By Erin Walsh
It started with a call to action from famed organic foodie and Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters.
Then in March, First Lady Michelle Obama announced plans to plant a vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House.
Blame it on the recession, the growing sustainability movement or the simple desire to grow great-tasting produce close to home, but gardening, a once-passé pastime that was mainly relegated to women of a certain age and reminiscent of an earlier, less complicated era, is cool again.
Now it’s not only hip to garden, but also to grow plants and produce in the unlikeliest of urban areas. In the case of Astoria resident Jen Rock, one half of the blogging duo behind “Kate & Jen’s Urban Garden,” that means planting crops on the rooftop of her apartment near Steinway Street and 25th Avenue.
Rock and fellow Astorian Kate Taylor, both graduates of New York University, launched their blog in March to educate fellow urbanites about the how-tos of gardening and the health and environmental benefits derived from the pastime.
Rock, a New Jersey native and longtime foodie who plans to obtain a master’s degree in nutrition, confesses that she’s a bit miffed about the sudden cachet of gardening.
“I was kind of a little indignant because I’ve been doing this all along, and now it’s trendy,” she said. “It’s also something that I enjoy. It’s very peaceful to just garden. I’m hard at work, and I can just escape to the roof and there’s all this greenery that I’ve grown.”
When Rock moved to Astoria from Greenpoint a year and a half ago, she made it her mission to find an apartment that had rooftop access to assemble her 12-by-6-foot garden, which has roughly 20 species of crops, including everything from arugula and fava beans to poha berries (giant cape gooseberries) and avocados.
The rooftop location of Rock’s garden is ideal in terms of attracting sunlight. Less than ideal are the weight constraints imposed by the location and the balancing act of hauling watering cans to the roof several times a day, she said. Then, there’s the occasional critter attack that accompanies urban gardening that Rock witnessed firsthand when some apparently health-conscious squirrels were “attacking the avocados,” she said.
Taylor, a native of Massachusetts, maintains a 24-by-10-foot garden that is divided into four sections, at her apartment near the Broadway stop on the N-W line.
The communitarian aspects of urban gardening appeal to Taylor, a travel agent who plans to go back to school for museum exhibit design.
“The joy is having some reason to go outside each day and forces you to talk to your neighbors,” she said. “It’s also nice in a multi-generational neighborhood.”
Transforming her previously overgrown plot of land into a garden that contains sections devoted to beans and legumes, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants and a rotating section dedicated to herbs has also earned Taylor the respect of her superintendent.
Thanks to composting, Taylor has cut the amount of trash she produces in half, by reusing waste such as eggshells and coffee grounds.
“It’s a continuous thing,” she said. “You keep it in a little bowl, and I spread it around the area [on] a new crop. You can talk to local coffee shops, and they’ll donate [coffee grounds] to you.”
The duo’s blog, which can be found at gardeningqueens.com, contains photos of their crops, entries devoted to adventures in gardening, recipes and suggested reading for aspiring urban gardeners. In the winter months, Rock plans to add tips on how to preserve homegrown foods and pointers on freezing and canning.
Ten new readers visit the site per day, said Rock, adding that her and Taylor’s experience proves that anyone can garden, providing that they assemble a basic knowledge base.
Along with expanding her garden next year, Rock hopes to inspire other Gotham-dwellers to embrace the eco- and potentially budget-friendly pursuit.
“I would love to see more gardens around New York,” she said. “It always makes me happy to see new people planting vegetables in front of their apartments.
Taylor would like “Kate & Jen’s Urban Garden” to become a valuable community resource and a connection to the outdoors for New Yorkers, by eventually adding information on day trips, classes and volunteerism to the site.
“That’s what gardening is — it’s not just about the food, but getting away from city life,” she said.