By Kimberly Sevilla
Owner of Rose Red & Lavender, and life-long gardener
I remember my first “rooftop garden,” in a walk-up on Avenue D in Manhattan. I attempted to grow some tomatoes in five gallon buckets, nothing fancy, and certainly not pretty. I quickly discovered that on hot summer days tomatoes drink a lot of water, and over a long weekend vacation, get destroyed. Hauling water up three flights of stairs and hanging out on a hot rooftop was no fun. My first year as a rooftop gardener was a big disaster, and I learned that no amount of love can revive a crispy tomato plant. I retreated, to my terrestrial garden, where the elements were a little more forgiving, and put my rooftop endeavor on hold for a few years.
If you look across the rooftops of Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick you can see a lot going on up in the sky. Rooftop gardens are sprouting up all over. Take a trip across the Queensboro Bridge and you will see lots of green on the roofs of Long Island City, too. Been to Roberta’s? The Bushwick-based eatery has some wonderful gardens on their roof, specifically a building they’ve created out of shipping containers (It houses Heritage Radio, their online radio station-—heritageradionetwork.com—dedicated to the practical arts: gardening, making beer, and anything that has to do with making your own stuff.)
Who builds these gardens and why? What do they grow and what challenges do they face?
In the early spring of 2009, a few months after I had opened Rose Red & Lavender, an Organic Gardening Center and Floral Studio in Brooklyn. I was riding the subway from Manhattan and noticed a thin, cleancut young man mapping out a complicated vegetable gardening scheme. A very, very large vegetable garden scheme. This is a pretty rare site, and something near and dear to my heart, so I broke subway etiquette and started asking him some questions. Here in the middle of New York was someone else who was as passionate as I am about gardening, and someone who was planning something big, and I had to know more. He told me he was going to put a farm on a roof with some friends of his. A farm! On a roof! I asked him what type of planters he was going to use and he told me that he was going to cover the whole roof with soil. The whole roof! I asked him if he had gardened much before and he told me no. I honestly thought he was overly ambitious and in over his head. I had a mental picture of this clean cut young man hauling bucket after bucket of soil up the stairs, and then finally collapsing and having a beer and moving on to easier pursuits. Thinking back to my own rooftop gardening experience, moving bucket after bucket of soil up six flights of stairs and water up two, I wondered how many buckets it would take before he would give up. I wondered about the logistics, the weight, root penetration, and I wondered about millions of other things, wind, rain, all that soil, especially all that soil. I gave him my card and suggested he call me if he had any questions about gardening and soil and planters for roofs.
A few months later, an attractive young woman came into my store to pick up seed starting supplies for a class she was teaching at 3rd Ward, and we started talking about plants, gardening, and heirloom seeds. She told me about a project she was working on where she covered an entire roof with soil. What’s up with all these roofs and all that soil? We talked about the weight, and structural engineers, and the cranes used to haul everything up to the roof. Cranes, now that’s smart. Why didn’t I think of that?. The young lady turned out to be Annie Novak, and the project was the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm (rooftopfarms.org). Eagle Street Farm is a 6000 square foot organic garden located at 44 Eagle Street in Greenpoint. Now in its third year, they sell a variety of organic vegetables to local restaurants and have a farmers market open to the public every Sunday from 9 to 4. Annie also does a lot of work within the community and runs Growing Chefs, (growingchefs.org) an organization dedicated to educating children about growing and cooking their own food.
In the spring of 2010, a thin, scruffy young man came into my store, he had a beard, ground-in dirt in his clothes, and weathered skin. He reminded me of the farmers’ sons I went to high-school with in West Virginia. Nice, hardworking boys, but generally shy except if you asked them about their truck, tractor, or deer hunting. Not the typical Brooklyn denizen. He asked me if I remembered him, and said that I had given him my card on the subway. I did? Boy, Farm, Subway? Oh my, the rooftop farmer! Of course I did. I asked about his project and he told me that it was a success. The young man turned out to be Ben Flanner, and “The Farm”, the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm. Ben then told me about his next project, Brooklyn Grange, which was going to be 10 times bigger!
