At Valley Grocery Mart on Rockaway Avenue, there is no evidence of the lush, expansive garden growing behind it.
Nat Patel, 60, owner of the convenience store next to Ancona Pizzeria and Restaurant, lives in the second-story apartment. Nearly a decade ago, he transformed the concrete parking area behind the store into a makeshift garden by growing plants in plastic 50-gallon drums, which he cuts in half, or plastic buckets, depending on how deep the roots need to be.
For the past seven summers, Patel has grown a variety of crops, with a focus on Indian vegetables — including ginger, several types of tomatoes and peppers as well as spinach, mint, kidney beans, okra, eggplant, curry, tindura (an Indian gourd), bitter melon, garlic, basil, ginger, fenugreek (an herb with possible health benefits), zucchini, guar (a legume grown in India and Pakistan), blueberries and grapes.
Patel’s preparation begins at the end of February or early March, when he plants the seeds in small soil pods. He moves them outdoors when nighttime temperatures reach 50 degrees for three days or longer, he said.
Patel grew up in India, and learned how to care for plants in agriculture classes as a boy. He attributes his green thumb to his forefathers in India, many of whom were farmers.
The garden changes a bit each year. This is Patel’s first time growing basil, guar and ginger, as well as a new type of spinach, which seems successful. He also decided to grow blueberries and grapes to attract bees to help pollinate the produce, he explained.
Curry, the most unique plant in the garden, is the only one he grows year round, bringing the large planter inside when the weather turns cool. The curry leaf, a spice used in a variety of Indian dishes, is usually found in a tropical to sub-tropical climate, but can be moved outdoors during the warmer months in other environments.
Patel’s most successful plant has been kidney beans, which he says will produce about 52 bags. The garden feeds his family of four. “I don’t purchase vegetables from July through October,” he said. He uses or donates the food, even freezing some to keep it fresh.
In late August, when all plants are fully grown, Patel will allow his family and friends to take what they like from the garden. He opens up the site to the neighborhood by putting a sign on his fence that reads, “If you like something, pick it.”
Another sign, on the outside of the gate in his driveway, states, “Keep my garden clean.” Many people used to litter the outside of his property, where he has four or five plastic bins containing Elephant Ear — a plant native to southeastern Asia and the Indian subcontinent, used for cooking. Since Patel put the sign up, he said, people have become respectful and the debris disappeared.
He said he enjoys his concrete garden because he can move his plants around to entertain guests and host summer gatherings. He also says that planting the vegetables in the buckets helps prevent disease, because if one plant sickened, the rest would survive. Gathering the ripened vegetables is also easier in a freestanding garden, Patel said.
A handmade wire trellis covers the top of the garden, and helps support the plants. Patel built the covering himself; the plants will extend to the top of the garden in August.
Patel’s philosophy is that gardens are economical because they provide produce for the community. “There are a lot of neighborhood people who come to visit the garden,” he said.
“This much space, everyone has it,” he said. “None of these plants charge you anything. You put one seed and it gives you 20, 30 fruit … Everyone has time, they just don’t use it right.”