Breaking Records

Just before the ground re-froze,  we harvested some sweet winter carrots and were rather amazed when this giant emerged from the relatively shallow soils of its rooftop bed:

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I’ve always been drawn much more to the qualitative than the quantitative, and initially focused on the question of how to cook this giant, and how it would taste.  But then something strange happened.   A voice deep within the limbic brain offered the tantalizing suggestion that mine might be bigger than anyone else’s.   It could be a record-breaker.  Sharing some deep genetic predisposition with every kid obsessed with the 4H prize for biggest pumpkin at the county fair, I set out to investigate whether I too might claim a prize to validate my prowess in drawing sustenance from the soil.

I turned, of course, to the good folks at the World Museum of Carrots (motto: “Discover the Power of Carrots”), who gently suggested that if I were after a record, the parameters would have to be defined rather narrowly.  After all, the world record weight was 18.985 pounds (a carrot grown in Alaska) and the world record for length was 19 feet 1.96 inches (the UK).   But the World Museum of Carrots is open to other types of carrot-related prize-winning feats.  After all, they track the records for most carrots peeled and chopped in a minute (515 g), most baby carrots fit in an open mouth (25), and most carrot chews before swallowing (96).  I was encouraged.

Researching the record books for New York State, I was disappointed to find no claim for state-champion carrot (only a nice lady from the Hudson Valley as pleased with her one-pound carrot as I am).  Nor were there any reports of tuberous immensity (I know, it’s a root not a tuber) from community or roof-top gardeners in New York City.

So, I have decided to publish a challenge:  I claim that this magnificent root, weighing in at one pound, is (i) the largest carrot ever harvested from a green-roof garden ever (anywhere in the world) and (ii) is the largest carrot harvested south of Canal Street in Manhattan during the past two centuries.    Anyone wishing to contest these claims is encouraged to send along a photograph or other evidence, and I will graciously and publicly withdraw or modify my claim.   Until then, we’ll add record-breaking carrot to the achievements of Battery Rooftop Garden.

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As apology and explanation for this irrational outburst, I offer the following photographic evidence of current conditions on the roof – enough to drive any gardener mad.

A kale snow cone

A kale snow cone

Glazed blueberries

Glazed blueberries

Frosted apple

Frosted apple

 

 

 

Posted in Carrots, Weather | 6 Comments

The Perfect Rooftop Fruit

Plants, like people, tend to get around.  A plant on my roof got its start in China about 2000 years ago, and by the 8th century AD found its way into Japan.   When it arrived in Nepal and the Himalayan states of India, it was cultivated at elevations above 1500 meters, thus showing early aptitude for life on the roof of a tall building.  The fruit of this tree is so susceptible to bruising that it was traditionally hand carried from the mountains to markets below.  In Japan, even today, each fruit is separately wrapped and a single fruit is often presented as a special gift.  Stumped?

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I refer of course to Pyrus pyrifolia, most commonly known as the Asian Pear.   So how did this delicious fruit, at once juicy, crispy and sweet, avoid the clutches of global commerce?  It has two characteristics that recommend it to the home orchardist, but make it deeply unattractive to the industrial food system: First, its fruits will ripen only on the tree; once picked, no amount of chemical bombardment or environmental manipulation will cause it to ripen further.  Second, its off-the-charts moisture content means it bruises easily, so is difficult to transport, and when processed, collapses into incoherent mush.  In other words, the perfect fruit for urban agriculture:  let it ripen on your roof, pick by hand, walk it gently to the table, eat raw, be happy.

Making it even more irresistible is its hardiness.  The USDA considers it hardy to Zone 4, but some Chinese cultivars are reported to have survived minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.  At the other end of the spectrum, this Pyrus shrugs off the heat and humidity of New York summers, and after five years, can get by with little water.  And if your roof isn’t big enough for a tree, then try an espalier, as I have at BRTG:

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In addition to size, an espalier will allow you to mix multiple cultivars of Pyrus pyrifolia on the same plant.  At BRTG, three cultivars of Asian pear are grafted on to the same standard:  ‘Chojuro’, meaning “plentiful,” one of the oldest (cultivated in Japan in 1893); the more familiar ‘Nijisseiki,” which means “20th Century” and dates from 1898; and ‘Shinseiki,’ meaning “new century,” perhaps the most familiar to North American orchardists, known for its pale fellow skin and reliable production of fruit in late August.

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Many people have asked what fruit appears in the banner photograph running across the top of the home page of this blog.  Now you know.

