Allotments

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

Sandy

Your correspondent returned to lower Manhattan today, fearing that, like Icarus, he had dared to fly too high, to grow food where nature did not intend, and that he would find his presumption rewarded with a thorough smiting at the hands of Hurricane Sandy.  Before this part of the Battery was mandatorily evacuated on Sunday, things that might fly off the roof were secured, but the poor plants were left to fend for themselves: 

And fend they did.  Does this look like a chastened chard?

 

Or battered broccoli?

 

The fruit trees shed not a single limb:

 

The Stewartia, reputed to swoon at the slightest discomfort, showed no signs of 100 mph gusts:

 

The spinach slept snugly in its armored cold frame:

 

Even the Pyracantha refused to surrender a single berry to the gale:

 

 

 

And my resident Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottus, and he (or she) is truly polyglottus) was perched unperturbed in my Contorted Larch, patiently awaiting my return.   How he (or she) sheltered from the storm here on the 35th floor is truly a mystery:

 

Only the kale shed its leaves to save itself, looking remarkably like a palm tree following a hurricane:

 

But don’t be mislead by these tough plants.  Down below, the eastern side of lower Manhattan is quite devastated.  Our beloved Battery Park took a severe beating.  Virtually every large building in the southern and eastern parts of the financial district had its basement flooded,  damaging critical electric, heating and other systems.  I will look across tonight at the tip of Manhattan Island returned to pre-Columbian darkness, its hundreds of thousands of residents without power or water.  Further afield, in Staten Island and Queens, the loss of life reminds us that plants may be tough, but people are fragile, and the sea is strong.

 

Posted in Blueberries, Broccoli, Chard, Cold Frame, Fruit, Kale, Ornamental Trees, Photos, Weather | 13 Comments

Dead or Alive?

The sharp blade slices through the skin, flesh and vascular tissues with ease.    Pressure in the vascular system collapses.   Almost immediately senescence – a genetically regulated process which leads to the death of cells and organs – begins.  Individual cells react by discharging destructive enzymes:  Polyphenoloxidase, which starts a process of enzymic browning; Lipoxygenase, which promotes oxidation of the organic tissues; Lipase, which sets into motion the process of lipolytic rancidity; and Protease, which starts to soften the texture of the flesh and skin.    The metabolic properties of the organism are fundamentally disrupted:  Proteins, water-soluble vitamins, antioxidants and nucleic acids, instead of being generated as they are in living things, start to degrade.  At the same time, the rapidly dying appendage also starts to lose its ability to control its microbial population:  bacteria, mold and fungi begin to multiply, also consuming the nutrients that had been available to the cells.  Toxic and infectious bacteria start to reproduce unchecked.   

A macabre pre-Halloween account of a severed limb?  No.  I have just described what happens the moment a leaf of spinach is harvested from the host plant.  And 48 – 96 hours later (depending on the temperature), half of that spinach leaf’s folates, carotenoids, vitamins and other nutrients are lost.   So if your local farmer harvests the spinach on Thursday or Friday, sells it to you at the farm market on Saturday, and you eat it in your salad on Sunday, it is probably half as beneficial to you compared with the spinach leaf plucked from your roof shortly before tossing the salad on Sunday.    

Although not widely used, “half-life” is a concept that attempts to quantify the perishability of fruits and vegetables.   Although individual nutrients, like vitamins, enzymes and proteins, degrade at different speeds, the “half-life” measure looks at all the food components generally viewed as beneficial to humans, and estimates the length of time following harvest it takes for these nutrients to be reduced to 50% of the levels present in the plant when it was alive. 

 The notion of “half-life” ought to be a central part of the case for urban agriculture, and should inform our choices of what to grow at home.   My roof-top orchard, for example, contains both peaches and apples.   Looked at through the lens of “half-life,” my choice of peaches is a good one, because any peach that has travelled (or ripened off the tree) is a sorry shadow of  the same fruit that is tree-ripened and twisted from the limb moments before entering your mouth.  My choice of apples, on the other hand, is revealed to be an indulgence that is insupportable.  I gain little from the effort to coax a few apples into being on the 35th floor, and should be supporting Hudson Valley farmers, whose apples are undiminished when they reach the markets in Manhattan and, indeed, may well be superior to their urban counterparts due to the superb terroir for apples in up-state New York.

