Growing An Eden Up Near Heaven

The Globe and Mail
Toronto , Canada
May 6, 2002

For gardening tips, sometimes
you have to look up, way up,

Joe Fiorito writes

All I know about gardening fits neatly into this paragraph: Many plants are green. Roses come in several colours. Some plants, such as salad, can be tasty. And who knew I'd be happy paying good money for manure.

All of which is to say that spring planting is upon us. I don't know about your neighbourhood, but gardening has become a form of combat in Parkdale.

I have no patience and am always on the lookout for a competitive edge, so naturally I went up on the roof of 401 Richmond St. West the other day to see if I could pick up some pointers.

Oh yeah?

If you think a guy can't grow things on the roof, you've never seen my eaves and you have never been on top of 401 Richmond. It is Eden minus the snake up there.

A bit of background:

Some years ago, Margie Zeidler rescued 401 from the wrecker's ball and turned it into one of the hippest buildings in town. More important, for the purposes of today's column, she put the maintenance of 401 in the hands of a retired teacher and woodworker named Mike Moody.

In addition to knowing all there is to know about the restoration of double-hung wooden windows, Mike happens to have green thumbs. How green? The force that through the green fuse drives the flower also drives his thumbs.

Over time, he began to put out plants in pots and baskets on the roof; he trained vines over trellises and put trees and bushes in large planters, which he built from salvaged wooden skids. One thing led to another: To cut costs, he built a greenhouse in which he could grow plants from seed.

The rental denizens of 401—a lot of dot-com kids in skinny black suits, plus designers, artists and architects—use the rooftop as a lunchtime patio three seasons of the year.

Mike doesn't own a skinny black suit. He wears rubber boots and a T-shirt to work. He has a gardener's hands and a practical sensibility. The greenhouse is heated by warm air from the building. He provides lettuce and fresh herbs for the building's restaurant, and he takes the restaurant's garbage and he turns it into compost.

We chatted on a recent sunny, windy day. Oblivious to the sirens and the traffic on the street below, he watered and watched the weather.

What's this?" I asked.

"Dogwood." He threw his hands around it in a generous curve. "It really fills in." The gesture is both a description and a gardener's exhortation.

"Come on, I'll show you the greennhouse."

We walked across the deck, past a dozen shrubs and trees whose branches were newly and tenderly in leaf.

The greenhouse takes up a good portion of the roof. It is aluminum-ribbed, plastic-covered, 30 metres long and 5 metres wide, and it is filled with overwintering or newly sprouting plants: tomatoes and geraniums, asparagus fern, nicotania, which will perfume a garden at night, petunias , violets, zinnias and begonias in pots, cleome, whose flowers grow in decorative, pinkish, spidery clusters; and baskets of Tradescantia pallida "Purpurea," a spiky, dusky purple trailing perennial.

Not to mention all those ladybugs.

"I just bought a bagful the other day and turned them loose. They eat aphids. I don't use chemical sprays in here." How many ladybugs in a bag? "Abut 3,000." Cost a lot? "Maybe $25."

The rooftop gardener's lament?

"In the winter I worry about freeze-up. In the summer I worry about high winds and drought. One year people were complaining about all the rain north of the city, but here in town we were dry. I had to water all the time. Urban heat island, I guess."

That's a newly recognized big city phenomenon: Black asphalt plus cars plus black roofing plus concrete equals more heat and less rain in town. The hot air hangs heavy and just sort of pushes other weather away. Rooftop gardens are a way to mitigate the effect. Or would be, if all our office buildings had them.

Don't get the wrong impression: Mike is not a horticultural theorist or a wild-eyed environmental activist. He's just a self-taught guy who plants what he likes and thinks what he's doing on the roof makes some sense.

He turned off the water in the greenhouse and I watched a ladybug climb along a begonia looking for something to eat. We went back outside and admired his sea buckthorn, his potentilla and his daffodil-yellow forsythia. I could plant some or all of this stuff, I guess.

How to choose?

I asked him which of the plants on the roof was his favourite. He showed me a dried-out, dead-looking little bush. "This is a Kew blue. It doesn't look like much now but in the fall it will be spectacular." How so? "Blue flowers, really pretty blue flowers."

Kew blue. Mike and me, too.



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