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Earth > Gardening, Farming
a Bit Closer to the Sun
June 17, 2009
The New York Times
By MARIAN BURROS
THIS summer, Tony Tomelden hopes to be making bloody marys at the Pug in
Washington, D.C., with tomatoes and chilies grown above the bar, thanks to the
city’s incentives for green roofs.
Mr. Tomelden, the Pug’s principal owner, says he’s planting a garden to take
advantage of tax subsidies the city offers in his neighborhood if he covers his
roof with plants.
“If I can do something in my corner for the environment, that seemed a
reasonable thing to do,” he said. “Plus I can save money on the tomatoes.”
There won’t be bloody marys at P.S. 6 on New York’s Upper East Side, but
one-third of its roof will be planted with vegetables and herbs next spring for
the cafeteria. The school is using about $950,000 in city funds that it has put
aside, and parents and alumni are providing almost a half-million dollars more.
“For the children, it’s exciting when you grow something edible,” said the
school’s principal, Lauren Fontana.
Aeries are cropping up on America’s skylines, filled with the promise of juicy
tomatoes, tiny Alpine strawberries and the heady perfume of basil and lavender.
High above the noise and grime of urban streets, gardeners are raising fruits
and vegetables. Some are simply finding the joys of backyard gardens several
stories up, others are doing it for the environment and some because they know
local food sells well.
City dwellers have long cultivated pots of tomatoes on top of their buildings.
But farming in the sky is a fairly recent development in the green roof
movement, in which owners have been encouraged to replace blacktop with plants,
often just carpets of succulents, to cut down on storm runoff, insulate
buildings and moderate urban heat.
A survey by Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, which represents companies that
create green roofs, found the number of projects its members had worked on in
the United States grew by more than 35 percent last year. In total, the green
roofs installed last year cover 6 million to 10 million square feet, the group
Steven Peck, its president, said he had no figures for how many of the projects
involved fruits and vegetables, but interest is growing. “When we had a session
on urban agriculture,” he said of a meeting of the group in Atlanta last month,
“it was standing room only.” Mr. Peck said the association is forming a
committee on rooftop agriculture.
Tax incentives have accelerated the plantings of green roofs, particularly in
Chicago, which has encouraged green roofs for almost a decade. The Chicago chef
Rick Bayless uses tomatoes and chilies he grows atop his restaurant Frontera
Grill to make Rooftop Salsa.
New York State has subsidies both for roofs with succulents spread out over a
thin layer of soil and for edible plants covering a smaller area. A proposed
amendment to New York City’s tax abatement for some roof projects would include
green roofs. Most roof gardeners aren’t in it for the money, though.
After her Lower East Side co-op refurbished the 1,000-square-foot roof of its
six-floor walk-up, Paula Crossfield persuaded fellow board members to spend
$3,000 to put a 400-square-foot garden on it. They built planters and paved part
of the roof so people can walk easily among the plantings.
Ms. Crossfield, managing editor of the Civil Eats blog, about sustainable
agriculture, is paying for the seeds and will do the harvesting, sharing the
bounty with her neighbors. (She and her husband live on the top floor.)
In the process, she estimates she carried up 500 of the 1,500 pounds of soil
they bought and put in planters.
“My decision to start a garden is an extension of my work,” Ms. Crossfield said.
“Growing my own food helps me understand better what I write about: how food
gets to our table, the difficulties it entails.” It’s not all about agricultural
policy, she added.
“The bottom line,” she said, “is that I harbor a secret desire to be a farmer,
and my way of doing that is to use what I have, which is a roof.”
Two weeks ago Ms. Crossfield transplanted seedlings from her apartment onto the
roof: golden zucchini, oakleaf lettuce, brussels sprouts, butternut squash,
watermelon, rainbow chard, cucumbers, nasturtiums, calendula, sunflowers,
amaranth greens, tomatoes and herbs.
In San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, Maya Donelson has filled planter boxes
with vegetables on a 900-square-foot patch of roof at the Glide Memorial Church.
For the last two years she has managed the Graze the Roof Project at the
church’s Glide Center, a neighborhood social service provider.