Of course there are many reasons other than peak nutrition to grow food in the city.  But for the rooftop farmer who wants to give priority to those plants where the benefits of immediate consumption are greatest, what are the best choices?  The internet is awash in contradictory information on the perishability of fruits and vegetables, much of it from studies sponsored by companies whose businesses involve the freezing, canning, transportation and/or marketing of food.   So please don’t afford the following the authority of independent peer-reviewed science, but take it for what it is, my own compilation and summary of those studies which seem to me to have the most credibility:

Shortest “half-life”:  lettuce, spinach, kale, endive, peaches, parsley, broccoli, asparagus, sweet corn, green beans.

Average “half-life”:  squash, eggplant, peppers, cauliflower, apricots.

Longest “half-life”:  apples, winter squash, oranges, cabbage, carrots, lemons, beets.

Dead or alive?  One of the great joys of rooftop agriculture is the chance to eat your plants alive.   Once you do, it’s hard not to look at the shiny products in the supermarket produce aisle as vegetarian road-kill.

Posted in Apples, Beets, Broccoli, Carrots, Cooking and Eating, Eggplant, Green Beans, Kale, Lettuce, Parsley, Peaches, Spinach, Urban Agriculture and Food Policy | 3 Comments

Finally, a professional

BRTG hosted an event recently where the sponsor engaged Peter Doyle of Peter Doyle Photography to take photographs.   With Peter’s permission I thought I would share some of his work with readers of this blog who, for two years, have patiently tolerated the distinctly amateur photography efforts of the gardener.   So now, without words, Battery Rooftop Garden as seen through the eyes of a professional:

 

Posted in Blueberries, Chard, European Pears, Guests, Herbs, Photos, Seen From the Battery Rooftop Garden | 3 Comments

Awesome

In the world of ornamental horticulture, perhaps because of the pervasive influence of our British cousins, etiquette demands a certain reticence when discussing one’s own garden.   Pausing with guests before a spectacularly rare and difficult Tricyrtis, one might be allowed to comment that it’s “rather special;” anything more enthusiastic would be distinctly bad form. 

I am pleased to announce today the “urban agriculture” exception to this rule.   As pioneers pitted against a skeptical establishment, urban gardeners should be encouraged to gush, enthuse, boast and proselytize in any manner that gets the attention of their fellow city-dwellers.    So here it is: BRTG in early August is simply awesome.   The quality and variety of the food available for harvest this morning was beyond every expectation I had when setting out on this experimental journey.   The peaches, nectarines and pears, undamaged by critters, announce their perfect ripeness by dropping into your hand.  The blueberries and blackberries bear in stubborn abundance, and explode with flavor when warmed by the morning sun.  This morning marked the first harvest of sweet red seedless grapes from the roof, which will be the subject of a subsequent blog.  Malabar spinach, kale, chard and lettuce seem never to show any signs of the daily harvest, effortlessly replacing the departed greens.  ‘Jaune Flamme’ and ‘Lolipop’ tomatoes beg to be eaten whole for breakfast.  Even the tiny fraise des bois (or perhaps, fraise des toit) continue to offer their tiny wild treat.

Posted in Asian Pears, Berries, Blackberries, Blueberries, Chard, Fruit, Grapes, Malabar Spinach, Nectarines, Peaches, Photos, Strawberries, Tomatoes | 1 Comment

Just Food

Tuesday night, at 11 venues scattered around New York City, generous and lucky diners celebrated the food of the season, the urban farmers who produce it, and the chefs who render it delightful.  This event, billed as “A City Farmer, A Chef and a Host,” was organized by, and for the benefit of, Just Food and The Sylvia Center.   Battery Rooftop Garden hosted one of these dinners.  Our farmer was, of course, our own Annie Novak, who with her associate Melissa Metrick seeds, plants, tends and harvests our rooftop produce.  Our chef was the spectacularly talented Howard Kalachnikoff from Gramercy Tavern.  Just Food also dispatched to the roof, as our “celebrity co-host,” the brilliant Eric Sanderson, Senior Conservation Ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society who, with colleagues, developed the pivotal Human Footprint map and, to the delight of many New Yorkers, recreated the Manhattan of 1609 in his book Manhatta: A Natural History of New York City. 