Posted in Asian Pears, Fruit, Pears | 3 Comments

We are family

Pop quiz: what do beets, spinach, quinoa and Swiss chard have in common?

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No, they are not all grown at Battery Rooftop Garden (no quinoa, yet).   Yes, they are all delicious, nutritious and ancient foods, but that’s not it either.

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The answer:  the family Amaranthaceae (aka the “goosefoot” family).   These seemingly disparate vegetables are close cousins in one of the vegetable garden’s noble families, sharing a common evolutionary path, but sporting a dazzling diversity of features, and the cosmopolitan habit of settling in all over the globe, with a slight preference for temperate climates.  Their success, like that of certain ancient noble human families, may be due to a proclivity for reproductive excess:  their windborne pollens – most famously from sugar beets – have been found in wind currents three miles above the surface.

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You initially may be surprised that a root crop like beets is a close cousin of a stem/leaf crop like chard; but this is simply a manner of culinary habit, not botanic morphology.   For example, look closely, and you will see that the Swiss chard also has a substantial storage root that can be harvested and stored for five or six months in a root cellar or other cool spot.

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When it comes to human families, preoccupation with genealogy can quickly become tedious or worse.  But among urban farmers, a passing acquaintance with the genealogy of their plants is a must.   Vegetables in the same family rarely squabble when occupying the same row or bed (there are important exceptions), and farmers generally move families en masse from place to place each year in order to refresh (in the case of nitrogen-fixing Leguminosae family) or simply differently stress the soil (commonly referred to as crop rotation).

Most of us know the infamous “Nightshade” family (Solanaceae, including eggplants, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes), the Onion family (Amarylildaceae, with garlic, leeks and onions) and the Brassicas (Bassicaceae, with its clearly related broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, collard, kale, etc.).  But did you know that carrots, celery, parsley and parsnips are cousins (in the Apiaceae family)?

The 17th century cavalier poet, Richard Lovelace, whose brother was the second Governor of the New York Colony, was fond of insects and plants, with, perhaps, a special affection for the Amaranth family:

Amarantha sweet and faire,

Ah brade no more that shining haire!

As my curious hand or eye,

Hovering round thee, let it flye.

Posted in Beets, Chard, Spinach, Vegetables | Leave a comment

How to eat

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For omnivores like us, the choices are many, and growing every day:  Paleo, raw, pescatarian, macrobiotic, vegan, lacto ovo vegetarian, and many more.   Michael Pollan gives us a simple answer:  eat food, mostly plants, not too much.

The dialog around diet these days tends to revolve around science:  nutrition, health and the implications of evolution and genetics.   This is a good thing.   But too often the aesthetic and social aspects of growing, harvesting, cooking and eating are left out of the equation.

Here at Battery Rooftop Garden we eat what’s here, when it’s ready, and generally as simply as possible.   This means much gets eaten raw, often not more than a few feet away from the plant:  blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and apples that tend to go from stem to mouth in a few seconds.   When things are cooked, we keep it clean, roasting being the preferred house method for cooking beets, carrots, potatoes, eggplants and peppers.   And, in a trend considered eccentric even by the most militant urban gardeners, we have – for the moment at least – banned dressings from salad, so as not to disguise the flavor of the various varieties of greens.  You get the picture:  a monastic sensibility, abjuring the decorative in a quest to discover the essential.

Occasionally, therefore, it is important to be reminded that cooking is one of mankind’s greatest arts, and greatest sources of pleasure.  Although elaborate preparation can rarely rescue second-class ingredients, artful preparation can amplify exponentially the flavors — and thus pleasure — of food.   And so I was reminded a few weeks ago, when Chef Howard Kalachnikoff from Gramercy Tavern again prepared a spectacular meal, mostly from rooftop ingredients, as a benefit for the superb charity, Just Food.   Farmer Annie Novak, Chef Howard and his sous chefs spent an enjoyable late afternoon harvesting the September bounty from the roof:  basil, mint, Malabar spinach, spinach, lettuces, carrots, beets, Japanese eggplants, radishes, kale, purple potatoes, sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, grapes, Asian pears, European pears, apples.   They laid out this bounty in the kitchen,

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and from it created the following menu:

Rickshaw cocktail, made from BRTG basil

Rooftop greens garnished with rooftop oregano flowers

Roasted and raw carrots, dukkah, sherry gastrique, cremont cheese, pistachios, and roof top herbs

Boiled and creamed rooftop Malabar spinach, baked Filone chips, pickled rooftop Malabar stems, poached egg, shaved pecorino and shaved rooftop radishes

Rooftop kale shot, with rooftop mint, and granita and brunoise from rooftop apples

Ricotta tortellini, with blanched then sautéed rooftop purple potatoes, and rooftop basil pesto

Arctic char slowly cooked in smoked oil in the sous vide, with rooftop eggplant puree, glazed eggplant, sautéed rooftop peppers and slices of rooftop Asian pear

Rooftop mint ice cream and mint meringue wafers.