The food goes to the center’s volunteers and children in the neighborhood who
work in the garden one day a week and learn to cook what they grow.
“I’ve never had one kid who hasn’t wanted to get his hands dirty,” said Ms.
Donelson, who studied architecture and environmental design. “They are willing
to try anything if they see it growing and pull it out of the ground. We juiced
the purple carrots and the kids drank that.”
Sustainable South Bronx, a nonprofit environmental organization, said it will
help Alfred E. Smith High School plant a roof garden and has helped a company in
Hunts Point put strawberry plants on its roof. (The owner likes strawberries, an
official of the group said.)
One of the more ambitious projects is a 6,000-square-foot roof farm in
Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which will grow food for local restaurants and shops.
Ben Flanner, a transplanted Wisconsinite who’s running it, said he became
fascinated with organic agriculture and was set to take an internship on a rural
farm but then had a change of heart.
“I wanted to farm but I didn’t want to leave the city,” he said.
Mr. Flanner was lucky to find an environmentally aware company — Broadway
Stages, a stage and lighting company — that wanted a green roof on one of its
buildings. It paid to prepare the roof for planting and agreed to let him grow
food on it. Mr. Flanner and his partner, Annie Novak, did the planting and will
be able to keep all the profits from their organic vegetables.
“People are knocking on my door to buy the stuff,” he said. Andrew Tarlow, a
partner in four nearby restaurants, including Marlow & Sons, has agreed to buy
anything Mr. Flanner grows.
The roof cost $6,000 to prepare, according to Lisa Goode, who with her husband,
Chris, owns Goode Green, a company that designs edible roof gardens. There are
at least 1,000 seedlings planted in 16 beds, each about 60 feet long.
“A smaller roof would cost more per square foot,” she said. Mr. Flanner’s costs
for the garden itself were less than $2,000, but Ms. Goode said it will take
more than one roof for him to make a living.
“This is sort of a pilot to see if it can become a viable business model because
he isn’t going to make any money from this,” she said. “If we can get the owner
to do more roofs, he can then make a profit.”
Not long ago, edible rooftop gardeners were less likely to be thinking about
sustainable food systems or the environment.
Lee Utterbach wanted to recapture summers on his grandmother’s farm. But there
was no land around his house in the Mission district of San Francisco. So when
he bought the building where he lives and runs a photo equipment rental shop, he
turned the roof into a vegetable and flower garden. Since the roof slopes, all
the planting was done along its perimeter. Some of it, like the rosemary, is so
well established, it hangs over the front of the building.
Reaching the roof means a trip through the kitchen window, then up an incline. A
small ladder takes visitors to his wife’s greenhouse and a hot tub, a deck , a
composting toilet and the future guest room. In one area that his wife, Aly,
describes as his “man cave,” Mr. Utterbach watches his 17-inch TV screen from a
“I was probably eight or nine years ahead of the curve when I built this,” he
said. “I just enjoy watering plants and digging in the soil.”
Peter Bergold, a neuroscientist who teaches at SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn, was
also inspired by the past. Memories of the first asparagus and carrots he ate
from a garden years before led him to start growing produce on the roof of his
landmarked brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, six or seven years ago.
“That was my epiphany,” he said of the sweetness he was trying to recapture. “I
assumed asparagus grew with a rubber band around them.”
Environmental awareness came slowly. “One of the things that got me interested,”
he said, “was that between global warming and the thermal bubble of cities you
can start things much earlier so you have a much longer growing season.”
Another benefit gardeners get from planting well above the ground is that they
face fewer pests.
But roof gardeners also have to think about winds that can knock over tender
vines. And while concentrated heat on top of city buildings can help tomatoes
ripen, it also means more frequent watering, even if irrigation requires lugging
watering cans up stairs.
Though rooftop gardens go back at least to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the
modern green roof movement has made its way here from Europe, where for years
government policies have encouraged or required green roofs.
The government benefits take into account the fact that gardening on the roof
requires much more preparation than gardening on terra firma.
