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Roof Gardens, Wine, and Urban Agriculture

by Magnifico Tue Aug 28th, 2007 at 08:43:01 AM EST

In the past few days, two news stories have captured my imagination. The first story came from the Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney's skyline turning green. The second story was in the Washington Post, Iraqi Past Ferments in An Unlikely N.Y. Winery. Both stories deal with urban agriculture - the potential for it and one man's reality of it. From the SMH story:

Rice paddies and orchards on city rooftops could become reality with a plan to green Sydney's roofs... "It'd mean an enormous increase in parkland in the city," [architect Tone Wheeler] said.

The rooftop gardens could also have commercial potential. "There could be organically grown food grown on the roof and sold in the cafe below," Mr Wheeler said...

Garden designer Jamie Durie's company, Patio, has worked on several Sydney rooftop gardens and is working on projects in Chicago and New York, where the concept is more advanced.

"Wherever the sun falls there's an opportunity to grow a garden," he said.

The idea of rooftop gardens isn't a new one, but I think it has untapped potential for growing food in the urban environment. I love the idea of inviting you to a cozy corner restaurant in a favorite part of the city. We'd sit down at a table and, perhaps, order a fresh salad made from tossed greens grown on the restaurant's own roof garden. Throw in a few slices of cucumber and wedges of tomatoes from the garden and a dash of a light vinaigrette dressing and we're dining in urban agricultural style.

From the diaries ~ whataboutbob

But, there's more... our young server suggests that we order a bottle of wine made by the neighborhood winery. She can see by our dubiously raised eyebrows that we were unaware that there was a vineyard nearby. After a couple, gentle but leading questions, she begins to tell us about Latif Jiji, a 79-year-old "engineering professor originally from Iraq, [who] has made his townhouse into a vertical winery..."

NYC Grape Harvest

Latif Jiji stood on his Manhattan bedroom balcony and leaned out into a great, green vine. Facing the gray buildings of midtown, he grasped a handful of grapes and snipped, leaned farther, grasped another, snipped again, until he had filled two plastic bags with the fruit of his bedroom view...

He coaxed a vine he planted in 1977 to grow up four stories along the back of his home and cover almost all the roof -- more than 100 feet of gnarled wood and green grapes. He built his own air-conditioned wine cellar and stored 20 of his vintages in the basement. And each year he manages the picking of hundreds of pounds of grapes and sets up a crushing, pressing and chemistry operation outside in his narrow back yard...

Overhead, dangling from a rooftop trellis, were bundles upon bundles of grapes, pale green, thin-skinned, with a translucent, fatty, sugary quality, already giving off the scent of ferment and wine...

"The Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, they had short vines -- my vine is tall," Jiji will note. His vertical vine can cause problems. It's hard to pick grapes overhead. They're hard to see, grapes get crushed, juice streams down.

Of course after the fascinating story about Jiji and his "vertical winery" we agree we must try a bottle to taste the efforts of this eccentric, urban winemaker. Our server does warn us, however, that each bottle is an adventure onto itself.

The taste and quality of the wine varies from year to year, but also from bottle to bottle. It mostly has a mild, sweet flavor, and tastes much like the grapes on the roof. Some bottles develop a spiked grape juice taste.

She recommends the 2001 vintage, because it is "very well balanced, but it still has the Latif character, its crispness". We agree and she goes off to get a bottle from the restaurant's cellar. While we wait, we begin to discuss urban gardening.

So, what do you think?

Strangely enough, you barely beat me to a diary on roughly this topic: I was reflecting this morning that I'm really not in the mood for dealing with the big issues of the day - attacks or not on Iraq, depressing political nonsense or the energy-environment problem - and was considering writing about intensive, small-space, urban and small suburban growing again.

As an opener, I was reading recently that vehicle fumes don't spread much past 20 metres on open ground or upwards so, assuming smog isn't a big issue where you live, eating food grown in cities should be fine past about the second storey.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Aug 28th, 2007 at 05:02:48 AM EST
As a second observation, the requirements for plants to grow are enough fertile soil, the right amount of  light and warmth and enough water. Most traditional gardening books and practices are aimed squarely at large plots or container gardening, which can be a real pain.

It turns out - for instance looking at Mel Bartholomew's work1 that most crops and garden flowers don't need more than six inches deep of rich soil to do well. He claims that a four-foot (120cm) square box will produce enough salads to keep a person or two going for a full growing season and that three boxes should produce most of the veg and salads a person needs. If the soil isn't loam based, so it's light and water absorbent it's not going to be all that heavy (good for roof gardens). He's very insistent about his soil mix, but I've taken to using growing bag mixture which I'll feed with compost when I change crops. It's working well for me so far.

