Get down and dirty in the garden
Learn how to start your own rooftop garden with Annie Novak in The Rooftop Gardening Guide (Ten Speed Press, 2016). Sample plans, interviews with other rooftop gardeners, and case studies round out this enthusiastic guide to creating urban farms in every possible space, no matter how small or city-bound.
You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: The Rooftop Growing Guide.
At the age of twenty, when I was a very susceptible young thinker, I read Wendell Berry’s “The Pleasures of Eating.” To this day, it remains the most powerful essay I’ve ever read about food.
Beginning with the simple assertion that “Eating is an agricultural act,” Berry deftly unfolds the tragedy of the modern American food system, then lays out a short charter of actions for the ecological eater. He ties our good health to food sovereignty: the ability to grow our own food, or at least understand where it comes from. He links high quality food to healthy soil, healthy soil to good farming, and better farming stewardship to the sustainability of our watersheds, our country, and our planet. To eat well, he says, is as simple as maintaining a healthy curiosity about the connection between dirt and dinner. The essay concludes with a list of common sense ways an eater can do this. He asks that we cook for ourselves, try to grow our own food, make friends with farmers, and investigate the stories of our favorite plants. I can remember exactly what I did when I finished the article: everything, precisely as he suggested.
John Stoddard and Courtney Hennessay were experienced ground-level farmers before they took to the roofs.
Now it is your turn. You’ll find that rooftop gardening, urban farming, and farming and gardening in general are challenging tasks. But the word Berry uses — “pleasure” — is an apt counterbalance to this effort. Farming and gardening present opportunities to reengage with a deeply entrenched part of our humanity that goes beyond simply eating well or getting outside. People need plants. In 2005, in the same spring season I started my career at the New York Botanical Garden at its beautiful two-acre family-friendly vegetable gardening site, The Edible Academy, Richard Louv published Last Child in the Woods, a call to arms in the face of the rise in obesity, attention deficit disorder, and depression. Regular exposure to nature, Louv suggests, is essential to the health and cognitive development of children and adults alike.
Inexpensive plastic crates lined with geotextile fabric and filled with organic soil mix make for an easily portable rooftop farm setup.
Our personal health and the ecological health of our chosen living environment depends on maintaining and creating new green spaces. This is particularly true as internationally we become a more urban people. All rooftops — in and outside of cities — could be greener, but markedly in the density of an urban landscape, rooftop gardens and green roofs have transformative power. In 2009, the year we founded the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, an abandoned elevated train track in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood opened in renewed use as the High Line. It quickly became one of the most popular public parks of the last century, welcoming five million visitors a year.
Rooftop farming is a thread in a larger woven landscape we’ve spent a long time unraveling but can yet stitch back together. Whether it’s food, pleasure, entrepreneurship, health, community, or necessity that brings you up to the roof, your efforts are a note in a long-sung song. Indeed, when looking at the landscape of empty rooftops around you and wondering where to begin, it’s important to remember the stubbornness of nature below and above our architecture. In New York City, I see it in the weeds prying up through sidewalk cracks, or in the red-tailed hawks circling their way back into an ecosystem by nesting in the stone facades of turn-of-the-century buildings. In the years the High Line sat fallow, wildflowers grew up through the train trusses. There’s a necessity to green spaces, which in his poem In a Country Once Forested Berry gently reminds us is as inevitable as we allow it to be:
… the soil under the grass
is dreaming of a young forest,
and under the pavement the soil
is dreaming of grass.
Reprinted with permission from The Rooftop Gardening Guide by Annie Novak and published by Ten Speed Press, 2016. Buy this book from our store: The Rooftop Growing Guide.