Brooklyn Grange is a rooftop farm located in Long Island City, where they grow not only fruits and vegetables, but also raise chickens and bees. Founded in the spring of 2010, Brooklyn Grange is the largest rooftop farm in the City. I took a visit to Brooklyn Grange and Ben gave me a tour of the space, which is very impressive. Unlike the large factory farms, rooftop farms have to be worked by hand. The tools used are simple: spades, rakes, and hands. Because there is no machinery used, plants can be interplanted, meaning different crops can be planted in the same space. This takes advantage of the space available, increasing the yield per square foot. Interplanting is a more natural way of gardening and has been practiced since humans have been growing food, and only recently abandoned after machinery and chemicals were introduced. Plants can mutually beneficial. For example, a crop of carrots with tomatoes will deter tomato hornworm, attract pollinators, and cover the soil with a canopy of vegetation that will help prevent water from evaporating and keep the roots cool.
Some of the challenges faced on the roofs are obvious. The wind is very strong, so compact varieties must be used, The soil is not very deep, so plants with shallow root systems work best. Cover crops must be planted in the winter to prevent the soil from blowing away. Some of the challenges are not so obvious. Farming by hand is labor intensive and expensive. An army of volunteers and interns is needed to keep the operation going. Farming is a lifestyle, but more importantly it is a business, and a successful farmer must be able not only to grow food, but also market and sell it. This means the farmer spends a good amount of time calling on restaurants, going to markets, delivering the produce, and making sure the right crops are available at the right times. Produce must be picked in the cool, morning hours, and lettuce, on a hot day, can bolt, rendering the crop bitter and unsaleable. What to plant when is always a challenge, and every year is different.
I talked to Ben about challenges he faces that did not occur to me. Farming can be lonely. Ben is very personable and likes to be around other people. He combats the long hours on a roof, in an industrial section of Long Island City, with selling produce both at the site and the Brooklyn Flea, and by teaching classes.
“My favorite thing about the farm is selling at the farmer’s markets and being a part of the community,” he said.
“I love being in Long Island City and meeting a whole new group of people. They have really embraced the farm.” Ben always welcomes volunteers and interns at Brooklyn Grange.
Produce from the Brooklyn Grange is available Saturday at the Brooklyn Flea Greenmarket North 6th and Kent 9pm-5pm and on Wednesday in the lobby of the building at 37-18 Northern Blvd in L.I.C. from 2pm–7pm.
Building rooftop farms involves intense structural analysis, waterproofing membranes, and literally millions of pounds of soil that needs to be hoisted up with a crane. Not something for the faint of heart, or, at about $20-$30 a square foot, the small of wallet. And not something the average gardener who wants a few tomatoes and some herbs would want to do. A roof op garden, which uses planter boxes and containers, is the best choice for the rest of us.
I asked some local gardeners, Spencer Merolla, floral designer and stylist Gil Lopez, an architect who installs greenroofs and gardens; and Zachary Pickins, the founder of Roof Top Ready Seeds, about their rooftop gardens. They shared some great tips and insights with me.
The typical rooftop gardener, like the rooftop farmers I spoke with, has been gardening for about three to four years, uses organic practices, and came from a family that gardened. They all face similar challenges with wind, water, and structural issues, and each has interesting ways to overcome those challenges.
Spencer Merolla said this about her decision to build a garden on a rooftop.
“I love having a rooftop garden. It’s precisely that oddness and unexpectedness that makes it feel so special. And I feel a kind of kinship with everyone else out there gardening on roofs—like we form a kind of garden archipelago running through the City, the geography of which is known only to the birds.”
Zachary Pickins is more focused on the results and enjoys the fruits of his labor.
“I love the feeling of eating what I grow. It takes a lot of work, especially on a roof, to take care of plants. It tastes so much better when you’re eating the fruits of your own labor. It’s very empowering to know how to grow your own sustenance.”
Zachary and Gil are the most prolific gardeners I spoke with. Gil has installed gardens professionally throughout the City and Zachary has two gardens he keeps, as well as a garden for Madiba restaurant in Ft. Greene.
When asked about the challenges, Gil had this to say:
“Getting materials up to the rooftop is always a challenge. So is carefully calculating load capacity of roof decks, dealing with water and roots, to ensuring the structural and physical integrity of the roof itself. Also, depending on the height, rooftops can be very unforgiving environments with fierce, unrelenting wind and intense sun exposure.
Zachary agreed, saying, “Rooftop gardeners should never take load-baring capacity lightly. Roofs can only handle so much weight. It can be inexpensive to start a rooftop garden, but if you’re not careful about how much weight you’re putting on the roof, you could end up paying thousands of dollars in repairs.”
Choices of containers include custom built furniture that incorporates plant containers, ceramic pots, sub-irrigated planters (SIPs) that take up water from the bottom of the containers and smart pots, which are fabric containers that range in size from 5 to 30 gallons.