In food, as in music and all the other arts, it is high art that provides the pinnacle experience and moves civilization forward.   We don’t need Wagner every night, but nor do we want to live without it.

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Posted in Chefs, Cooking and Eating, Meals and Menus | 1 Comment

Tribute in Light

 

DSC00897It is rare for a memorial to be perfectly calibrated to the nature of the tragedy it marks.  The elegant Stone of Remembrance designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens for the British World War I cemeteries is a notable example.  The Tribute in Light, which recently rose again on the anniversary of 9/11, is another.

DSC00899 Battery Rooftop Garden enjoys a unique view of the Tribute, which somehow seems amplified when seen through the screen of trees, shrubs and plants.

DSC00898 Memorials usually play on our quest for the eternal, offering consolation for those lost with the stolid stone suggestion of permanence and eternity.   The genius of the Tribute is its embrace of time, loss and the ephemeral nature of all things.   At a glance, we accept the paradoxical metaphor of a thing that appears without material form for a couple of days only, but which will exist for eternity, its photons winging their way forever to the farthest reaches of the cosmos.  The metaphor continues with the convergence of the parallel beams in a singular burst of brightness.

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Given my audience, I feel compelled to point out that the Tribute runs under the supervision of Audubon, which ensures the lights are switched off every 20 minutes to release the birds trapped in its beams, and is powered by biodiesel cooking oil collected from local restaurants.

 

 

Posted in Design, Photos, Seen From the Battery Rooftop Garden | 3 Comments

Harvest Time on Wall Street

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My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree

Toward heaven still,

And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill

Beside it, and there may be two or three

Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.

But I am done with apple-picking now.

Robert Frost, of course, was not really talking about apples.  But I am.  This morning was apple harvest day at Battery Rooftop Garden.

The four trees, a Red Fuji dwarf, Red Winesap semi-dwarf, Macoun semi-dwarf and Royal Gala dwarf, were – before this year – consigned to the failure column in the accounting of the many experiments that began with the planting of the garden in the spring of 2010.   Three of the trees had never borne fruit, and one had pushed out a few stunted apples that seemed unworthy of harvest.     This was not, frankly, a great disappointment, as my analysis of the “half-life” of fruits and vegetables (see previous blog post) had demonstrated that the nutritional case for growing apples in the city was weak.   I should have left the apples to the many growers exploiting the superb apple terroir of the Hudson Valley.

Nonetheless, the experiment was not abandoned.  We pruned properly, but did not spray.   Mid-way through the summer, it looked like we might be experiencing a major pomological turn-around.   And then, suddenly, it was late September, and the boughs drooped low toward the roof with a heavy burden of good-looking fruit.

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No guest workers were required for the four trees in this orchard.  In keeping with the general zen of urban agriculture in New York, we bolted the harvest on to a yoga lesson, and harvested with perfect postural alignment assisted and supervised by yoga teacher extraordinaire Tom O’Brien (also writer, director and actor in the award-winning independent film, Fairhaven, which I urge readers of the BRTG blog to download and watch).

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I am not burdened as Robert Frost was by “ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,” but there is enough fruit to carry this small urban household well into the winter.

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Posted in Apples, Failures, Fruit | 1 Comment

Bugs

Between late May and late October 2012, Jeremy Law, a graduate student in the Ecology, Evolution & Environmental Biology Department at Columbia University, conducted a study of arthropod diversity at Battery Rooftop Garden.  Guests visiting during last summer noticed bowls and cups set into the ground, including fluorescent blue, yellowbug bowls white “bee bowls,” a type of pan trap, and pitfall traps.  Jeremy also used a funnel-shaped sweep net to capture creatures from the air and foliage.

The results? I present, with Jeremy’s permission, an edited version of the conclusions from his scientific paper:

“Although green roofs are habitats with harsh microclimatic conditions in isolation from ground-level habitats, they also have great potential in providing novel habitat for a variety of species in the urban environment (Oberndorfer et al. 2007).  The Battery Rooftop Garden can be considered extreme for its location on the 35th floor, which can estimated conservatively to be 117 m, which is remarkably close to the height of the world’s tallest tree, a coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) which stands at 115.54 m, according to Guinness World Records.  Based on this fact, it would be safe to say that this green roof would not be a habitat typically encountered by most arthropods in nature.

