Where’s Your Rooftop Garden?

Parked in the garage, maybe, or wagging to go for a walk?

The New York Times yesterday had a big, pretty feature in the Home section on rooftop gardens in the city. It told the stories of four different families and the lengths they’ve gone to to establish their paradisiacal footholds in the inhospitable stratosphere of the Big Apple, from scrounging through dumpsters for discarded ficus trees to hauling 200-pound pots from home to home to watering for an hour and a half a day. The gardens are gorgeous, leafy refuges full of endearing personal touches—a beloved pet’s (or husband’s) ashes scattered amongst planters, sky-high grape arbors, fountains, full-grown fruit trees. One couple, Michael and Nancy Goldstein, discuss the demands their urban Eden has put on them since Michael began it with a sandbox, a wading pool and a few houseplants back in 1972. “You can’t just go away and leave it,” he told the Times. “You have to find someone to take care of it and teach them how to do it properly. That’s not always easy.” To which Nancy adds, “I always wonder what our life might have been like without the garden.” When I read that, I laughed out loud.

Everybody, I’ve come to realize, has a rooftop garden. All right, maybe not a rooftop garden, but a large, demanding dog, say, or a prized old house that constantly needs repairs, or a 1959 Corvette—a burden that roots us, that keeps us anchored to one place, literally or figuratively. It may not require the extreme upkeep of the Gothamists’ gardens, but it causes us to contemplate, as Mrs. Goldstein says, “where we would have gone or who we might have become” without it. We ask those questions even as we nibble the sweet peaches and grapes our labor yields.

The gardeners in the Times story have had roots push through their rooftops, wind and heat wreak havoc, landlords hack their handiwork down. One couple whose parterre is particularly arid named their son Issouan, the Berber word for “water.” The members of this sky-high club share a special madness, a foliar folie that starts so simply, with the longing for, perhaps, a nice homegrown tomato. Somehow, it never stops. The tomato becomes a row of corn becomes water lilies in a koi-filled artificial pond. Children grow and leave; partners die and are planted. Still, they plow on, exemplars of everything that astounds and confounds about the human condition, aerial Ahabs tethered to their great green whales.