Emily Myers for Brick Underground
Yoav Borsuk, an internal medicine specialist, uses his Brooklyn roof deck to grow fruits and vegetables, including okra, beans, carrots, and eggplant. He calls the lush oasis his “pride and joy.” Here he shares the lessons he's learned from cultivating and cooking his produce.
We bought the house in Park Slope eight years ago and back then it had a slanted roof, so we converted the attic into a usable room with access to a flat roof. We put down pavers and installed railings and the roof access has windows on both sides and serves as a greenhouse. I have zero gardening experience—my dad was a mechanic and I grew up in an apartment in Israel—so it’s just been trial and error.
It’s not organic but I try to avoid sprays. Sometimes I sit in the evening and remove bugs by hand. What I learned is that if you wait a couple of weeks, the ladybugs come and take care of the aphids for you.
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Can you grow vegetables on a NYC roof deck?
I am fascinated by okras because they are beautiful plants and they have beautiful flowers. They flower for about eight hours and then they are gone, but they keep on giving. You cut off the okra and they keep coming back.
I began with raised planters, which we put together from a kit. I also have a simple irrigation system but when Covid started I was on the roof every day, watering the plants so I turned off the irrigation system and I’ve been too lazy to put it back. I can recommend the pots I use—they are Canadian and made from recycled tires and have a reservoir of water in the base so you don’t have to water the plants every day. They are also lighter and cheaper than other pots. I also have similar planters made from fiberglass—they are made by a friend who is a landscaper—and they have a reservoir, which helps with the watering.
I’ve also learned that a lot of plants need less soil than you think. You really just need sun and water. The roof obviously gets a lot of sun. It feels very serene.
What vegetables grow well in Brooklyn?
I love growing vegetables no one else is growing. How many people grow okra in Brooklyn, especially red okras? They grow to about eight feet so you have to be careful if it’s windy. And they will die back completely in the winter. They can be vulnerable if there is a cold snap. Everything I grow—apart from the strawberries and fig tree—is grown from seed each year.
I want to use all the space I have, so I have beans growing on the railings and in between the air conditioning condensers. As they get taller I weave the stalks a little bit between the railings and direct them where to go. I grow a long bean called bora. I was given the seeds by a nurse originally from Guyana—she’s been growing these beans in the Bronx for 30 years. It’s a hardy, tough plant and it produces so many beans. She recently renovated her place and her plants died so she actually came back to me to get some more seeds.
I have long red beans, green beans, butter beans, asparagus beans. This year I got a little crazy with beans. I grow Swiss chard, basil, bok choy, eggplant, radishes, and kale in the raised planters. I also experimented with za’atar, a herb from Israel from the thyme family which is growing well. In pots I have tomatoes, peppers, okra, and also a fig tee, which should really be in the yard but there’s not enough sun there. I get about five or ten figs a year.
I learned not to give up on anything. Spinach I haven’t had much luck with, but this year I was able to grow pickling cucumbers for the first time. Carrots look like nothing when they start—a tiny blade of grass—but then you get the feathery tops. Bok choy is the easiest to grow and it grows very quickly.
When should I plant vegetables in NYC?
One thing I have learned is that I never start the seeds early enough. I begin with lettuce and peppers. You can start seeds when it is cold in March or April and you can also grow some vegetables in the late fall—for example, I planted carrots in late August and they will grow as it gets colder—you can pull them up when it is cold.
I start the seeds indoors where they get a lot of sun at the top of the stairs. They don’t always grow, of course. The reason I have so many okra this year is because I had a few seeds left and I thought most of them would not sprout but all of them sprouted.
How do you cook beans and okra?
Our freezer is full of beans and okra. We have so many vegetables we have to give them away. Usually we make a stir fry with the delicate beans. So if I cut them small I make a stir fry and we eat them quickly. If they get bigger, I’ll make soup. If I forget about them and they are very tough, I dry out the seeds and save them for planting the following year.
I’m not a huge fan of okra, it can be quite slimy, but we discovered if you cut them in half lengthwise, add some olive oil and seasoning, and grill them, or put them in the air fryer for 10 minutes, they taste really good. We certainly have more vegetables in our diet—and it helps with the grocery bills.