horticulturist, Ms. Moore wryly remarked, "It's an artificial environment." Since the trees grow in chic but
restricting containers, each must be removed in November to have a quarter of its
roots pruned. It takes seven or eight people
working every day for two weeks to complete the job. The most laborious tasks are
the cleanup of fallen spring blossoms and
autumn leaves, when Ms. Moore spends long
days just sweeping.
Ms. Schwartz's cleanup can be equally
challenging. For three years, a mallard
duck, possibly drawn by the bounty, has
nested with her ducklings on Ms. Schwartz's
terrace, on the flight path from the Central
Park reservoir. "I started to think, 'This
will be great for my dinner parties -- 12
ducklings,' " she said of their novelty value.
But they were messy house guests. Exasperated, she called city authorities and was
put through to a number for endangered
wildlife. "They said, 'A duck's not an endangered species.' I said, 'This one's really
endangered cause I'm gonna kill her.' " Exit
the ducks, thanks to the city.
Neda Nickzad, a furniture designer, has
also felt the forces of nature. These days,
she uses a bucket, not a hose, to water
eggplants and tomatoes in the rooftop garden of her Perry Street apartment house.
Last year, water seeped through the roof,
causing extensive damage to her ceiling,
and she is taking no chances.
Across the street, a parched rooftop garden belonging to the supermodel Amber
Valletta serves as a cautionary reminder of
the perils of neglect. A lemon tree, which
yielded eye-catching fruit last year, is just
one casualty in a pitifully denuded rooftop
forest. After posing for Vogue amid the lush
persimmon, banana, avocado and plum
trees last summer for an article in which
she extolled the joys of nature, Ms. Valletta
seems to have moved on to other pleasures.
"My goal was for Amber to have enough
stuff growing on the roof to be able to feed
herself when she's in town," said David
Browne, a neighborhood florist, who stocked
Ms. Valletta's terrace garden.
Alas, not even a supermodel could be
sustained by the garden in its present state.
"We've watered for her before, but she told
us she didn't want us to," Mr. Browne said.
"She said she has to repair the roof."
Taking a decidedly more hands-on approach, Hans Steiner and Walter Swett,
Brooklyn roommates, first collected an eccentric array of plant containers -- drawers, restaurant containers and an old kitchen sink -- and then bought 40 50-pound bags
of soil. They hauled everything up four
flights of stairs and a steep metal ladder to
the roof of their apartment house in Boerum
Hill to create a garden that is overflowing
with cherry tomatoes, bell and jalapeño
peppers, basil and onions.
They also had to carry up daily supplies of
water until they purchased a hose, which
now snakes through the kitchen window and
up to the roof.
"We went a little overboard," said Mr.
Steiner, a computer expert at Razorfish, a
Web page design company.
Mr. Swett, who is the campaign finance
director for Representative Charles B. Rangel, added, "We innocently bought a little
flat of tomatoes, not quite realizing we had
so many or that they would grow so huge."
So what do they do with all that basil?
"We have people over for pesto," Mr. Swett
said. "It's a dream dinner party because it
only takes 10 minutes to make, and it's
Nancy and Michael Goldstein are just as
eager to dazzle visitors to their sophisticated, 2,500-square-foot rooftop garden on
Broome Street in SoHo, which abounds in
white peaches, cherries, grapes, blackberries and a multitude of herbs. "We're trying
to grow kiwis, without much success," Mr.
Goldstein said, peering at a pair of vines,
which embrace a picturesque wooden archway. "The female is not doing as well as the
male," he noted, ruefully.
Other specimens are thriving. "When we
have friends for dinner, we serve vanilla ice
cream and invite them to pick their own
fruit," said Mr. Goldstein, the president of
Infomax Trading Corporation. "When you
tell people they can go over and get a peach,
they get very excited."
Some may be impressed by rooftop corn,
but Mr. Goldstein is scornful of those who
would cultivate it in the city. "I've grown it
myself, and it's a waste of time," he said.
"You end up with four ears. Big deal."
He buys many of his seeds and plants
thriftily at suburban discount stores and
gardening centers. He gets fertilizer at
Price Club in Wayne, N.J., (973) 812-1803,
and his planters from Sitecraft, a Long
Island City company that makes roof decking and planters to order, (718) 729-4900.
Suspicious of the reliability of automatic
watering systems, Mr. Goldstein spends two
hours a day watering his garden in the
summer months. "If a drip system failed,
I'd lose a tree," he said.
As they fed each other succulent berries
in their urban Eden, the couple, who have
been married for 20 years, said they shared
the credit for the fruits of their labors. "I
plant, she edits," Mr. Goldstein said.
With the shade from their own fruit trees
and a rooftop pool, the couple seldom flee
the city during the summer. "It's Friday
night and everybody's heading for the
Hamptons," Mr. Goldstein said, savoring a
blueberry. "And I'm laughing."
Tips for Rooftop Farmers
ALL it shoehorn
gardening. Rooftop farmers without
the luxury of big
spaces can mix it up
in containers, Jon
Carloftis advises. He
Schwartz's corn in
with cabbages, string beans, tomatoes, strawberries
and sweet potatoes, whose vines cascade luxuriantly.
Marigolds planted between vegetables help control
pests. Mr. Carloftis fertilizes every two weeks with
an all-purpose 20-20-20 fertilizer: "The water system
leaches out the nutrients each day, and it's also very
intensive gardening, with multiple plantings that deplete the soil." The growing medium is a lightweight
mixture of peat moss, perlite, vermiculite and dehydrated cow manure, with a little bagged topsoil. Ms.
Schwartz grows weeping pines, cosmos and zinnias,
and pineapple mint and other herbs with beautiful
should be three inches off
the ground for drainage.
A class in rooftop and
terrace design will be
given by the Horticultural Society of New York,
128 West 58th Street, on
Sept. 15 at 6:30 P.M. The
cost is $28. Information:
A Web site, Windowbox.com, gives sound advice and sells specialized
urban garden products.