There are about as many ways to grow your garden as there are to cook the food it produces. For this rooftop, we had very specific conditions to wrestle with. Here, I’ll explain them, but read on for general tips on how to build a green roof, grow out of containers, and conserve resources by setting up a rainwater collection system and a compost bin. There’s links for further reading from some of my favorite experts and mentors.
All the plants on this roof grow in containers, most of them salvaged old kegs. These kegs had been battered and broken over time with use, and were destined for the scrapyard. Instead, they’ve found a new life as planters, with their tops sawed off and holes drilled into the bottom. Their height allows us to try growing roots that require depth, like potatoes. And the size of the mouth is perfect for one plant, like a tomato vine. Some of the kegs have black rubber coating and were spray-painted white, so that they don’t soak up as much heat from the sun. A few of our containers are noticeably antique enameled cast-iron bathtubs. Rub-a-dub-dub.
To begin, the rooftop was inspected by experts for its weight capacity. It’s an industrial building, so it has an extra-strong foundation. The brewery is directly beneath. It generates heat, which will help the plants out during the winter and colder months. But because there’s already warmth emanating from it, during the summer, when a plant’s roots generally spread deep into the earth for coolness, they’ll be faced with more heat below. We’ve taken precaution by adding a layer of loosely stacked, crumpled styrofoam boards at the bottoms of all the keg-containers. This is for lightness as well as to absorb some of that heat.
Above that is a round sheet of mesh netting, and on top of that, we’ve filled the bulk of the container with ultra-lightweight GaiaSoil. This is a soil specifically designed for rooftops by the Gaia Institute. It’s made of mostly recycled polystyrene foam coated with pectin, which simulate the pebbly earth that most plants are used to, only without the weight. On top of this is a layer of rich compost soil, either from our compost bin or from the Lower East Side Ecology Center (we began composting later on in the spring). For plants that were transplanted to the containers as seedlings, there’s an extra sheet of mesh in between the GaiaSoil and compost, to help prevent pest. Then, scattered on top of the soil and around the plants is coffee chaff from nearby Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Chaff is a byproduct of the roasting process, the husks of the beans. The chaff provides a soft, protective layer on top of the soil which helps it retain its moisture.
At a recent talk about urban agriculture at WNYC’s Green Space, the topic of starting an urban farm was always addressed with mention about growing your own healthy soil. Sure, you can use potting soil but to continually create superior soil for your garden while responsibly disposing of organic waste, you’ll want to start a compost bin. We have a CompostTumbler, which stays closed and rotates with a crank so you don’t have to reach in and turn your compost yourself. You can see tips on how to build something like that here. You can also vermicompost, or attend composting workshops and programs to determine what works best for your household. Our compost bin takes just about everything that comes from our garden that we don’t use, so weeds, stems and other plant clippings, eggshells and the chickens’ poop, and food scraps from the kitchen. Everyone in the brewery staff is encouraged to bring their household kitchen scraps to toss in there, too. Though we only set up the tumbler in April, there’s plenty of rich compost that we’ve used to plant with already.
Did you know that more than fifty percent of residential tap water is used to water plants (mostly lawns)? That’s a lot of wasted water when there’s rain you can capture for this purpose. Taking advantage of this precious — and free — resource, rainwater is collected from a roof overlooking the rooftop garden, on the partial third story of the building. From there it drains into a chute which fills five plastic olive barrels until they are completely filled. Water is drawn from these barrels any time we need to water the plants, beyond what the rain already provides. In the hot summer months, these plants definitely need to be watered once a day with it.
And then there’s the chickens. We bought our laying hens from the friendly Liberty View Farm in Upstate New York when they were just old enough to lay, about one year old. We’ve got four in total, and they’re all different heritage breeds. Meet them here. To build their coop, we gathered a handful of brewery staff and friends and built the majority of the coop in one day. It was then lifted by forklift (used to lift grain sacks at the brewery normally) onto the roof, and given its finishing touches. Rather than purchase a pre-made coop or kit, this was custom-built by the talented carpenters/brewers that work at Sixpoint. Craig Frymark, Brewhouse Manager, was responsible for its nifty, A-frame design, which fit best into the space that we had reserved for it on the roof, without casting too much shadow on the plants. The chickens have an “upstairs” roost and nesting boxes, and a “downstairs” run. It’s large enough for a couple of us to camp out in, if we wanted to, but since our girls wouldn’t be allowed to roam around on the roof proper, we wanted to make their home extra lush. They can’t run around outside because there is a large deck adjacent to our roof, with tons of crawlspace that they can get lost in. And there’s also been signs of raccoons up there, which would prey on them. One of our main concerns was rodents and raccoons possibly getting in the coop, so we secured it with sturdy latches and locks.
You could say that we’ve artificially inseminated an ecosystem on top of a roof. All told, the entire project might look difficult, but pieces and parts of the scheme can be easily adapted to your own home. The initial workload is deceiving, too: once up and ready, your greenroof garden should thrive with little daily maintenance. Check out the following links for more reading on gardening, green roofing, chicken raising, composting, and more.
Lower East Side Ecology Center
The Gaia Institute
New York Botanical Garden
Brooklyn Botanical Garden
Just Food City Chicken Project
NYC Compost Project
Rainwater Harvesting Community