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Russ Cheatham’s roof is hot. It’s also sunny, dry, and windy—kind of like a desert, in fact. Yet somehow Cheatham has managed to overcome these harsh conditions and raise a crop of food so bountiful that last summer he went for weeks-long stretches without visiting a grocery store.
“We [had] too much food,” Cheatham says of the harvest he shared with his wife, Alyssa. “Even if there was a family of four there’d be too much food.” Last year, he gave away gallon bags full of romaine and red sail lettuce and still, he says, “It was salads every night—salads with chicken, salads with tuna, salad with a sandwich.” Two visiting aunts went home with 20 tomatoes, and this reporter took an enormous bouquet of basil, parsley, rosemary, and thyme, all cut from month-old plants that were already the size of small shrubs.
Not bad for a guy who counts his time as a gardener in months, not years. Cheatham is the kind of passionate amateur cook who gets Jacques Pepin and America’s Test Kitchen DVDs as gifts, but he’d never tried growing more than a few dried-out pots of tomatoes until last year, after moving to the Ukrainian Village condo that he and his wife now share with their nine-month-old son, Henry. “I think the pursuit of becoming a better home cook has led me to try to source the best ingredients available,” Cheatham says. “Grocery stores are horrible. Farmers’ markets are great, but they’re once a week and they’re really expensive.”
Cheatham’s roof has a 150-square-foot area separate from the deck the couple uses for entertaining, and he began to wonder whether, as he says, “an urbanite with zero farmable land could grow food.” His research quickly led him to the EarthBox, a two-and-a-half-foot long, foot-high planter made of reusable plastic. This planter is, essentially, idiot-proof. As long as the 2.2-gallon reservoir in the bottom of the box remains filled through a watering tube in its corner, the soil on top stays moist. Fertilizer laid on top of the soil at the beginning of the growing season provides a steady source of nutrients, while a plastic cover that looks like a shower cap goes over the whole shebang, to hold moisture in and keep weed seeds out.
Cheatham’s mother happens to live in Bradenton near the EarthBox research center—Cheatham describes it as basically two guys, a trailer, and a lot of EarthBoxes—so he swung by on a visit to Florida last spring. “After seeing these things in action, with mini-coconut trees in them, cauliflower the size of soccer balls, I was sold,” Cheatham recalls. He went home and ordered a dozen of the planters online at earthbox.com. In early May, he planted starts of tomatoes, lettuce, onions, eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, and strawberries; by June the garden was already bushy. Although Cheatham uses only organic potting mix and fertilizer, he bought most of his nonorganic seedlings at places like Home Depot, partly as a timesaver, partly to see if the standard-issue plants most people grow would do well.
Though he routinely logs 50-hour weeks working from home as an executive-search consultant, Cheatham says that, aside from a weekend spent lugging 40-pound bags of organic potting mix to the roof and building troughs to hold the boxes for extra wind resistance, maintaining the garden required remarkably little effort. “I’m not going to do anything difficult, because my wife and I work a lot of hours,” he says. (She’s an investment consultant.) With the EarthBoxes, he says, “You just water—then you’re done. It literally takes ten minutes a day. You almost try to find work for yourself.”
Cheatham claims not to be any kind of urban-gardening activist, but he and a few other rooftop gardeners in the neighborhood have started a blog, Green Roof Growers (greenroofgrowers.blogspot.com), in an effort to educate and inspire other city residents. “Look around—there are flat roofs everywhere, and they’re just sitting there,” he says, gesturing toward the dozens of rooftops surrounding his home. “Put them to use. I would love to see this in the food-desert neighborhoods of Chicago.” He laughs off the suggestion he may one day find himself to be a guru of rooftop gardening. “Ah, I hope not,” Cheatham says. ”I think you just show people it can be done and next thing you know, they go do it.”
Photograph: Andreas Larsson