Inside Stories

The accidental fire-escape gardener

By Amanda Green  | November 12, 2010 - 7:31AM

The temperature has bottomed down to the 30s this week, but I can still see a tiny bit of green and a shock of red on my fire escape--a reminder that just as form influences function, an apartment can change your life in unexpected ways.

I never set out to become a New York City gardener. I certainly didn’t have the equipment. My windows all face alleys less sunny than the street. I don’t have a balcony or a coveted backyard. Not to mention the fact that I’d tried to keep allegedly low light plants before, and they’d all died. The one plant I had in my apartment was a snake plant from Ikea that I began to suspect was artificial.

Then someone from a home garden company found my blog, Noisiest Passenger, about my misadventures in love, work, and public transportation and asked if I’d like to be a garden blogger. When I saw the email I muttered something like, “Incompetent PR people…” Why would anyone ask me to be a garden blogger? The only grass at my place of residence was being consumed by a downstairs neighbor. I said as much in my reply.

“Besides,” I typed. “The closest thing I have to a balcony is a fire escape.”

Lemons to lemonade, the home garden company, Burpee Home Gardens, sent two gigantic boxes of plants my way. I was expecting seed packets, not stems and leaves and such. I put them on the fire escape, cursing the soil scattered all over the hallway where I’d unpacked them. Within a day, the herbs started to shrivel in the May sunlight. I sequestered them to the shadier side of the kitchen windowsill. They died anyway.

The tomato and pepper plants, however, thrived. Before long, they produced fruit that by normal garden standards must be tiny. By Manhattan standards, they were marvelous – not freaky, but artisanal in their tininess.

After realizing that my thumb wasn't as black as I thought, the garden became a bit of an obsession. I lugged water in a gigantic container from the kitchen sink to the thirsty plastic mouths of their pots, scratching my legs and back as I squatted to get out of the rusty living room window and onto the fire escape. (I was lucky not to get tetanus). I replanted my garden in new terra cotta pots and bought plant nutrient sticks. When friends visited, I asked if they’d like to see my garden. There weren’t many takers. It was probably due to the contorting required to shimmy out the window and onto the rickety fire escape three stories in the air. I also blamed my peeping neighbor across the alley who has been known to stand behind his sink and “do dishes” for hours.

Few people in my Harlem neighborhood seemed to appreciate the fire escape as part of an apartment’s square footage. It could be that I live so close to Central Park North, which is large, verdant, and maintained by some other tool-dragging fools. Or maybe my neighbors knew that what I was up to was illegal. Fire escape gardens and grills are charming, but they block egress. I figured that slow people in front of me on the subway stairs also block egress, and I haven’t seen anyone die yet. Let the produce get produced.

Boy, did it. The tomatoes grew faster than I could eat them. Well, actually, I don’t even like tomatoes, so faster than I could pawn them off on friends. I never thought to worry about typical garden pests. If anything, I was concerned that someone might notice the cracked window and try to break through the window guard. I checked a few times each night to make sure it was secure.

I was working at my desk early one evening, when I saw a shadow creeping down the fire escape steps toward my window. My body tensed. The window was wide open, and I was only two feet from whoever was out there and coming from the fourth floor.

A tiny black foot touched down. Then another. Followed by a ringed tail.  I stood up abruptly, and the raccoon ran back up the fire escape. So much for not worrying about garden pests. This one had come from Central Park to rummage through alley garbage, but stumbled upon a small-scale farmer’s market.

Now the days are getting shorter and cooler. A vine of cherry tomatoes rests on the window air conditioner unit that hasn’t been used in months. Each morning, I expect to peek out the window to see the dried grayish remains of the garden. They can’t possibly survive much longer, and there’s no way they’ll make it inside.

On the other hand, these plants are New Yorkers. They can make it anywhere. I climb out the window in my coat and water them again.

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