 

During the afternoon, Annie and Melissa harvested from the roof, in no particular order:  baby celery, Malabar spinach, plump blackberries, basil, tomatoes, three varieties of kale, four varieties of chard, small purple and orange carrots, blue and yellow potatoes, rats-tail radish blossoms, scallions, onions, beets, lavender, several varieties of mint and red veined sorrel.   Chef Kalachnikoff, not entirely trusting to the adequacy of our on-roof supplies, supplemented this with ingredients procured by Gramercy Tavern.   After lingering over watermelon mint mojitos and a series of exquisite vegetarian hors d’oeuvres, the following meal (to the best of my morning-after recollection) emerged from the kitchen over the next 3.5 hours:

 
Island creek oysters, plucked from the sea the same morning, garnished with on-roof miniature celery
 Chilled carrot soup (from off-roof carrots), garnished with on-roof carrot slivers, and a delicious spiced Labne (a middle eastern fresh cream, but this time made from yogurt)


 
Citrus cured Arctic Char served in a bed of roof-top greens and cucumbers


 
A beet-centric composition, too jewel-like to be called a salad, in which the flavors of the beets mingled with roof-top blackberries, meticulously de-veined Red Veined Sorrel and roof-top Lavender 
 
A striped bass, which Chef Kalachnikoff informed us had returned to season only last Wednesday, sitting on a bed to toothsome roof-top kale and garnished with summer squash

Sweet Corn Agnolotti, which everyone present agreed was a rare example of culinary perfection, garnished with roof-top onions, tomatoes and basil


 
 
Elysian Fields rack of lamb, cooked rare, sitting on a strongly flavored bed of Red Quinoa and roof-top Swiss Chard

A tart featuring rooftop blackberries and blueberries, with Anise Hyssop and a companion scoop of Strawberry Ice Cream

I urge the readers of this blog to visit the web sites of both Just Food, www.justfood.org, and the Sylvia Center,   www.sylviacenter.org. These two organizations remind us of the many the reasons it is vital to reconnect all New Yorkers – especially children — with fresh healthy food, and the vital role that urban agriculture can play in making that vision a reality.   And last night’s dinner reminded those fortunate enough to be present that the culinary arts rank alongside art, music and literature as pillars of human civilization, and that the eating of fine food in congenial company ranks as one of the great pleasures afforded to us as human beings.

Posted in Chefs, Cooking and Eating, Guests, Meals and Menus | 4 Comments

Hic sunt dracones

Or, “Here be dragons,” for those readers whose Latin is a bit rusty.   Yes, right here at Battery Rooftop Garden, on the 35th floor in the heart of downtown Manhattan. 

Spotted and photographed by Jeremy Law, this dragon is a Common Blue Damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) (both damselflies (suborder Zygoptera) and dragonflies (suborder Anisoptera) are commonly referred to as “dragonflies”).  This small, brightly colored insect usually inhabits small ponds and rivers.  The eggs of the Common Blue Damselfly hatch — and the larvae, called nymphs, live — in the water.   Nymphs climb out of the water up a suitable stem to molt into damselflies.  So, to ask the obvious question, what’s it doing at an urban roof-top food garden?  Could the two small fountains provide the necessary habitat, with their double-helix design perhaps inspiring the parent insects to add their genetic diversity to the garden?

Ancient cartographers used the phrase “here be dragons” to signify the unknown.  Jeremy’s investigations, and my own experience growing plants on a green roof, suggest that urban agriculture is indeed terra incognita.  We have a lot to learn.

Posted in Biodiversity, Design, Wildlife | 1 Comment

Rats on the roof!

No, not the dreaded Rattus rattus or any of its vile kin, but the wonderful Rat’s Tail Radish, or Raphanus caudatus:

I have fed the seed pods of this plant, which looks like a cross between a green bean and a snap pea, to various visitors to BRTG.  For a few seconds, most are unimpressed, thinking it to be a rather pedestrian pod of no particular pedigree.  But soon, the sharp after-bite kicks in, and the typical taster asks, “Is this some kind of pepper?”  Only a professional chef of considerable renown immediately identified the flavor as radish, showing that most of us taste with our eyes and not the tongue. 

This heirloom plant is easy to grow, tolerating New York’s summer heat, and is long bearing, with attractive and edible flowers. 

It was introduced to England from Java in 1815, and gained significant social standing when introduced to the Prince of Wales’ garden at Sandringham.  It received a favorable mention from Andrew Jackson Downing in 1860.  A now, a perfect, easy growing, tasty and versatile addition to urban green roofs.

 

Posted in Chefs, Cooking and Eating, Legumes, Photos, Root Vegetables | 3 Comments

How to eat blueberries . . .

The answer is one at a time:

That’s right.  No bowls.  No spoons.  No popping two in your mouth at once to save time (this is slow food, after all, and who wouldn’t want to extend the exquisite pleasure of eating berries fresh off the bush).  

