Witchhazel is blooming at my house, a sign that spring is nearly here. I’m planning my garden, which will be my second one ever, if it comes to fruition.
I started my first garden by reading piles of books. I spent the winter lingering over every kitchen garden book Amazon had to offer, littering my Sunset Western Garden Book with sticky flags, and studying the Maritime Northwest Garden Guide for tips on companion planting and bed rotation.
Spring came, and so did the annual edible plant sale at Seattle Tilth — the city’s organic urban agriculture hub — where I bought everything that looked interesting. But then I was stuck. I’d read all about gardening, but still felt I had no idea how to do it. I’d pulled weeds in my dad’s garden and plucked strawberries on my grandfather’s farm, but I’d never learned how to stake a tomato.
I was afraid of putting those plants in their beds, worried that I’d get everything wrong. They sat for a couple of weeks in their containers, until an imminent departure prompted me to just plop them all in the ground and hope for the best.
The garden wasn’t a great success, but everything was alive on my return 3 weeks after planting and as the season progressed we enjoyed a wealth of onions, a few cucumbers, a boatload of tomatoes, and one lonely pumpkin.
That was two years ago. Last year we were in the midst of a move in the spring and I never got around to planning or planting anything, but I had plenty of time to dream up the idea of sticking a garden on my garage (listed last month among our Ethicurean intentions for 2008).
For this garden, I’m seeking a lot of advice and assistance — not just about gardening, but also about engineering. I want to be certain to maintain the structural integrity of the garage, ensuring that it bears weight and sheds water.
Since it’s a new building which the prior owner, an architect, designed to hold a deck, I expect the garage will bear the burden of my project. I’m imagining it as a little urban farm, with vegetable beds, honeybees, and broiler chickens. I enlisted help from Colin McCrate, farmer-owner of Seattle Urban Farm to determine how much all that stuff might weigh. He sketched a few plans and provided some detail about materials, which I then passed along to a structural engineer.
As it turns out, the engineer doesn’t really care that I want a chicken coop and 300 lbs of hives and honey, he just wants to know what depth of soil to imagine spread over the whole thing so he can work his calculations. We’re stalled here for now, as we struggle to communicate (he wants me to name a depth, I want assurance that an imaginary depth is going to account for all the very real weight). Though I don’t yet have a definite answer, the engineer has said it looks like a very sturdy garage, and he thinks the weight should be fine.
The next step will be trading tar-paper for a green roof. There must be some product suited to the purpose. If the Seattle Public Library trusts the Ballard branch’s living roof to keep its 66,000 books dry, surely there’s a system that will protect our Honda. Nevertheless, this is the part that scares me, partly because I know so little about it, and partly because I imagine that it will be very costly. Of all the parts that could kill my plans, this seems the most likely.
All the planning aside, I’ll actually need to know how to grow a plant. I’m determined to surround myself with mentors this time. If I’m going to the enormous expenditure of effort to get a garden on a garage, it should at least be able to provide a hefty portion of our produce.
I’m concerned less about the plants, though, than the animals. My two-year-old and I are both excited by the prospect of chickens. Since she is allergic to eggs, we won’t have laying hens. I’m thinking meat birds. That raises logistical questions, like how to keep a rooster around for a breeding operation (the question is one of consideration rather than legality, as roosters aren’t outlawed in Seattle, but could nevertheless wake the neighbors) and how to establish a cycle that would put a bird or two on the table every month. But before I get that far, I’ll have to figure out how to kill a chicken, and whether I’m up to it.
Then there’s finalizing the layout, designing the chicken coop, building stairs to the garage roof, and hauling materials like lumber and soil up them. I’ll keep you updated. But I’ve almost talked myself out of the whole thing right there.