Rooftops are one of those sublime New York pleasures. The views alone are one of the prime reasons we keep forking over some much rent to our landlords.The air up there blows freer than the gusts from a subway grate (and it smells better, too.) And if you close your eyes for a minute, the sound of cars coasting down the BQE could even be waves on the beach. Ok – that might be a stretch. Still, rooftop haunts are a gem in our concrete jungle with such precious few green spaces to stretch oneself out upon.
What, then, could be better than spending a whole day up there -— nay, a whole season? The ingenious team at Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm is doing just that, by putting the city’s summits to good use. From seasonal greens and peppers to honey and eggs, they’ve built fully functional farms that both touch the sky and put down fertile roots right here in NYC.
Despite the moniker, the farm’s crown jewel is actually located right across the Newtown Creek in Queens. Seven floors up, atop a massive white building on an unassuming stretch of Northern Boulevard, is the group’s Flagship Farm. It is, in a word, breathtaking. The whole thing began in May 2010, when a self-described ragtag crew of two-dozen New Yorkers gathered here for six days to crane 3,000 pounds of soil up to the roof. Four years later, they’re on their fifth full season of planting and the farm has grown to three more rooftops in Brooklyn.
Now that Spring has (finally) sprung, they’re well underway planting this year’s crops. The most popular plants up at Grange are the array of leafy greens, tomatoes and peppers, plus intriguing things to try for the first time. Chive blossoms? Lemon sorrel? A robust, peppery batch of arugula? Yes, please.
How does it all work? Brooklyn Grange’s Vice President and Founding Partner, Anastasia Cole Plakias took us up to the Flagship Farm to see how they’re ramping up for the 2014 season. And, it turns out, the whole process is incredibly efficient:
Step 1: Grow the Seedlings
Most of the plants that grow at Brooklyn Grange start off as seedlings inside a balmy greenhouse on the South side of the roof. Each is carefully labeled with their names and the day they were sown. Once they’re big enough, they’re transferred over to the big guns outside, where they’ll join long rows of other crops. “Patience, it’s all about patience,” Anastasia says.
Step 2: Make the Soil
To go about giving these youngins the proper nutrients, Brooklyn Grange makes their own soil right on the roof. Food scraps from the first floor’s COFFEED (a cafe with a mighty fine cold brew), get dumped into three large compost bins where a combination of hungry worms and pressurized air, shot up from the bottom of the heap, helps everything decompose. And, lest we forget, some scraps go straight to the hungry chickens roosting nearby in their coop. (Bradley Fleming, the farm’s manager tells us that if they’re lucky, they’ll even get a chance to eat a grub or two — the subject of many chicken squabbles at BK Grange.)
Step 3: Plant the Crops
Once it’s ready for the crops, this fresh dirt gets mixed up with gravel to keep things light. This is, after all, sitting on top of a building. We aren’t likely to see a soil avalanche into the room below anytime soon, though. Careful engineers and architects assess each site for the farm long before planting begins. According to Grange, the “roofs are made of thick reinforced concrete slab, approved for loads far in excess of the loads that we have installed.” Phew.
Step 4: Grow, Harvest & Eat
As the plants grow throughout the season (from early April to late October), they’re harvested and sent out to eagerly awaiting New Yorkers. “If you miss a week, [the fields] will grow from brown to green,” Anastasia says about the growing process. Some of the crops are parceled out to the farm’s CSA members, while others get hauled over to the Down to Earth Markets in Greenpoint and the rest is bought wholesale by restaurants and retailers around the city. Yep, they’re gettin’ everywhere. Chances are, if you’ve ever had a coveted slice from Roberta’s, you’ve definitely had the pleasure of tasting the goods from Brooklyn Grange.
“So often in your day-to-day life, it’s just so hard to think, every time you’re putting a fork in your mouth, about what you’re doing and what you’re eating,” Anastasia says. “If we can get excited about it and take joy in it, and remember that eating is a joyous act, one to take pleasure in, it can really change the way you live your daily life.” Pointing to a patch of lemon sorrel, and offering up a leaf, she adds, “Eating something like this, it slaps you in the face, and it makes a huge difference.” And indeed it does, with a brightly tart flavor you wouldn’t expect out of a leafy green. It’s akin to a lemon drop candy, which has made it the most popular plant with the kids who help man the farm through the City Growers educational nonprofit.
And the best part of it all? The farm will soon offer a chance for the whole city to come up and take a look. Every Saturday from May 17 through October 18, they’ll host an open house session for folks looking to get their hands dirty, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Along with a chance to explore the farm — set to sweeping skyline views — they’ll offer an open-air market where visitors can buy fresh picks from the farm’s haul, plus a selection of workshops, classes and family-friendly activities. Expect to see everything from yoga and pilates to mushroom growing and bee-themed courses to honor our pollinator friends while tasting the farm’s varieties of honey.
“It’s a great opportunity to come up and get some fresh air if you’re sick of the city life but can’t get out of the city — and want to get your hands dirty,” Anastasia says. “If you want to join Bradley and the team, you can even help plant seedlings.” So, grab your sunscreen, a hat, a water bottle, closed toed shoes and, definitely, a camera. It’s time to climb up and dig in.