Urban Landscapes: Floating Farms

Mon, 26/08/2013 - 09:30
Sunflowers at Brooklyn Grange by Kellen Davis

........from Sunflowers to Purple Coneflowers

Roof top growing is not for the faint hearted!

A roof has a diabolical surface, similar to the ‘hell’ of the sidewalk and is plagued with the same issues that prevail on the ground, how to maintain soil life, good irrigation and effective protection against the elements, only these are magnified when several stories up in the air. Plus you need a lift or super strong backs!  Nevertheless, roof growing has its passionate adherents because it makes use of part of the urban landscape that would otherwise be wasted dead space. Each city building planted, displaces the soil and all that lives on it, and since most are crowned with lifeless, rainproof, bituminous hells or asphalt purgatories, a living roof can be seen to be teeming with life, millions of soil creatures and pollinators, as well as birds enjoying the garden, meadow, prairie or farm heaven in the sky! 

The Berry Prairie Roof © California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

Imagine if you could walk to the top of your apartment building to get your vegetables! Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, at 6,000 square feet, was the first really large 'ground-breaker' rooftop farm in New York. Ben Flanner wanted to ‘farm yet stay in the city with my friends’ so he quit his job in finance to do so, and with co-founder Annie Novak sowed the first seeds at the site on top of  the Broadway Stages Building. Goode Green designed the roof and installed the system at the base and the growing medium made up of 200,000 pounds of a mixture of compost, rock particulates and shale, which was lifted onto the roof after it had been approved by engineers. As with all green roofs, the farm has added value by cooling the building below and lowering its heating costs. 

Eagle Street Farm © Adam Golfer/Eagle Street Farm

The Eagle Street Rooftop Farm is a flourishing venture still today. It works in tandem with a small community supported agriculture (CSA) program and participates with Growing Chefs, whose mantra is ‘food education from field to fork’) and is one of the few places in New York you can catch a view of a bed of lettuce growing against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.

Eagle Street Farm © Eagle Street Farm

Ben wanted to grow on larger plots in the sky so he founded Brooklyn Grange and then the Brooklyn Navy Yards rooftop farms. I first met him in 2011, up on the roof of Brooklyn Grange, then the largest rooftop farm in the world, a massive 40,000-square-foot industrial warehouse rooftop in Queens, NYC. A crane had been hired to pour 150,000 pounds of soil on to the roof and a unique watering system developed to irrigate the roof. Ben and his team were growing hundreds of thousands of plants without the use of pesticides or other chemicals. 

Ben Flanner at Brooklyn Grange Farm © Martine Fourgeron

On my more recent visit to New York this year, I met up again with Ben and talked about companion planting and biological pest control. Despite being six stories up in the air, aphids had managed to make their way up on to the Brooklyn Grange roof in droves! However, since the urban farmers had increased the variety of plants grown on the roof, the problem of pest attack has greatly lessened. Surely an argument against monoculture!

Flowers at Brooklyn Grange Farm © Martine Fourgeron

Brooklyn Grange Farm, like the other rooftop farms, provides the local community weekly at farm stands and local restaurants with organically produced vegetables and fruits. Ben tells me that wild companions such as red clover and vetch are grown as winter cover crops to hold down the soil and prevent it being blown away by bitter winds. Since these are legumes, the plants draw nitrogen into the soil and help to improve soil health. I saw a sprinkling of cobalt-blue cornflowers around us and the tall bobbing heads of sunflowers. Sunflowers are native to North America and cornflowers are not but neither are they invasive. Nectar rich cornflowers are grown as companions to edibles in the UK because they attract a wide range of pest-eaters such as ladybugs (ladybirds) and parasitic wasps. Using wildflowers as natural fertisers and pest controllers is what River of Flowers aspires to.

Brooklyn Grange Farm has expanded way beyond its initial mission to grow vegetables in the city and now has egg-laying chickens in coops and a commercial apiary. As with Eagle Street, it is all rather surreal and wonderful to watch people picking peppers against a backdrop of iconic Manhattan buildings, and meals up on the roof in the evening with these silhouetted against the sky must be magical! 

Watch the New York Farm City Video which features Brooklyn Grange.

Evenings at Brooklyn Grange Farm © Brooklyn Grange Events

The flagship Broolyn Grange farm has been superseded by that on Building No. 3 at the Brooklyn Navy Yards, which can now claim to be the largest in the world. It is a whopping 63,000 square feet towering 11 stories up overlooking the East River. Other notable rooftop farms include Gotham Greens, also created by Goode Green, which has rooftop greenhouses, and the educational venture Fifth Street Farm blooming above the Earth School on Avenue B, Manhattan. River of Flowers director Anna Evely of Project Maya and SEEDBALL was invited to see three classrooms in the sky where students learn sustainable methods of growing kale and basil. 

