A rooftop garden has its high points

I live every day with a fear that is unknown to most gardeners - that my garden is going to crash through the ceiling and land on me as I sleep. This is because my garden is on the roof of a fourth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn, right above my bedroom. Engineers and contractors have been warning me for years not to put too much weight up there.

My rooftop garden has a marvelous view of lower Manhattan. You can relax after work watching the sun set behind the Statue of Liberty. It lacks, however, one of the essential elements of horticulture - dirt. Each spring, both the dirt and the containers it goes in must be hauled up five flights of stairs, preferably by heavily bribed delivery men.

I can't help doing this. It's in my blood. My Eastern European ancestors were all peasants, and my father grew up on a farm. His backyard suburban garden was a neighborhood legend, his pumpkins featured in the local newspaper.

Now I, too, have a passion for working the land - even if I have to lug it to the roof in 40-pound bags.

The garden season starts in early January, when the Burpee seed catalog arrives in the mail. I climb the stairs to my apartment more briskly than usual that day. The mail is tossed unopened onto the kitchen table, my coat is flung onto the sofa. I kick off my snow boots and curl up in the comfy chair, where I remain for hours, chewing the end of a pen and letting the machine answer the phone.

As the wind howls around the corner on 10th Street and the steam hisses in the radiators, I dream of seashell-pink cosmos and bright purple lobelia waving in the summer breeze.

In gardening, as in much of life, you tend to want more than you can have. My original wish list includes nearly 200 varieties of flowers, herbs, and vegetables. I spend the next month reviewing the catalog again and again; underlining, crossing out, making little stars in the margins. With painful discipline, I pare the final list down to 56.

This year spring planting started on a gloomy Saturday, as a bone-chilling rain pummeled iced-over snowdrifts. I begin in the bathroom, filling the tub with extremely hot water, laundry detergent, and a half gallon of bleach. I dump in all the seed pots to sterilize them. This is a nice thing to do on a nasty day. As I kneel over the tub, the bleachy steam smells clean and acrid, like my mother's hands on laundry day. The sloshing water makes a homey sound.

Actual planting happens in the kitchen. There isn't much space in a three-room apartment for storing specialized garden equipment, so kitchen utensils are pressed into service. I prepare the potting mixture (equal parts perlite, vermiculite, and peat moss) in my largest cooking pot, then slavishly follow the package directions for each seed.

I will never be clear on the difference between "barely covering" a seed and covering it with one-eighth of an inch of soil, but I do my best.

Once the seeds are planted, the pots are placed in the sink and misted; you want the soil moist but not soggy. The final step is to cover the pot with a piece of dry-cleaner bag secured with a rubber band. This creates a mini-greenhouse environment that enhances germination.

It all sounds very scientific - the sterilizing, the vermiculite, the mini-greenhouses - but that's not the way it feels. The proper background music for spring planting is the "Sorcerer's Apprentice."

Planting seeds is the closest we will ever come to alchemy. It simply is incredible that these tiny hard pellets could become petunias or parsley or tomatoes. Many seeds are practically microscopic - poured out of the seed packets onto your palm, they look like a mound of dust. Yet somehow these specks become flowers, and food.

I never believe it. This can't possibly work. The worrying begins the moment I put seed in soil. I have planted too deep, or not deep enough. The soil is too dry, or too wet. The seeds need more sun, or less. I leave the sofa in the middle of my favorite television program to stare at the pots, standing cheek by jowl on the windowsill. This happens without conscious thought. There I am, tamping down a bit of soil with my fingers here, tugging at a rubber band there. I remove the dry-cleaner bags six times a day to see if anything is happening underneath.

After a while you learn the signs. Seeds that are about to sprout make little eruptions on the soil surface. For larger seeds it is a discernable bump. For small seeds it's a series of pricks. This is when I start to breathe again. Perhaps they really will come up.

And of course they do. The marigolds first, then the basil, black-eyed Susans, and zinnias. They sprout the way they have for eons. They sprout on a Brooklyn windowsill just as they do in the jungles and prairies and mountains of their birth.

More than trees will grow in Brooklyn this summer. There will also be green peppers, morning glories, and scarlet runner beans planted by an accountant descended from peasants. You'll see them if you come here.

Just look up.

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