The main value of his stuff is that he splits the beds into 30cm x 30cm (1ft x 1ft) square, marked with (in my case) bamboos laid on the soil. A different crop generally goes into each, moving around all the time. The extra constraint of planting crops into those small spaces is really helpful in making planting decisions as you go along. The boxes are big enough to hold moisture and provide a living soil for the plants and watering is much easier than multiple containers, which I can never manage to keep properly watered.

Shrubs and trees obviously need different treatment, but they have to live in bigger, deeper containers that are big enough to hold enough moisture anyway.

  1. He fails to reference anyone else, pretty much, but you can see similar stuff in other places. Gardening books tend to be really bad at attributing ideas to other people unless there's a guru involved - the permaculture crowd are better at references for some reason.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Aug 28th, 2007 at 05:19:10 AM EST
Here's an example of small garden boxes in January on seventh story of the Freesia Condo in Vancouver, BC. There are 24 plots, about a meter by a meter in size. The video is from the City Farmer, which is a nearly 30-year-old program to help grow food in urban spaces. The site has a lot of useful information about urban gardening from composting to growing.

As you can see the boxes aren't very big as you note; however, there are only 24 boxes for 184 condos. So, I expect this particular garden space will be pricey, but well utilized.

by Magnifico on Tue Aug 28th, 2007 at 01:23:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Awfully deep boxes: the back of them is going to be difficult to reach.
 At least their heart is in the right general place.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Aug 28th, 2007 at 01:32:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Boy, am I on the same page with Colman...hard to be motivated to post much right now with all the weird new...but, <ahh> gardening!! That I can go with...

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Tue Aug 28th, 2007 at 08:44:54 AM EST
This is also a very good way of recycling old car tyres. If you take a tyre, place it on a bed of Gravel to allow drainage then fill it with soil, then take your seed potatos and cut them so that you have a couple of eyes in each chunk then plant about 3 pieces in the tyre, wait till the resulting plants are about 8or 9" high then place another tyre on top andfill that with soil so that you have about 2 or three inches of plant protruding. Ifthe plant beneath the surface should throw out tap roots from which potatos will grow.

Continue doing this for about 4 tyres more and depending on the species you should end up with about 25 pounds of potatos for the use of very little space.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.

by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Tue Aug 28th, 2007 at 09:35:02 AM EST
But car tires are horrible things.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Aug 28th, 2007 at 01:17:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
yes but there are more discarded in America per year than there are people.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Tue Aug 28th, 2007 at 05:18:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A beautiful garden in Sydney atop a 6 story building: MCentral. The space that is the garden was a car park as recently as four years ago. The garden has a soil depth of 30 cm. It isn't a vegetable garden, but it is a most welcomed green space.

by Magnifico on Tue Aug 28th, 2007 at 01:14:54 PM EST
Growing vegetables is my only response to what's going on in the world.

This past April I put 30 home made versions of an Earthbox on my flat garage roof.  I live in a relatively dense urban environment (Chicago), container gardening is the only way to go.  The Earthbox - http://www.earthbox.com/ - has a water reservoir, only needs fertilizing once, no weeding or mulching.  It's been quite an adventure; bugs, mold, mildew.......  

I'm trying to get the photos on a flicker page.  In the meantime, here's a couple links.

Homemade earthbox - http://www.josho.com/Earthbox.htm

Also, the City of Montreal has a rooftop gardening program - http://rooftopgardens.ca/en?PHPSESSID=ead547e5df9625f40e148fff6e36f8ef

Here's a good one in Chicago that I just found - http://www.urbanhabitatchicago.org/projects/true-nature-foods/

by Bruce F (greenroofgrowers [at] gmail [dot] com) on Tue Aug 28th, 2007 at 01:17:59 PM EST
Grief, that earthbox looks like trouble and hassle.

What dimensions are the ones you're using?

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Aug 28th, 2007 at 01:22:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Wonderful story of Latif Jiji's vine-growing.

In my realm, I'm teased by neighbors about the grape vines I have growing in the common courtyard. When will we be tasting Château Leofing?, they ask. Weell, that may take time, but in the meanwhile the red grapes I produce are very tasty. With cheese, they're heaven.  

Sage, rosemary, basil, thyme, chives, chervil do well in pots, here; tomatoes and strawberries, too. This year's experiment is a Cassis bush, which is going great guns, and I have a new cherished little fig tree.

Many don't realize how much can be done, with as small a space as a window sill, to courtyards, to full-fledged gardens and roof-tops ...

Gardening is great in itself, but it's the best thing ever when one is short on ideas and in need of a creative breather.


by Loefing on Tue Aug 28th, 2007 at 05:23:15 PM EST
I would love to see photos and a diary!