Just what do these gardeners grow? Gil installs very sophisticated gardens that could almost be called parks, involving sub surface planters and custom built furniture. But in his free time he works with the community to create opportunities for local, organic food production. Zach focuses on edibles and Spencer grows a combination of edibles and ornamental plants, including cosmos and wisteria, along with three kinds of blueberries, Yum!
I asked Zach a little more about his company Rooftop Ready Seeds from3to20feetup.com which are seeds from plants that have been grown on a rooftop garden in Bushwick, and he had this to say:
“I started Rooftop Ready Seeds as a way to build a stock of seeds that are best adapted to the particular challenges of urban agriculture. The seeds are all open-pollinated, and are all grown with organic methods and are not treated with fungicides.”
He has plans to expand his seeds with the help of Brooklyn Grange. The rooftop gardening community is a friendly and close-knit community.
Building a rooftop garden can be a challenge, but the rewards are great. It’s best to make it a place where you would want to relax and enjoy yourself, so think of it as your own garden penthouse. That way, the maintenance won’t be a chore, and you are benefitted not only by having beautiful plants, but having a terrific, private space to hang out. This is a balance Zach and I spoke about and where the art of gardening is the most important element.
Using light-weight pots, like smart pots and a light weight, organic soil, like the container blend developed by Organic Mechanics (www.organicmechanicsoil.com), and using wood pallets as decking,will help control some of the weight. Earthboxes, an off the shelf, sub irrigation system, are excellent because they are self watering and come complete with organic fertilizer and casters.
Using a drip irrigation system, soaker hoses, and timers, or installing a rainwater harvesting system by collecting rainwater off a sloped roof or structure into a container, will help with some of the watering issues.
Some terrific plant choices that can withstand the heat and need little water include blueberries, succulents, hot peppers, and herbs like rosemary, oregano, and thyme. Tomatoes, spinach, basil, and lettuce are also great for rooftop gardens but will require more attention and water.
Plants aren’t the only thing popping up on roofs, though. Chickens continue to be a favorite, and bees became legal last year and are a fast growing trend. As a matter of fact, the urban beekeeper group is three times larger than the urban chicken group. All the rooftop farms I visited have both chickens and bees.
Chickens make great pets and great companions for gardens. They eat bugs, till the soil, and provide gardeners with excellent, organic fertilizer. Robert McMinn keeps his chickens in a rather unusual place, his apartment. Robert first started raising chickens in the Midwest for agricultural purposes. After discovering how nice they are and how tasty the eggs can be, he didn’t let his move to an apartment in Queens stop him from keeping his favorite pets. With no outdoor space and no access to the roof, Robert decided to keep his chickens in his apartment! He says they are no different from raising other pets, and I believe him. About the size of a Guinea pig, his Bantam chickens are smaller than the regular variety. They are very gentle and cuddly, and Robert saves their poo for his local community garden. They don’t stay cooped up all the time, sice he puts them in a pet carrier and takes them with him to teach classes and to visit community gardens. He also cooks their eggs into omelettes, which he shares with people in Gantry Park in LIC.
Roofs are a logical place to keep bees, since they can fly for miles to forage for food. With all of the backyards, rooftop gardens, and parks, there is a huge diversity of food available. Cities have a richer ecosystem than the suburbs with their prescribed landscapes of sod, evergreen hedges, petunias, and geraniums. Some people theorize that the lack of diversity in their diets is one of the reasons for colony collapse disorder (ccd). When bees are placed on a roof, they are kept safe from bears (I joke), I mean curious children, and are also out of sight of neighbors, who may be fearful of bees. The European honey bees that we use for honey are pretty gentle, and unless one is taking apart the hive and they feel threatened, they will leave you alone. There are also theories that locally produced honey will help prevent allergies because honey contains trace amounts of pollen and may work much like homeopathic medicine. I don’t know if that is true, but it sure tastes good.
Always taking things to the next level, I teamed up with Jason Stroud, chicken-er extraordinaire who has been raising chickens in urban environments for about 20 years. He is owner of a chicken coop company based in Red Hook. The coops come complete with chickens, and we designed one together that has a greenroof to grow vegetables, a sort of self-sustaining, egg and veggie farm. This was a fun project for the both of us, and we have plans to put the coop, guess where? On a roof. A coop on a roof with a rooftop garden.
I wish you the best of luck with your rooftop farms and gardens remember, grow up!