A Wealth of Produce in 66 Square Feet

Why take a tiny apartment? Because the terrace offers room to grow.

Four years into the new century I paid rent to a family of dramatic landlords on Flatbush Avenue, on the ratty edge of Park Slope. Their oversize teenage children, pale and hulking, would show up at the door and make perplexing demands. Such as, “Stop throwing eggs at our terrace.” Their terrace next door was covered in Astroturf—a good target for eggs, but not mine.The parents’ marital strife tore daily through our shared brick walls. The teenagers stole my boots. They scared my cat. To clear a blocked drain they poured gallons of drain cleaner into the bath till the fumes turned my forest of basil in the sunny bathroom into Agent Orangeland. And then my boyfriend-who-never-stopped-smiling dumped me.It was time to move.

My former downstairs neighbors, Constanza and Blake, had already fled the Troglodytes, as we called them. They told me that a tiny, top-floor apartment was available in their building in Cobble Hill. It had been empty for ages, uninhabitably small. I looked at it: 400 square feet, but with an east-facing terrace open to the sky. I could sit outside, I could grill, I could grow a garden. The landlord lived off-site. I moved in.

In my apartment life, I had rarely been without homegrown herbs. They’d reached from narrow windowsills, spilled from hanging baskets, floors high. After such horticultural privations, this terrace, measuring just over 12 by 5 feet, seemed colossal. Sure, it was smaller than the penthouse roof gardens I designed for a living, but I knew how to pack the pots in. I started hauling terra cotta, bags of soil and plants up four flights of stairs.

Each summer the terrace is an edible jungle. I strip dark blueberries from their branches and collect Thai basil from plants three feet tall. The purple basil is vibrating with bees. Chives are doubled over under their own weight and ever-bearing strawberries in six-inch pots produce succulent fruit every three weeks. I chop self-seeding summer savory by the handful into a green rub for pork ribs and grill them over hardwood charcoal in the barbecue (a braai in my native Afrikaans). Smoke rises through the branches of the little fig tree which, some years, produces over 100 brown-skinned fruits, white inside, tasting like honey. In the balmy dark, tall lilies perfume the surrounding rooftops and drip nectar to attract night pollinators.

Up on my own silvertop roof, I started a farm, housed in light plastic. It began as a piece of ironic installation humor: You are not allowed to live in Brooklyn if you don’t have a farm, spin your own yarn, keep your own chickens or raise a hog. (You haven’t read it? It’s a clause at the bottom of the contract.) Well, I don’t knit, pigs’ hooves would puncture the roof membrane and the cat would chase the chickens.

So my upstairs glut of compact cucumbers becomes soup, salad and a fridgeful of pickles. Potatoes are picked, garlic pulled. There are black raspberries and white currants. By late July and August the roof farm has reached its zenith in production—delivering a clutch of Sugar Baby watermelons, daily handfuls of heirloom cherry tomatoes, Red Zebras, Brandywines. I battle an Armageddon of tobacco hornworms on their leaves. Zucchini form delicately beneath fresh yellow blossoms; eggplants hang heavily beneath improbably tropical leaves. Later, peppers turn red and purple. I make ratatouille, tomato consommé, bruschetta. We eat buffalo mozzarella with skinned tomatoes, naked and slippery, strewn with bruised basil.

I bought my first digital camera to record the fog on a blueberry’s ripe skin; the figs becoming round and brown; an herbed Porterhouse on the braai. Soon I started a blog, called 66 Square Feet. Searching for photography advice, I found a tutorial on a Web site—Coriolistic Anachronisms—based in Vancouver. Six months later I married Vincent Mounier, the blogger whose description of photographing a saucisson backlit against a field of lavender had been catnip to me. He left his wide-open woods and mountains and squeezed into the tiny apartment with me.

In the long summer twilights we sit on the silvertop between satellite dishes and tomato teepees, holding cold mojitos where crushed terrace mint floats beneath the ice. Later, on the terrace, we eat dinner and look up at a Brooklyn sky whose uninterrupted, star-pricked arc feels like genuine luxury. The food on our plates grew within arm’s reach.

I spare a thought for the Troglodytes, and exchange a wink with the cat, waiting at our feet for tidbits. We have swapped their tyranny for a garden—and three square feet of kitchen counter space, the yin to the terrace’s yang. But that is another story.

Want to read more of Viljoen’s eloquent essays on Brooklyn-grown food? Go to ediblebrooklyn.com.

Photo credit: Marie Viljoen

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Marie Viljoen lives in Brooklyn and believes in food, flowers and plants you can eat (and drink). Join her on her seasonal forage walks or find her at her blog, 66 Square Feet.