Mother Earth Living

Down to Earth: Sal's Rooftop Garden

By Jim Long
April/May 2007
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Illustration by Brian Orr


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My friend Sal arrived in the Ozarks in 1974 straight out of college, never before having been outside of New York City. Sal saw himself as some sort of pioneer, honestly believing anything west of New York was literally “Out West.” 

Sal had been hired as a set designer for a community theater and spent several years in that position. Over the years I learned to appreciate his skills at turning ordinary materials into lavish, fantastical backdrops for plays.

From Sal I learned that garden design isn’t really different from designing a set for a play, only one is on canvas and the other in dirt. In a play, you have a viewing angle, a backdrop, lighting and furniture, all set around a theme. Likewise, in a garden you have “furniture” consisting of plant shapes, colors and accent pieces, possibly some sculpture and lighting. And you have a natural background that can help make the garden come to life.

My friend’s creativity extended to the kitchen. He could turn simple ingredients into stunning dinner presentations based on his Italian grandmother’s recipes. However, Sal found himself longing for the fresh produce from New York’s markets.

“How can people cook here without fresh basil? And tomatoes! Do people really eat those tomato-like things from the grocery store?” he asked.

I decided to teach Sal a bit about growing his own produce, but since he lived on the third floor of the theater, finding a garden spot was a challenge.

The rest of the staff who lived in the theater’s apartments used the flat roof above the third floor as a patio. The only access to the roof was to crawl out the third floor window and warily climb an iron ladder that clung to the ancient brick wall. Once on the roof, you found a spacious, asphalt-covered, flat surface surrounded by a waist-high wall.

“Perfect for growing my basil and tomatoes,” Sal said.

Sal carted containers of soil up the ladder one at a time until he had enough to fill three patio pots. He carried fertilizer, water, and finally, two healthy tomato plants and one hearty sweet basil.

Once established in the pots, the plants thrived. Sal was attentive, seeing that the plants had full sun, checking to see if they needed water and giving them encouragement each day. Every bit of water or fertilizer had to be carried up the ancient ladder on the side of the building, and Sal lovingly tended to the plants as if they were his pets.

Eventually the tomato plants had tomatoes setting on and Sal wondered how he would know when to harvest them. I assured him he would know by the tomatoes’ color and fragrance. I encouraged Sal to begin using the basil as soon as the plant was vigorous and bushy, explaining the more he harvested the plant the better it would grow and produce.

One day he called me on the phone. “Jim, you have to come over. Something is wrong with the tomatoes.”

After looking over the tomatoes, I told Sal one tomato had a tomato worm. I was about to explain that all he needed to do was remove the worm and destroy it, but Sal, who still believed he was living in a primitive frontier environment, made a face, said, “Eww!” He declared he would not eat a tomato that had a horrid monster clinging to it. Before I could stop him, he picked up the tomato pot and dropped it down to the alley below.

Stunned, I yelled, “Sal, don’t kill the plant just because of one worm! It’s part of the process of gardening!”

But Sal would not be deterred. If gardening meant living with worms, he would live without tomatoes. Within seconds, the other potted tomato was airborne and landed on the pavement below.

I reached for the basil plant and held it close. “Sal! Tomato worms don’t get on basil. Grow this on your windowsill.”

And he did. For the rest of that summer, Sal harvested fresh basil from his windowsill and made wonderful sauces and stuffed mushrooms and delicious dishes for his friends to enjoy. But he never spoke of wanting to learn about gardening again.

Fortunately, most budding gardeners aren’t so rash as to throw the tomato worm, plant included, off the rooftop. Most of us realize the very things that attract us to a particular plant—flavor, color or fragrance—are the same components that attract the plants’ pests. But we learn to adapt, unlike my friend, Sal.


Contributing editor Jim Long adapts to anything he finds in his Ozarks Mountains garden. Contact him at www.herbcompanion.com/contributors .


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