Because each berry tastes different, when we eat a spoonful or handful all at once, we get a blended generic flavor.  Think blended Scotch Whiskey.   But eating them singly, you realize that each is different.   In some the predominant note is sour; others are cloyingly sweet.  Each of those extremes actually masks what is unique about this food, which is the ineffable, incredible and nearly-lost-to-civilization authentic flavor of blueberry.  It cannot be described in terms of sweet and bitter.  When the sugar and acid are well-balanced in a single berry, they cancel each other out, leaving the essence of blueberry to emerge.   That flavor is flat, situated somewhere between strawberry, banana and grape.  Not showy at all.   And full of sun, like a simple Chianti.

Eating blueberries alone is also a treat for the eyes.  It forces you to survey the bowl with each pluck, deciding between the buxomy allure of the plumpest individuals, and the tantalizing promise of a small, slightly glossy berry, tinged with purple, suggesting the wildness of the uncultivated Vaccinium.

Speaking of cultivation, the happy result being achieved at BRTG may be due to good morning sun, a highly acid soil mix used for the blueberry bed,

and an annual top dressing of peat moss to keep up that acidity.  In addition, blueberries seriously hate drought, and on many weekday mornings I supplement the generally effective irrigation system with some supplemental hand watering.   There is nothing special about the cultivars, though, consisting of three commonly found in commerce:  ‘Bluecrop’ (the earliest), ‘Chandler’ (a bit later) and ‘Darrow’ (a late season bearer). 

Robert Frost was fond of blueberries,

Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come.

 

Posted in Berries, Blueberries, Cooking and Eating, Photos, Soil | 3 Comments

Bugs on the Roof: Pollinator Diversity

Visitors to BRTG could be forgiven for thinking that some late-night fresh-mint-mojito-fueled madness had resulted in the plastic drinks cups scattered across the garden, curiously half-buried in the soil:

But they would be wrong.  One of the arguments for urban green roofs is the creation of habitat and promotion of species diversity.   And in converting the roof from an extensive green roof with only a handful of varieties of Sedum and grass to an intensive roof with hundreds of varieties of native and non-native trees, shrubs, perennials and edibles, the gardener intended to test the hypothesis that increased plant diversity would support a greater diversity of animal life, especially the pollinators so necessary for the success of urban agriculture.   With two seasons behind him, BRTG decided it was time to test this hypothesis in a more rigorous way.   With the help of Scenic Hudson’s brilliant conservation scientist Sacha Spector, we contacted Professor Matthew Palmer, Director of Undergraduate Studies in Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia University.   Professor Palmer, who has studied the environmental effects of green roofs for years, suggested that BRTG be added to a study being conducted by one of his graduate students, Jeremy Law.    And so, BRTG this summer will feature a variety of low tech (plastic drinks cup) and higher tech devices to measure the number and diversity of bugs.   Jeremy Law explains in rather more scientific terms:

“Various bee species (Hymenoptera: Apoidea) have been subject to long-term declines throughout North America. However, little evidence has shown that hoverflies (Diptera: Syrphidae), which also play an important role in pollination, are facing comparable declines. Recently, researchers have begun to explore how properly designed and maintained urban environments may provide suitable habitat for native species. Green roofs are rooftops that have a vegetated surface and substrate constructed atop an engineered membrane that provide a variety of ecosystem services including stormwater retention and temperature regulation. Urban meadows are another potentially important and unique, yet under studied, habitat for pollinators in the urban environment. In this study, I will compare the pollinator diversity of green roofs and urban meadows and determine what factors influence how suitable green roofs and urban meadows are in providing habitat for pollinators. From April through October, 2012, I will sample insects using sweep netting and pan trapping each month from 11 green roofs and 10 ground-level urban meadows found in parks throughout New York City. I will identify specimens to genus, while J.S. Ascher (AMNH) and F.C. Thompson will verify and identify to species. I will calculate species richness and abundance and compare them to various landscape characteristics using ArcGIS to determine what factors influence pollinator diversity on green roofs and in urban meadows. This study will likely provide information on the role that green roofs and urban meadows play in providing habitat for native pollinator species and aid in the development of guidelines for their location and design to promote pollinator activity and diversity.”

Readers of the BRTG blog will be among the first to know the results.

Posted in Biodiversity, Design, Soil, Urban Agriculture and Food Policy, Wildlife | 4 Comments