Perched above the city outside a petite apartment in Brooklyn, Marie Viljoen’s carefully cultivated terrace garden proves there’s more to container gardening than flowers.
HL chats to the woman behind 66 Square Feet, the popular food and garden blog, about living in New York, small space gardening, and her exciting new book: 66 Square Feet – a Delicious Life.
Why the move to New York? I moved to New York because it seemed like the centre of the universe. My life as an opera singer was interrupted by a bout of whooping cough and for a while I could not sing, let alone breathe well. To make ends meet I started to work at a nursery in Manhattan and learned about plants that grow well in the Northeast with its bitter winters and humid summers. Soon I began to design rooftop gardens and loved it. After a couple of years in the trenches, as it were, of urban gardening, I went on to head the design section of a small, high-end, garden design firm located just a few blocks from the nursery.
Have you always been interested in gardening? Yes. Gardening is one of my earliest memories and I adored flowers as a child. I can’t remember a time when I was not playing in my mother’s garden, making rivers through her flowerbeds with a hosepipe and designing miniature gardens in her seed trays. She taught me to grow plants from seed and the names of all the flowers in her garden. I loved picking bunches of flowers and still need them around me today. She gardened almost every day and I learned from just watching her – compost-making, pruning roses and growing herbs and vegetables.
Does gardening come easy to you or is it a labour of love? Both. Gardening is like breathing for me. It grounds me. That doesn’t mean that I never make mistakes – I do. One is dealing with life and death after all! But gardening is an endless act of regeneration. If one thing does not work, another will. Watching plants grow, flower, produce fruit, watering them and feeding them – it’s all very fulfilling for me.
How did the terrace begin and how soon after did you start 66 Square Feet, the blog? I took my small apartment because of the terrace and immediately started to populate it with pots. I created 66 Square Feet after I bought my first digital camera, three years after starting the terrace garden. Blogging satisfied my need to write and was a way to communicate my excitement about gardening, cooking and living in this city. Within months I had met my Canadian husband through our respective blogs and just months after that we were married in Cape Town. We just celebrated our fifth anniversary.
What plants have you successfully managed to grow on your terrace that might surprise people? Figs. New York gets very cold in winter and my fig tree survives with no protection. I also have a reliable and repeating crop of strawberries from spring to autumn. I grow potatoes in buckets on the roof. And my summer tomatoes literally changed the way I shop and eat. Their flavour in no way resembles the 24/7 season-round variety sold in shops. So I wait for summer to eat real tomatoes from real farmers – or from our roof.
You have edible plants and decorative plants on your terrace. How do you choose what you decide to plant with growing space at a premium? I have to have flowers. But I have very little discipline and squeeze in as much as possible. I do choose plants that deliver bang for the buck. Roses are a necessity, with flowers from spring till the first real freeze. I love lilies, so have several varieties for staggered bloom. Herbs do double-duty as practical and ornamental plants. My clematis, Etoile Violette, blooms twice. I started to grow vegetables on the roof because I ran out of space in full sun on the terrace. After planting one cherry tomato, I was hooked. I now grow several cultivars every summer.
How does growing plants in an elevated New York climate compare to growing plants in South Africa? A rooftop garden on a skyscraper in New York has special challenges – mostly from serious wind and exposure. But a sunny balcony in Johannesburg or Bloem would not be too different in climate from my Brooklyn terrace. Any garden in containers, whether in New York or Cape Town or Durban, needs a few essentials: plants adapted to that climate, containers with excellent drainage, water and food.
Do you change plants for the seasons? I keep a backbone of hardy shrubs, perennials and climbers that make it through our winters and provide interest for every season. That keeps costs down too. I buy a few seasonal annuals every year – spring pansies, parsley, basil, nasturtiums, scaevola and the South African-bred Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’ when I can find it. On the roof, vegetable gardening begins in early spring with cool weather crops like fava beans, peas and lettuces, and then I move on to warm weather crops like cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and aubergines.
What misconceptions do people have about growing plants in small spaces? People think that ‘ordinary’ garden plants cannot grow in containers. I think that anything can grow in a container if it’s in the right spot with regards to sun and shade.
What are the challenges, other than the obvious, that you’ve had to overcome with container gardening? Plants in pots can become root bound so every spring I root prune some perennials and the fig tree to keep them healthy. Strawberries have to be divided. I had so many one year that I shipped some to Germany to a blog reader. I have mastered the art of growing shade plants on the terrace floor and plants that need full sun on the edges. There are microclimates even in this small space. And when high winds are forecast we remove pots from the edges of the terrace. In hurricane or superstorm weather I have nightmares about the fig tree being blown off the roof and onto someone’s head.
What benefits are there to having a garden, even a small one, physically and mentally? Even after working with plants or designing gardens all day I would come home and water my own pots by hand and literally feel any accumulated tension melting away. A bit of weeding, some deadheading, smelling the mint I crushed on the terrace floor on my way out and picking herbs for supper – there is something restorative in these small, practical actions.
What advice do you have for small space dwellers wishing to start their own container gardens? Figure out how many hours of actual sunlight the container garden will have and where the shady spots are. Once you know that, nursery staff can advise you on the best plants to grow in different situations. Decide where to put a table and chairs, or a bench. This is the heart of your garden. And then just begin.
You’re finishing your first book. Can you tell me a little about this project? I wanted to write about the intimate side of New York City. While everyone knows about the concrete and the bright lights – Times Square, Broadway, Wall Street – I wanted to share my love of the city’s green spaces, its distinct seasons, its farmer’s markets and what it is like to garden and cook every day in the most famous city on the planet. I wanted to capture the magic of our little garden and demonstrate that even a tiny kitchen can bring forth multiple courses of deliciousness. Every chapter is a month and each month is divided into New York, My Terrace and My Kitchen. We move from the city and work our way through the terrace and into the kitchen, where a monthly menu is filled with recipes. My husband and I supplied the photos for the book.
Will it be available in South Africa? Yes, it will be available in South Africa. I’m very excited about that. I write about growing up in Bloemfontein and Cape Town, and many recipes are influenced by my mother Maureen, who was a food editor of House and Leisure in the 90s.
66 Square Feet – a Delicious Life will be published in hardcover by the Stewart, Tabori and Chang imprint of Abrams in September. To read more about Marie Viljoen and her amazing terrace, visit 66squarefeet.blogspot.com.