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August 12, 1999

Old MacDonald Had a Penthouse


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  • Up on the Roof  (10 photos)

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    By CHRISTOPHER MASON
    WHAT'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 impressive."

    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

    C ALL it shoehorn gardening. Rooftop farmers without the luxury of big spaces can mix it up in containers, Jon Carloftis advises. He planted Barbara 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 flowers. Containers 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: (212) 757-0915.

    A Web site, Windowbox.com, gives sound advice and sells specialized urban garden products.




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