PITTSTON — The location of Jim Verdekal’s urban-gardening efforts might have changed in recent years, but the methods are just as unconventional.
Verdekal, who operates a Pittston-based construction company, was once known to many in Wilkes-Barre as the owner of a so-called “farm in the city.”
“Twenty years ago on Darling Street, I had a garden that was 120 feet by 90 feet. I used to put a sign out there when I’d pick the stuff. ‘Don’t be greedy. Take one or two,’ ” he said.
Since moving his business to downtown Pittston, Verdekal has acquired some new gardening tips and transformed the steel roof of his garage into a massive container garden but his still as generous as ever with his crop.
Thirty boxes constructed from leftover shelving board house nine different varieties of tomato plants. The 18-inch containers are thoroughly secured to the roof with 2-by-4s and rebar. Another section contains numerous boxes and 5-gallon buckets sprouting bell peppers, hot peppers, cabbage, cauliflower, dill, zucchini and more.
“Three years ago when I moved here, I saw some buckets up on my next-door neighbor’s roof. Where I live, it’s all macadam and concrete,” Verdekal said. “I got the idea. ‘If he could have something on the roof, why not me?’ ”
Aside from the unusual growing space, Verdekal has developed some other tricks to grow hearty plants and not disrupt his neighbors. For example, he uses rabbit pellets provided by a friend at Kile’s Vegetable Farm in Orangeville as his main fertilizer. The product doesn’t have the strong odor that more traditional manures do.
“You open up a bag of that Miracle-Gro, and it smells like 20 miles of flamingos. It’s nasty. That’s why I open it up here,” he said with a laugh.
Verdekal relies on plants he purchases at Larry O’Malia’s Farm and Greenhouse on River Street in Plains Township.
“They say not to plant until June 15, but as soon as O’Malia’s has plants ready to go, he’s Johnny On-The-Spot for me,” Verdekal said.
“It’s always a joy to see Jim,” part-owner Larry O’Malia said when asked about the colorful gardener.
The garden has had its troubles in the past, many of them weather-related. A storm two years ago toppled many of his tomato plants, prompting the reinforced boxes and planters.
“The heat up here is about 10 degrees hotter than on the ground because of the rubber roof,” Verdekal added. “I have it up on pallets so the heat isn’t directly underneath it, percolating it.”
From placing pallets under his plants to fashioning ramps out of plywood to prevent his watermelon and cantaloupe from overflowing their containers and touching the roof, Verdekal has successfully tested many unexpected methods. The biggest reward, he said, is sharing the taste of home-grown produce with others.
“I love gardening, but I like to see it grow, and if a neighbor says, ‘Hey, you’ve got nice plants,’ I’ll say, ‘Here’s a tomato.’ Then they have a home-grown tomato. It’s not a store-bought tomato,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ve bought a tomato at the store lately but it’s like rubber. There’s no flavor to it.”
And if a construction job ends early, Verdekal knows where he’s headed for the rest of the day.
“I get some free time. If I’m done in the early afternoon, I’ll come up and putz around for two, three hours and just open up a can of beer and relax.”
Whether it’s 15 feet above the ground or in the ground itself, he suggested that others experiment with their own gardens.
“Don’t be afraid to plant a garden. You can’t make any mistakes other than it not growing. If it doesn’t grow, you learn by your mistakes the next year you plant,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to plant anything. If it’s edible, plant it.”