September 16, 2012

Roots Grow More than a Green Thumb. ~ Monica Johnson

Rooftop NYC Farm Courts Memory

My internship at Eagle Street Rooftop Farm was the final piece of the puzzle for my return to New York City. My departure from NYC was a necessary event, but much like an ex you still have feelings for, I knew New York City and I weren’t completely over.

When I arrived back in NYC in early April of this year, I was ready to start my internship. I had been up to the rooftop garden once before, a few weeks earlier when I flew in for a working interview. During that trip, I remember feeling nervous and excited. When I walked into the “office” of the farm, located in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, there were about 25 other potential interns waiting anxiously. Annie Novak, the farm’s manager, arrived and filled us in on the details of the internship and then asked everyone to introduce themselves.

When my turn came, I decided to omit that I had recently killed an air plant, but did concede that I had no experience with gardening. Actually, that’s not completely true, I do have some experience, but not since I was a kid.

I must have been around nine years old when, for some reason that escapes me now, I became determined to have a garden.

I decided to use a small area of our yard that butted right up against the side of my childhood home. It was already mostly dirt and had been cordoned off by bricks. It was perfect for a kid who was experimenting with their green thumb. My parents must have helped me procure and plant the seeds.

I remember little of my childhood, but I do vividly remember the bountiful harvest I had that summer. My virgin green thumbs had produced massively sized zucchinis, tons of radishes, and probably a few other plants that have escaped my memory.

After introductions, we finally made our way to the rooftop garden, another level up from the farm office. There are two things one notices their first time at the rooftop farm: the breathtaking view of Manhattan and the evidence that bountiful plant life can indeed grow on top of a building. Climbing onto the actual roof for the first time, feels a bit like when you come off of a ship and you’re trying to find your sea-legs.

Annie gave a quick tour and then put us to work. She wanted us to have a clear idea of what we would be doing for the season, a lot of manual labor. Recently, the “eat local” movement has created an unrealistic picture of what it means to be a farmer. Actual farm work is far from the Norman Rockwell images conjured up by the elitist mothers who have found their patron saint in the aisles of Whole Foods. Farm work is in fact hard work. I know this first hand, because I come from generations of farmers.

The Johnsons have tilled the Missouri soil for years, sewing soybeans and wheat and raising Angus cattle. I used to love to visit the family farm when I was a kid. Living in the suburbs, it was a treat to go to the country. This feeling still holds true today as I yearn for the country if I’ve been in a city for too long.

One of the best parts about my childhood farm visits was driving the tractors. Well, not exactly driving, but steering. I would sit on top of an adult’s knee and steer the tractor down the rows and rows of wheat, while the adult worked the accelerator and brake.

When I was still in elementary school, my grandfather had a stroke that limited his ability to farm. My dad’s youngest brother, Charlie, dropped out of college to return home and run the family farm. He managed to keep the farm running, even after my grandfather passed away. However, after many years of struggling, he was finally forced to sell the land and replace his overalls with a suit.

Having a farm on a roof means that there is a limit to how much weight can come up on the roof, which means everything is done by human hand. The rooftop farm is a manageable six thousand square feet with 16 beds running north and south. These beds measure 30 inches to four feet in width and are divided down the middle by a single long aisle of mulched bark. These beds are made so that the average person can reach from one side to the other. The beds have a soil depth of about four to seven inches and the soil is composed of a mixture of compost, rock particulates and shale.

With shovels and rakes in hand, Annie instructed us on how to prep the soil to receive radish seeds. We pulled the dirt to each side, widening and flattening the bed at the same time. Next, we placed grids side by side and down the row. In each square of the grid, we made little indentions with our pointer fingers, about the depth of a belly button, and gently placed the seed in the soil. When planting seeds, a general rule of thumb is to place the seed in a hole thats depth is three times the thickness of the seed.

Once we planted the whole row, we removed the grids and gently tucked the seeds in with a layer of soil, patting hard enough to secure them in their new homes, but gently enough so as not to disturb them from their slumber. Just like a human baby, you must feed the seeds so they will become strong and healthy. Water is the most important thing you can give them, but you can also supplement their diet with compost, fish emulsion and various other added nutrients.

Radishes germinate in a matter of days and you will be able to see the green of the leaves popping through the soil very quickly. Depending on the type of radish, you can have a mature radish in 20-30 days.

As the fiery companions of heat and humidity begin to dissipate as August rolls into September, I think back beyond my first time at the rooftop farm, to over a year ago when I had first had the idea to intern at a farm. I have been attending the New School since the spring of 2007. My program has allowed me to maintain my peripatetic soul while slowly carving out a bachelor’s degree of liberal arts.

As the school’s food program grew, so too did my interest in it, switching my focus from psychology to the food system. As I did so, I started to re-connect with that same feeling I had as a kid that prompted me to start a garden. I didn’t just want to theorize about the food system among the concrete, I wanted to actually get my hands dirty. Maybe there is some primal connection when humans put their hands in dirt to grow something.  Maybe it’s a congenital trait in the Johnson family that has been passed to me from previous generation. As I start my final semester, uncertainty fills the air around my life I sit for a moment, to savor the summer that I spent at Eagle Street Rooftop Farm.


Monica Johnson has recently been described as a “peripatetic soul.” She has just started her last semester at The New School where she is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree. She loves hiking and puppies. She lives in Brooklyn, though she hopes one day to live in Maine.



Editor: Edith Lazenby

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