Breaking News: Urban Fruit is Better

A few years ago, I told an environmentalist friend of mine, who is also a medical doctor, about my green roof and plan to grow food.   She looked at me strangely, obviously torn between disapproval and an instinct to be polite in the face of my enthusiasm for urban agriculture.   Finally she shared her opinion that urban food production was dangerous, due to the high levels of lead and other contaminants in so many urban soils. I explained that green roof soils were sourced from outside of the city and no more likely to be contaminated that any others.   She pointed out that, even so, I was not immune from atmospheric disposition of contaminants, and we dropped the subject.   Ever since, somewhere in the back of my mind, lurked a worry that perhaps she was right.

So I was delighted to discover that the League of Urban Canners, an urban harvesting collective in the Boston area, asked Dan Brabander, professor of geosciences, and his students at Wellesley, to tackle this question. Professor Brabander and his team examined 166 samples of apples, peaches, cherries, and other fruits and herbs sourced from urban farms in Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston, and then conducted a laboratory analysis to determine lead levels as well as concentrations of micronutrients. The result, as reported in their paper: “consumption of urban fruit does not represent a significant lead exposure pathway that merits immediate concern.”

But here’s what I found most interesting: nutritious calcium concentrations in urban apples and peaches were more than 2.5 times those in their commercial counterparts, and the amount of other beneficial micronutrients were higher in every type of urban fruit tested. Their conclusion, in the careful language of science: “On average urban fruit contains a wider range of micronutrients than their commercial counterparts.”   But why? That’s a question for another day.   In the mean time, I will be serving my guests Battery Rooftop Garden’s Asian and European pears, peaches, plums, nectarines, and apples without guilt, and with the satisfaction that they are almost certainly more nutritious than the store-bought alternative.

With thanks to my cousin Amy for bringing this study to my attention. If you want to read the full paper, click here.

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Posted in Apples, Asian Pears, Cooking and Eating, European Pears, Fruit, Nectarines, Peaches, Pears, Plums, Soil, Urban Agriculture and Food Policy | Leave a comment

Hot, Hot, Hot — Part II

The interview with Suzanne Roberts on Headline News (see previous post) was part of her show, “Seeking Solutions with Suzanne,” which aims to give practical advice to retired Americans.

Her visit was followed a couple of days later by the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s, whose audience is a bit different.   Their video site is, in fact, quite specific: “advice for families with assets of $5 million or more.”   On Tuesday, I found myself trying to convince retirees that they can grow vegetables in plastic tubs on the fire escape, and on Thursday my job was to convince millionaires to raise their sights and tell their architects to forget the media room and give them vegetables on the roof.

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The Dow Jones videographer took some stunning footage of the garden (to be featured in a subsequent post), and asked the questions off-camera.  Have a look at the resulting program, at http://www.wsj.com/video/growing-rooftop-food/A42055EB-D36A-42A0-BF99-B85BF3A86A84.html .

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Posted in Urban Agriculture and Food Policy | 1 Comment

Hot, Hot, Hot

No, I’m not talking about the genus Capsicum, whose many species of peppers thrive on a green roof. I’m talking about green roofs themselves.  For years, we rooftop farmers have attracted the attention of periodicals like Urban Farm and Living Architecture, worthy to be sure, but hardly mainstream.   This year, that seems to have changed.  In one week earlier this autumn three separate video crews dragged their equipment to the 35th floor to explore the wonders of urban agriculture.

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The first of those – an interview with Suzanne Roberts on Headline News Network (HLN) – airs tomorrow, Wednesday November 12 at 1:24 PM Eastern Standard Time.  If you miss it, you can see a truncated version of the interview at http://www.suzanne.tv/show.aspx?sid=1051 .

Following shortly: links to the Wall Street Journal/Dow Jones/Barron’s Penta show on BRTG.

Posted in Urban Agriculture and Food Policy | 3 Comments

All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up


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Norma Desmond may have been over the hill, but here in early July some of the stars of Battery Rooftop Garden are in their prime.

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Nature at landscape scale, such as the views of New York Harbor from the roof, can be sublime and inspiring. But I am convinced that the most profound appreciation of the natural world grows out of close observation.

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The scale of the smaller vegetable garden, and especially a roof top garden, is particularly conducive to this kind of intimate interaction.   All urban spaces are compressed, and the forced communion with plant life in a city garden is qualitatively different from the way we interact with plants in the open spaces of the country.  My advice, look closely.

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Ready for their close-up? You betcha . . .

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Hollywood Comes to the Roof

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Well, not exactly Hollywood, but the sort of ultra-low-budget film project that will eventually displace a chunk of big-budget entertainment, as surely as green roofs and urban farms will replace part of our reliance on industrial agriculture.

Award winning indie film director Tom O’Brien (Fairhaven and Manhattan Romance) brought his new web series, Yoga Schmoga, to Battery Rooftop Garden this week for a scene in which the series’ main character, Grace, played by Jesse Barr, arrives at The Visionaire building . . .

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only to be greeted by her new client, a British investment banker dressed rather inappropriately (his excuse, I was in the shower), who shows her around the garden.

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Our heroine needs to correct his attitude with some meticulous adjustments to his down dog.

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In any case, the latest in video technology (a “MōVi” digital 3-axis gyro-stabilized handheld camera gimbal that provides a steady tracking shot at a fraction of the cost of the previous technology) . . .

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 mingled with the latest in roof top squash varieties.

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 and the hard-working crew and cast were rewarded with treats of Rats-Tail (podded) Radish (Raphanus sativus var. caudatus) . . .

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 and blueberries plucked from under the bird netting.

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Posted in Berries, Blueberries, Guests | Leave a comment

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 | 7 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 | 4 Comments