Fifth Street Farm © Angel Franco/NYTimes

Exposure to the elements of sun, wind and rain is always an issue but rooftops need not be vulnerable to the elements if preparations are made in time. Of course, winds vary in their savagery. During Hurricane Sandy, Brooklyn Grange endured 70 mile an hour winds while staff and volunteers picked all harvestable crops and locked the chickens in the market room. The farm's green roof drainage systems held up in the storm but elsewhere in the city, some of the ground level farms such as Red Hook Farm run by Added Value in Brooklyn and Battery Park Urban Farm, at the southern tip of Manhattan, took a major bashing from the salty seas and are only just recovering with the help of the community and the city.

Although New York could be considered the international capital of rooftop urban farming, other cites are coming up fast. I visited Toronto, Chicago and San Francisco to see some of the many productive roofs that have been springing up over the past few years. 

Access Alliance Roof © River of Flowers

Taking me touring around the city of Toronto was community gardener and medicinal plant expert Zora Igniatovic. We met up with Lara Mrosovsky who manages the Access Alliance Roof above a community health centre, the first health organisation to have an organic green roof in Ontario let alone Toronto on a baking hot day when I could see how exposed a roof can be to the sun.  The rooftop kitchen garden provides local residents, mainly new immigrants, refugees and their families, with fresh food. The Green Access program uses the Green Roof as launch pad for community activities including education on the environment and healthy eating, and volunteers work together to tend the garden. It’s not a huge rooftop farm, only 6,500 square feet in size, but interestingly, around 40 varieties of cultivated vegetables, are integrated with culinary and medicinal herbs as well as wild native plants such as Purple Coneflowers, Blackeyed Susan, Nodding Onion, Harebell, Lance-leaf Coreopis, Prairie Smoke, Prickly Pear Cactus, Wild Columbine and Western Pearly Everlasting. It was wonderful to see specially created pollinator habitats as well such as soft sandy areas for mining bees and specially created bee boxes for the cavity dwellers.

Big Green Carrot Roof © River of Flowers

Zora also took me to the productive roof of the Big Carrot Natural Food Market, which has been providing organically grown, non-GMO and environmentally safe products since the 1980s. Certified by Ecocert Canada to process and package organic products in its juice bar, bulk, spice, cheese and produce departments, the rooftop produce is sold in the Big Carrot store. As with the Access Alliance Green Roof, a key goal of the Carrot Green Roof is to encourage local growers such as CultivateTO and engage the community with caring for the environment and healthy eating. The Big Carrot Green Roof has a meadow of native wildflowers running down right down the centre of the roof, and large covered area where various community events take place. 

Gary Comer Centre © River of Flowers

As any one who has seen The Boss series, knows that Chicago loves a green roof! The one on the City Hall roof is not accessible to the general public – I tried contacting by email and even speaking to security guards - but I was not on the list so I couldn't get in! However, there's a glorious floral roof in South Chicago above the Gary Comer Center, founded by the philanthropist Gary Comer, and gardening manager Marjorie Hess and some of her students showed me around. The roof is simply breathtaking, an expanse of brilliantly colored native plants, including Echnacea purpurea or Purple Coneflower, growing alongside vegetables and herbs destined not only for the Center's own canteen but also for high-end restaurants in downtown Chicago. It's a River of Flowers 'dream come true' - a pasture of natural and nutured edibles flourishing together, a feast for bees and us!

Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) © Peter Jarrett.

Speaking of restaurants, many chefs and hoteliers have started urban rooftop farms in North American cities to provide super fresh produce maintain their green credentials. I went to look at a few of these on my travels from New York to San Francisco, and will be telling their tales these in a Wild City Blog to come: Aerial Apiaries and Restaurant Rooftops!

The next Wild City Blog will be Gardens of the City


Sunflowers at Brooklyn Grange Farm © Kellen Davis

With thanks to

Ben Flanner of Brooklyn Grange for explaining the magic of this extraordinary urban farm

Lara Mrosovsky of the Access Alliance Roof for her good company and great advice

Zora Igniatovic for her genorosity of spirit escorting me around Toronto for days

Marjorie Hess of the Gary Comer Center for introducing me to the lovely roof and those who worked on it

Read more:

Urban Farming is Growing/National Geographic Magazine 

New York Farm City

San Francisco's Incredible Green Roof/ The Berry Prairie