Kimberly Sevilla, owner of Rose, Red & Lavender, a garden center and flower shop in East Williamsburg, set out this summer to build a garden to grow food on the vacant lot next to her shop.
We stopped by for a visit just as things were taking shape in late May, to chat about her ‘growing’ obsession and her plans for the new garden project.
With summer in full swing, we thought it was high time to stop by again to check on the garden’s progress.
Wow Kimberly! The last time I was here, in late May, there was just soil in that bed, all the others were empty, and you were going to be planting the next day. It looks a lot different now!
Yes, we’ve got five beds planted. Three of them are based on different ethnic cuisines. We have an Italian garden, a Polish/German garden and an American/Mexican garden. Some local school kids planted the fourth bed, and I recently added a fifth bed and got that planted too.
I decided to do a little experiment with soil types. I’m using different soil mixes in each bed to see what works best here. The first bed I planted using Organic Mechanics soil – a mix made by a great company in Pennsylvania.
In the second bed I used local organic topsoil from Hamptons Estate, with organic compost and composted mulch. That’s probably the cheapest soil. It’s really heavy stuff, so if someone has a rooftop garden or something, I wouldn’t recommend using it. It’s very heavy.
Something like this weights about 150 pounds per cubic foot when wet, where others might way as little as 40 pounds per cubic foot.
I’m actually working on a lightweight soil for rooftops with a company in the Bronx. They have a soil they’ve created for commercial greenroofs that they sell in commercial bales – you need a crane or a forklift to pick it up. We’re working together to create a bagged line so that gardeners who want to do a small project on their roof can have that available to them.
That soil is actually made out of polystyrene – recycled packing peanuts. It’s a very fine soil made with polystyrene and vermiculate. You have to cover it to keep it from blowing away because it’s so fine.
The polystyrene absorbs some water, but it’s mostly just fill. Most soil is just fill – things like coconut shells or rice shells that just fill the space along with some nutrients and minerals sprinkled throughout. That’s why it’s important to add organic matter to soil – to give the plants you’re growing a rich mix of nutrients and minerals.
I’ve experimented with planting in pure compost, thinking things would grow like crazy, but they actually didn’t grow nearly as well as when I planted in a 50/50 mix of soil and compost.
So we’ll see what happens with the different soil mixes.
In the Italian garden, I’ve got white zucchini. It grows very long and curves. It has a very soft skin, so it’s very easy to cook with. I haven’t seen it much in the markets around here, but it’s very popular with the Italians. Traditional zucchini is a bush plant. These are winding plants, so you can train them to grow super-tall and they don’t take up a lot of space in your garden.
We also have the Sicilian eggplants, which are a smaller eggplant that are a light purple in color. They’re spherical, like a softball. I also put in here traditional green zucchini, San Marzano tomatoes, Genovese basil, and Italian parsely…some onions too.
It looks like the Italian garden is winning! That bed is really taking off. The medium they’re planted in is a soil mix called Pro-Mix, which has become available in consumer-sized bundles for the first time this summer. It’s got a peat base. It’s really densely planted too, which prevents weeds from growing.
In the American garden we have corn, yellow pear tomatoes, black krim tomatoes, parsley, swiss chard, kohlrabi, a lot of different hot peppers, and scattered in between everything are radishes, which will be harvested before the other plants get too big. Lots of variety in that one.
In the Polish/German bed we’ve got cucumbers, cabbages, celery, some tomatoes, kale, sage, dill…
I put in the most recent bed a few weeks ago. Ben Flanner, who runs Brooklyn Grange, has some extra tomato plants that he gave me. They’re an unknown heirloom variety, so we’ll see what we get! I think they’re Cherokee purples, but we’ll see. I put some basil and some herbs in here as well. He gave me a couple of okra plants. They’re in there too.
But my money is on the Italian garden right now – look at that thing!
It’s certainly exploding. Why do you think it’s winning?
I think it might get a little more light in that spot. The peat in the soil mix retains more moisture than the other soils, so that might help it too.
Except for the one with the plants Ben gave me and the one the schoolkids planted, all the beds were all planted at the same time. They all look like they’re at really different stages, but they’ll catch up to each other.
In another month you won’t be able to tell which were planted when. When the ambient temperature is above 75 degrees, vegetables, tomatoes and eggplants and things just take off and grow. If it’s cooler than that they’ll just hang out and not grow much. So there’s really no benefit to starting a garden early unless you can generate some heat until the ambient temperature comes up to above 75.
Commercial growers will put heating cables and that sort of thing in the soil. If you wanted to you could set up a series of black barrels filled with water and have a piping system running through the beds. So the solar energy would heat the water in the barrels and you could run it through the piping to warm the beds early or late in the season.
If you get the balance correct, it can be self-circulating. The heat will drive the hot water up and you can use gravity to bring it back down again to create a nice circular system. That’ll be my project five years from now, when my kids are in school!
We’ll check back in again with Kimberly in a few weeks.