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 01:50:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Bonne fée d'ET, metavision, the growing season is coming to an end, here, so my humble plantation is beginning to look a bit tired at the leaf.

I'll post a few pictures in an open thread and perhaps will find a pretext for a garden diary, soon.



by Loefing on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 02:58:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My town in Japan used to be all fields, but the central area has been overgrown with houses.  Still, here and there, are remnants of the old fields.  Many of them are no larger than a car or two, but they are largely responsible for the wonderful seasonal produce available at many of the small convenience stores and roadside stands.  Sadly, most are tended by the very old, so I suspect they will gradually disappear - the younger generations don't seem nearly as keen on gardening.
by Zwackus on Tue Aug 28th, 2007 at 11:47:48 PM EST
Timely, as I was about to post some commentary on this:
At 9 a.m. on a cool, bright Saturday in mid-June, Robert Burns and Diana Baldelomar set up a farm stand outside the YMCA in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. The stand is simple: a tent to keep out the sun, two folding tables set in an L-shape and a handful of zinc washtubs filled with two inches of water. In the tubs stand heads of green and red lettuce, greens, broccoli, and bunches of mint and basil.

    When two women approach and ask the price of the greens, Baldelomar tells them that the turnip, mustard and collard greens are a dollar a bunch. "Honey," the woman says, "in this neighborhood, if someone asks you for greens, they are only talking about the collards." Her companion asks, "Did you ship it in from the country?"

    "No ma'am. These are from right around the corner, West Cottage and Brook. We went out and harvested them this morning. You should stop by sometime."

    Burns and Baldelomar work with the Food Project, a community-based urban agriculture program founded in 1991 to get Boston's youth involved in food production. Their West Cottage plot is one of four farms on vacant lots in the Dorchester neighborhood.

    The Food Project is part of a growing urban agriculture movement to improve access to quality food in cities by creating local sources of fresh produce. The movement is showing that sustainable, local food systems are not only a way to ensure food security but also a means of addressing social justice issues.

[lots more, worth a read]

I have used Earthboxes and they are actually a treat for patio and limited-space container garden projects.  Low maintenance, the average adult can drag one around even after it is filled and growing, and the reservoir is a godsend in hot dry climates.  Lots of folks make similar wicking-reservoir planters these days.

Next comment is that excellent soil can be made by keeping a few worm bins about the place:  food scraps, yard waste, and humanure can all be converted by redworms (or Hermetia larvae) and patience into excellent nutrients to mix with whatever nice absorbent fibre/carbon you have lying about.  And then you can also experiment with Tierra Preta techniques on a small scale if inspired.

My last comment is that this is exactly the kind of dense small scale polyculture that has sustained humanity for millennia, very efficiently and deliciously, and which monocrop feudalism -- of which corporate agriculture is only the latest flavour -- tries to stamp out wherever it, so to speak, crops up.

Good book of the week:  Carlo Petrini's latest (I think -- he's a prolific fella), Slow Food Nation -- lousy title, obviously intended to ride on the coat tails of Fast Food Nation, a cheap and demeaning  trick of the US publisher.  If I'd published it I would have called it "Good, Clean, and Fair" which is CP's theme throughout:  that a human right should be access to food that is good (tasty/delicious/nutritious/fresh), clean (not poisoned or contaminated, not produced by biosphericidal methods), and fair (not produced by slavery, peonage, conquest, theft etc).

as he points out, coming at it from many angles through many anecdotes and much background, good/clean/fair add up to "local" for the vast majority of foodstuffs, though like most reasonable folk he leaves some room for long haul trade in surpluses of attractive high-value foodstuffs, after local needs have been met.  the english translation is a bit clunky at times and makes me wish I could read the original Italian which I'm sure is more graceful, but it's a good book nonetheless -- bridging the gap between the foodies and the landless rights movements, the four star chefs and the K-12 school garden.

oh yeah, google also for Guerrilla Gardening and some really interesting links will come up.

must... sleep... must... sleep... must... sleep...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 03:49:47 AM EST
the reservoir is a godsend in hot dry climates.  

I was thinking that after I posted yesterday. We're normally more concerned about drainage around here, especially this summer.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 04:24:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
yes, I was thinking later (after I shut down the laptop) that an Earthbox wouldn't make much sense in Ireland.  however in central Calif where I am now, it makes all the diff between being enslaved by your containers (watering every single day or losing the lot) and being able to have a life and water every week to two weeks.

here is a pic of my garden in the spring of 05 -- the field of favas shown there is all in earthbox-like containers.  they were my nitrogen-fixing winter crop.  I still have favas in the freezer from that Spring :-)