Despite these extreme conditions, I identified 15 orders and at least 35 families of arthropods on this rooftop garden. Of the 15 arthropod orders identified on the roof, 11 were from the class Insecta, which is quite impressive considering that there are only 41 insect orders in existence, according to the Tree of Life Web Project (Maddison andSchulz 2007).  Although similar observational studies have been conducted on green roofs, no studies to date have been conducted on a green roof constructed on such a tall building (Brenneisen 2006, Kadas 2006, MacIvor and Lundholm 2011, Tonietto et al. 2011).

I included the relevant abundances, consumer category, and flight ability to provide a more accurate description of the arthropod community on this rooftop garden. Based on these categorizations, it appears that the spread of consumer category and flight ability were evenly spread among the different categories, with no particularly lowor high frequencies occurring.  In particular, the even spread of the taxa among consumer categories may provide some insight into the health of the arthropod community.  A previous study on trap-nesting bees and wasps and their natural enemies suggests that the presence of both prey species and their natural enemies act as a bioindicator for high habitat quality (Tscharntke et al. 1998).  At the Battery RooftopGarden, the presence of aphids and thrips, both prey species, and spiders, braconid wasps, syrphid flies, and lady bugs, all likely predatory species of aphids and thrips, indicates that this green roof may indeed be providing valuable habitat for a vibrant functional arthropod community.

Surprisingly, the Battery Rooftop Gardens included arthropods with both high and low (or no) flight ability. These flightless animals may have arrived via wind dispersal or simply hitched a ride in the substrate or on plants added to the garden (Gatehouse 1997).  It should be noted, though, that two arthropod group that are highly abundant on ground level were completely absent from all collections. Ants (Family: Formicidae) and mites (Subclass: Acari), which are highly abundant throughout urban areas, were not found on the Battery Rooftop Garden (Heliovaara and Vaisanen 1993, McIntyre 2000). This may indeed be a result of the vertical distance from ground-level and the low flight ability of these arthropod groups, as a previous study found that thevast majority of ant species were more abundant at ground level than on green roofs (MacIvor and Lundholm 2011).

Despite the extreme conditions of the Battery Rooftop Garden, the arthropod community appears to be thriving. What could be the explanation for this wide diversity of arthropod taxa? The Battery Rooftop Garden is rather atypical in comparison to othergreen roofs in that the substrate used on this roof is both relatively deep and composed of soil used for gardening, while other green roofs use shallow substrate with low organic content. In a previous study on beetles found on green roofs in Basel, Switzerland, the authors found that high structural diversity in the substrate, as is the case in natural soils, contributed to a high species richness of beetles (Kaupp et al.2004).  Additionally, the Battery Rooftop Garden has very high plant and floral diversity relative to the typical Sedum-covered green roofs. In previous studies, dense vegetation and high floral diversity contributed to increased diversity in beetles, bees and hoverflies, potentially offsetting the physical isolation and adverse microclimatic conditions of arooftop (Kaupp et al. 2004, Frund et al. 2010, Mayer et al. 2012).

In this study, I sampled the arthropod diversity of the Battery Rooftop Garden and found a tremendous diversity of fauna. This study was an initial snapshot of the biodiversity of this already complex mini ecosystem. Arthropod communities are fast changing, and what was present in the habitat for a given year may not be present in thenext. Likewise, there will surely be new arthropod groups and species that will colonize the Battery Rooftop Garden each year. There is evidence that as these green roof habitats age, the number of arthropod species will increase, although future studies need to be conducted to confirm this phenomenon (Kaupp et al. 2004). In summary, the results of this study show that the Battery Rooftop Garden is a unique system that, in its young age, already provides habitat for a vibrant and changing arthropod community.”

So who are these arthropods?  Of particular interest to my fruit trees, berries and vegetables are the great pollinators of the Hymenoptera order, which includes Bees and Wasps.

This handsome fellow is the Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera),

honeybeeSource: bugguide.net (metrioptera)

not to be confused with his cousin, the Common Eastern Bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), which is able to thrive in a wide variety of habitats and is a generalist nectar feeder:

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Source: Flickr (Henryr10)

In subsequent posts, we will introduce you to some of the other arthropod residents of BRTG, including the Braconid Wasp, Hunter Fly and Hoverfly, and discuss their importance to urban agriculture and other evidence that more diverse plantings significantly improve the ecological value of green roofs, and the productivity of urban agriculture.

Posted in Biodiversity, Wildlife | 2 Comments