Photo: Nina LalliI brag a lot about the various smells and chores generated by farm life in Bed-Stuy. But it surprises even me to hear myself go on about which hen is laying the biggest eggs or how the squash is taking over the garden. How did I go from being a single lady in a third-floor walk-up to running a farm with a guy I had known for less than a year?
Considering my inclination toward rescuing filthy, abandoned street animals and my love of food, it’s really a wonder it took so long to happen.
Six months into a relationship is not the standard recommended timing for entering into joint pet custody, but that’s when my boyfriend Tei and I found Roo, a six-week-old “potcake” puppy, living outside a convenience store in the Bahamas. (Bahamians call strays “potcakes” after the leftovers they sometimes get from scraped-out rice pots.) We took her home to Brooklyn. On a plane. We didn’t live together (way too early for that!), but our friends politely ignored all the terrific possibilities for heartbreak built into this non-plan.
At nine months, we built a farm. I just lived 10 blocks away.
Tei can’t resist a project and I like to feed things. Tei is confident in his innate knowledge of how to do everything that has ever been done or has yet to be invented, and I am comfortable declaring my utter ignorance, even when it comes to things I do constantly. (What I’m trying to say is that he’s a man and I’m not.)
Just like Roo, our piece of land appeared pitifully at our feet and we would have been assholes to ignore it. Tei had recently convinced his landlord to clear out the basement of his apartment building on DeKalb Avenue and rent it to him to use as a workspace. He and two friends built walls and ceilings and created a music studio (Tei is a sound designer and also makes music he won’t let me listen to) and a woodshop, where our talented friend Luke Fasano makes furniture you’ve probably ogled at the Brooklyn Flea, if you’ve ever been there.
Toward the back of the basement was a door that miraculously led to a yard. At that point, it was hard to see it through the thick layer of litter on top, but the potential was undeniable. We easily envisioned the lush, healthy Peebottle Farms that now exists.
About that name: Yes, “Peebottle Farms” is exceedingly juvenile and completely repulsive, and yes, it was all me. But before you criticize, let me point out: 1) I’m hilarious, 2) we are not selling the food we grow, and 3) we are not growing food in urine-soaked soil. Once cleared, we set to work on leveling the space and digging pits to fill with new soil for growing vegetables. But the name has great meaning — it’s poignant, even. Let me explain.
Amid the debris we cleared were many entertaining treasures, like a detective’s badge and half a golf club — pieces of a crime scene for which we still haven’t found the body (we assumed the golf club was the murder weapon, naturally). But the darkest of all our discoveries made up the bulk of detritus removed from the yard: many dozens of tightly sealed Arizona Iced Tea bottles full of aged urine. Presumably, some lovely neighbor had been peeing into bottles and chucking them out his window for about one-to-three lifetimes. Each bottle had to be emptied because otherwise, we couldn’t have lifted the trash bags. There was a lot of gagging that day, my friends, and I’m sorry to force you to imagine the horror of it. But what’s a makeover story without a gruesome “before” picture?
Reclaiming the land took a couple of months and the help of many friends, whom we lured with beer and grilled meats, and who stayed long after for the special feeling one gets from a little urban farm work. For some the labor was nostalgic; for others, a novelty. I think we all imagined that we looked pretty hip and rugged. (Urban farming is so cool that it’s probably already over — don’t even get me started on foraging.)
Not that urban farming comes naturally: I grew up in Manhattan and brought a down comforter to sleep-away camp at age 8. I couldn’t imagine the intense satisfaction of gardening back then, but I developed a yearning for physically tiring work and the magical outcome that came after getting one’s hands dirty. I highly recommend it for the neurotic and to-do-list obsessed: You can’t bite your nails when your hands are buried in compost, ya heard?
That’s not to say that the initial stages of the project were so enjoyable. Digging is especially hard when the earth is made up of giant chunks of glass, broken concrete slabs, rocks, and ungodly ancient root systems. We unearthed whole brick patios from some previous lifetime a mere foot below the surface.
Man, do I wish I had had the sense to photograph our male friends at work for a hipster pin-up calendar. The proceeds could have covered the costs of all our materials. (Mostly from Home Depot, conveniently located a few blocks away.) Aside from many bags of dirt (about half organic, which is not ideal, but that shit’s expensive), we bought two-by-fours to make the garden beds and fencing to keep Roo from digging up our imagined rows of fancy black kale.
Then it was finally time to plant. I bought many plants from farmers markets, and we also started many from seed. We made classic rookie mistakes like wasting too much space on herbs because we didn’t understand how big they’d get; guessing at when to plant and snip or where to prune, etc. I wish I were an obsessive overachiever who would have read 100 garden books and blogs and triumphed over the terroir during season one. But alas, I’m the type they must have in mind at those high schools where you learn everything by doing an internship.
Tei and I live together on the fifth floor of the building now, with Roo and my disgruntled elderly mutt, Superdog. Peebottle is in its second season, which has me obsessed with our six chickens. (Tip: That’s too many chickens.) They live in a fluorescent pink coop that I made Tei build.
Every two weeks, I’ll share the joys and disasters of my very low-budget farming efforts. The best news may be that our pee-bottle filler seems to have moved or repulsed himself to death.