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 01:38:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I have a packet of fava seeds to go in after I pull out the corn ...
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 01:54:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
2 notes on favas:  picked as babies they are absolutely delicious, no need to peel the skins, just steam or sautee lightly, add a bit of butter and whatever herbs you fancy, and yummmm!  baby favas with pesto over cornbread, a real winner :-) but as they get bigger (more nutritional value for your gardening effort) they get tougher and mealier, the taste gets more boring, and the skins become obtrusively chewy.  then it's worth blanching and skinning them.  my next experiment will be to grind the frozen ones to powder and make my own bean chips.

they are the most prolific bean I have ever planted, hardy and willing and tremendously rewarding.  read recently that they were planted widely in Iron Age Britain!  and they generate a lot of biomass in the form of stem and leaf, as well.  a real wompom...

but you probably knew all that already :-)  sorry if I am preaching to the choir

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 05:02:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
More information pls. Couldn't find favas in wiki...

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 05:11:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
= broad beans, me duck.

Every bit as good as DeAnander says!

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 05:13:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Nitrogen fixing - good. Cover crop - good. Overwintering - good. Taste - good.

Not common in Finland. Don't know why.

As a cook I love all pulses, but I always have to look up soaking and/or cooking times for the less common ones. After cooking for a few decades you get a feel for almost anything in terms of cooking times and methods - but pulses still often defy common wisdom. It depends on the recipe - overcooking is not necessarily bad if you are going to zap them for a soup or sauce. But to get that nice al dente crunch for some dishes you need to work from wiki or google ;-)

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 05:23:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh yeah?  WikiP on Fava_beans

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 05:30:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Put in 'Fava'. I never look past the first 20 entries :-)

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 05:43:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My spring batch got chewed up by the assorted critters infesting this place. I'm sort of hoping the autumn batch will survive better: worst comes to worst they'll make good compost.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 05:23:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What critters?
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 05:25:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
By critters I mean earwigs and wood-lice, with help from the slugs ...

I don't know what the hell the previous occupants were doing here but it seemed to include a breeding programme for crustaceans.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 05:26:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My guess is that they were big pesticide users  - the left over weedkillers indicate they were fully invested in the chemical gardening craze.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 05:29:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You've probably hit upon a new gardening program format: 'Chernobyl Gardens - taking your garden back to Eden'.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 05:46:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Earwigs are handy because (though they eat bits of leaf etc) they prey on blackfly, which are a real problem for young broad/fava bean shoots. Some organic gardeners make winter shelters to encourage them to stick around.

Slugs, hmm. Catch and destroy. Hours of fun.

The worst bean critter we had was a neighbouring rooster who we saw finishing off the last beans of two rows just when the beans were swollen and sprouting. A jab into the ground with his beak, up came a bean like a plum from a pie, gobble gobble, no more beans. Aarrgghh!

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 05:48:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, in theory earwigs are useful. However, when you nuke everything except them, woodlice and slugs they can run rampant and do real damage. It's like the slugs: when you kill all their predators they'll shred you. Just have to give the garden a chance to regain balance.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 05:55:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Excellent book on those issues (species imbalance and land stewardship):  Noah's Garden...  delightfully written and good food (or compost) for thought...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu Aug 30th, 2007 at 05:42:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Planting ferns can help mop up toxic waste.
by Loefing on Fri Aug 31st, 2007 at 08:24:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Also, an informative, little known publication by Darwin, on worms.

From Project Gutenburg:
The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms, with observations

by Loefing on Thu Aug 30th, 2007 at 01:47:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Up here in Buffalo where the homes/buildings make for cheap real estate, I looked into purchasing a small old firehouse that had been converted into a loft with a rooftop garden. The previous owner made the mistake of allowing me to rent there, and that allowed me to realize that a rooftop garden was a potential nightmare, if it's sufficiently large enough.

The garden he built up there was laid atop a very solid structure over the garage, a building that could support a high rise, built with rebar every 6 inches (it had to support multiple firetrucks). Many, many tons of sod were laid over a strong rubber lining on the flat roof. For a decade, flowers and vegetables grew, and low and behold a tree! Unfortunately, roots are strong and they dug through the rubber coat and created a permanent leak in the roof of the structure.

How to remove all that sod then and repair the leak?

The problem cost almost as much as the building itself.

I didn't buy.

I have pictures though of that wonderful, beautiful rooftop garden. It was amazing.

Note to self: when building a rooftop garden, keep it small.

by Upstate NY on Wed Aug 29th, 2007 at 09:07:39 AM EST
The owner of that roof garden should have taken The Little Prince´s advice: root out the Baobabs when they´re young or they´ll tear your little asteroid to pieces!

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Sep 6th, 2007 at 11:55:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you. Maybe I´ll get to work on our garden (not that Barbara hasn´t been doing an excellent job of that already).

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Sep 6th, 2007 at 11:54:01 AM EST

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