How to eat


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,


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.









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.


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


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.


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).


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.


Posted in Apples, Failures, Fruit | 1 Comment


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: (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:


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

It’s about time

Mea culpa.   Your blogger has no good excuse for his long silence.   Here is an update in three parts:  fruit, vegetables and horticulture.

1.  Fruit Report

What a difference a year makes.   The previously parsimonious Moonglow pear, offering a single fruit in year one, and two in year two, has broken out of its arithmetic straightjacket and is now bearing in abundant beauty:


The apple trees also have come alive this year, with all four varieties (Red Fuji, Red Winesap, Macoun and Royal Gala) hanging heavy with fruit.


In contrast, the nectarine, the star of the show for its first three years on the 35th floor, seems exhausted, and the fruit is scarce and small.   Happily, the peaches are prolific and promising:


The blueberries, however, are having a bit of an off-year.  The bushes seem to have pushed strong new growth that is fruitless, and the berries, even those fully plump and ripe, remain tart.


2.  2013 Vegetables

The indefatigable farming team lead by Annie Novak is trying all sorts of new things this year, starting with asparagus (perennial, of course, and a long-shot for a green roof).  We are happily devoting a whole bed to potatoes this year,

DSC00856and have succumbed to the twining red beauty and gustatory appeal of Malabar spinach, extravagantly devoting both south-facing vertical screens to this one plant:


3.  Horticulture

The diverse non-edible planting at the south end of BRTG supports the insect population so vital to pollination of the fruits and vegetables.  The plants that have adjusted to life on the roof continue to surprise.  Judge for yourself, do the woodland-loving Trout Lily (Erythronium) and Iris cristata look uncomfortable?  Or New York States’s own Prickly Pear Cactus?

DSC00841DSC00843DSC00847I leave you with assurances that more regular posting will resume, starting next week, with the results of the long-awaited study of insect life at BRTG.

Posted in Alpines in the Secret Garden, Apples, Biodiversity, Blueberries, European Pears, Malabar Spinach, Nectarines, Non-edible Bulbs, Non-edible Perennials, Peaches, Pears, Potatoes | 2 Comments

The Snow Storm

013The National Weather Service and New York Times have authoritatively harrumphed that the recent winter storm does not in fact have a name, “Nemo” having been chosen for ratings purposes by those for whom weather is mere entertainment.   As gardeners, we take the weather seriously, so BRTG will join the ranks of those who refer only to “the recent winter storm.”

Gardeners do not fear the snow, but the lack of it.  When we see the naked ground in the winter we think only of the freeze line descending  deeper and deeper, of root systems torn apart by the violent cataclysm of freezing and thawing soil, of our precious fluff and top soil fines being blown away by relentless winds from the north-east.    We are glad that our gardens are now snug below their customary winter blankets.

For urban gardeners in New York City, the mildness of this winter has produced some startling results.  A late crop of beets was pulled from the soil in early January,   


and fresh spinach still emerges from the cold frame for a breakfast stir-fry.


And kale, one tough Brassica, keeps giving and giving to the roof-top gardener:


shrugging off the snow with ease:


The sun gets stronger each day, and the gardener, like his plants, can feel the ultraviolet roots of the coming spring taking hold in the turbulent winter atmosphere.


Posted in Cold Frame, Cooking and Eating, Kale, Photos, Seen From the Battery Rooftop Garden, Weather | 5 Comments


In the UK in the years before Margaret Thatcher whipped things into shape, there was not very much that the Battery Rooftop Gardener, then an American graduate student first discovering England, found worthy of emulation.   But I remember being deeply impressed by my first glimpse of an allotment garden.   

My hostess in suburban London, having been on a waiting list for several years, had just been allocated a plot in a fenced garden area located at one edge of the town commons, where, for only a few pounds sterling per annum, she had exclusive use of a generously sized plot to grow food.   The allotment, as it was called, was the vestige of an ancient practice whereby the sovereign, when making common land available for private development, set aside small plots for the use of the poor.  Allotment enthusiasts claim that allotments provided much of the produce for impoverished Englishmen during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  They peaked at about 1.4 million allotment plots during World War II, and now are made available by town councils to gardeners of all income levels.

Fast forward to the condominium building boom in New York and other American cities in the first decade of the 21st century.   The high-rise condominium buyer, in addition to exclusive use of his or her living space, is now offered, as separate units of real property, a storage room, a parking space, a bicycle storage slot and similar allocations of scarce space for things that are important to contemporary families.   Oddly, to my knowledge, these offerings have not yet included rooftop space for growing food.  They should. 

Contemporary city residences – driven in part by LEED points, but in larger part by what the marketing department tells the architects the buyers want – feature ample rooftop space, most of it communal, for sun-bathing, barbequing and the like.   What will be the first building, I wonder, to change this model and offer individual rooftop allotments?     

Developers need to rethink what contemporary urban dwellers will regard as the most-valued “amenities.”  I wager that access to fresh, home-grown food, and the chance for families to spend some quality time with their hands in the dirt, will soon rise to the top of the list.    It’s time for New Yorkers to put on their wellies and head up to the allotment. 


Posted in Design, Urban Agriculture and Food Policy | 3 Comments