Rooftop garden is vibrant oasis in downtown McGregor

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“Cowboy Jim” Reneau has an extensive rooftop garden in downtown McGregor. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Cowboy Jim started his rooftop garden 13 years ago.It was inspired by memories of his grandmother. “Back when I lived in Texas,” he said, “she grew tomatoes. There’s nothing like home-grown tomatoes.”

Cowboy Jim samples one of the tomatoes grown in a five-gallon bucket on his rooftop. His garden includes 40 buckets, as well as many planter boxes, growing not only tomatoes, but beans, cucumbers, lettuce, herbs, sunflowers and more. All the plants are watered by a homemade irrigation system.

Cowboy Jim enjoys growing new plants each year. Here, he shows off some atomic grape tomatoes.

Cowboy Jim harvested nearly 300 of these bite-size tomatoes in one day. “Each bucket has at least two plants. This one has four,” he explained. “That’s 100-some plants.”

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register

“Those vines going up here are cucumbers. They’re just starting to go crazy,” said Jim Reneau as he wades through his garden, pulling back one plant to reveal another.

“Over there’s lettuce. You can see a chipmunk is trying to help me do some irrigation,” he joked, pointing to a telltale path through the dirt.

“Cowboy Jim,” as Reneau’s affectionately known, thanks to his trademark cowboy hat and southern drawl, has had a garden for 13 years. It was inspired by memories of his grandmother.

“Back when I lived in Texas,” he said, “she grew tomatoes. There’s nothing like home-grown tomatoes.”

He’s got those too, harvesting nearly 300 of a bite-size variety the day before.

“In one day, this many have ripened again,” he noted, proudly surveying his crop.

But where many people would yield a harvest this size from a field or yard garden, Cowboy Jim’s tomatoes came strictly from five-gallon buckets—40 of them.

“Each bucket has at least two plants. This one has four,” he explained. “That’s 100-some plants.”

Cowboy Jim gravitated to container gardening out of necessity. Living in an apartment in downtown McGregor, his rooftop offered the only option for growing fresh food. 

He started with 10 buckets, drilling five, one-inch holes in the bottom of each. The holes were covered with Scotch-Brite pads, allowing for drainage but to also keep the dirt from escaping. Cowboy Jim has used the same dirt year after year, simply dumping it out and mixing it with fresh potting soil each spring.

“Everyone tries to give me tips,” he quipped, “but I haven’t gotten any complaints.”

While larger tomatoes struggled in this environment, Cowboy Jim said the smaller types have thrived. So have many other plants. 

In addition to tomatoes and the aforementioned cucumbers and lettuce, Cowboy Jim is now growing squash, beans, peas, red okra, onions, herbs, hops and more in buckets or planter boxes that line the rooftop railing. There are also sunflowers, zinnias and what he calls “pretty boxes,” filled with other colorful flowers and vegetation.

It’s a vibrant, green oasis, tucked between brick and metal.

Much like the buckets, the planter boxes contain recycled material.

“The beds were originally hay bales,” he said. “When those broke down, I took them out and put them on tarps. Then I brought up dirt and mixed it with the hay bales.”

All the plants are watered by an irrigation system of hoses and pipes fashioned by Cowboy Jim.

“To get out here and get them watered in the summertime would require a lot of time,” he said. “This goes about seven to 10 minutes each evening, and gives them a good drink.”

Cowboy Jim likes to try new plant varieties each year, with seeds ordered from a catalog. One is an atomic grape tomato, which, as the name implies, has an oval, grape-like shape and darker coloring than traditional tomatoes.

“I can guarantee no one has received a tomato like that,” he said. “That’s the kick of it.”

Cowboy Jim enjoys the fruits of his labor: mint in his iced tea, Mexican food with fresh cilantro, homegrown lettuce and tomatoes in a chef salad, onions sweeter than anything that can be bought at the grocery stores. But beans are one of his favorites.

“In 30 to 45 minutes, you can get quite a mess,” he said. Thinking back to childhood days with his grandmother, he added, “I was always getting in trouble for eating more than I was shelling. But, fresh out of the pod, they’re just so sweet.”

What’s most thrilling for Cowboy Jim, though, is sharing his rooftop garden with other people.

“I give a lot of the tomatoes away,” to neighbors and friends, he said. “Everybody enjoys getting them, but the real pleasure is in giving to someone.”

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