First, it must be determined whether the roof can support the weight of the
soil, the plants and the water. It may need to be retrofitted. Barring that,
gardeners can place planters around the perimeter, which is generally its
The containers can be almost anything: ready-made planters; boxes made of
reclaimed wood, old milk cartons, children’s wading pools. A screen at the
bottom holds in a lightweight substance, like packing peanuts for bulk, topped
with a barrier fabric so the soil can’t go through. Potting soil, mixed with
ingredients to lighten it, is put on top.
When gardens are planted directly on the roof, a waterproof membrane is laid
down first, followed by insulation and a root barrier. (A guide to roof
gardening is available at baylocalize.org.)
All this work can be off-putting for landlords. Five years ago, Ms. Crossfield
said, the owner of an apartment building on Sixth Avenue in the West Village
told one of his tenants to get rid of a garden she had planted.
“He told the woman to take it off the roof,” she said, “because he didn’t see
any benefit in it.”
That’s not so likely these days.
“Several years ago you might have seen a certain amount of resistance,” said
Miquela Craytor, executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, “but now people
are coming to us saying they want one.”
Urban Farming, a Bit
Closer to the Sun,
Philadelphia’s Gardens of Delights
June 5, 2009
The New York Times
By JUDITH H. DOBRZYNSKI
FROM vest-pocket urban green spaces to colossal Edens like Longwood, the
former du Pont property that sprawls over 1,050 acres, the Philadelphia area is
laden with public gardens. Some hometown boosters claim it has the country’s
largest concentration of them.
You might even say the city has a plethora of gardens. But plethora means “too
many,” and there can never be a surfeit of gardens, can there? Especially not in
spring and early summer, when a garden visit can chase away the spirit-dampening
effects of a long gray winter.
Greater Philadelphia Gardens, a promotional group, lists 29 members. To narrow
the field I picked four that charge no admission (Longwood charges $16 per
adult), and one, Chanticleer, that costs just $5 for adults. The selection, as
it happened, provided a mix of history, terrain, setting and atmosphere — and a
few unexpected encounters with wildlife.
When I arrived at the Jenkins Arboretum and Gardens in Devon, Pa., early one
mid-May morning, the air was cool, and though the sky was cloudless, the thick
tree canopy allowed only a few glints of sun through. I picked up a map at the
visitor center, then started down a winding, paved trail, spotting no one. But
the dulcet songs from many birds above indicated that I wasn’t totally alone,
and that I might be in for something special.
Jenkins Arboretum is tailor-made for those who like azaleas and rhododendrons.
In springtime, its 46 acres are ablaze with pink, white, peach, rose, red and
purple blossoms — Purple Splendor azalea and pinxterbloom azalea, to name a few.
Tall white oak, mountain laurel, common persimmon, black locust, white ash and
other hardwood trees (the names provided, thankfully, on tiny black plaques) act
as the background. At my feet were native jack-in-the-pulpit, alumroot, ferns,
wild blue phlox, dwarf crested irises and a farrago of other small flowers.
So gorgeous was the picture that, as I rounded a corner, I was not surprised to
find a painter at her easel, trying to capture it, and then — a little farther
down the path — another one.
From Jenkins, I drove a few miles southeast to Chanticleer Garden in Wayne,
where the tag line is “A pleasure garden,” and I could not agree more. Nor,
probably, could the children who were gleefully rolling down the lawn of the
central hill while I was there.
The garden is next to a 1913 mansion, but it was developed beginning in 1990 and
has a modern feel. There’s an Asian woodland, a water garden, a serpentine
planting of Garnet Red mustards and a ruin set in a garden.
It pays to look hard. In a fountain at the ruin, there are faces carved into
those rocks. Round rocks have become acorns, and flat stones are marked with the
veins of leaves. Beyond a curve in the path near the water garden, where lilies
float and deep-blue irises line the edge, you’ll find two neon-green Adirondack
chairs. While I admired their brilliant color, two ducks flew inches over my
shoulder, startling me.
What particular blooms will you find? Here’s a sampling: Japanese snowbells,
purpley-pink primula kisoana, bright orange poppies and pink-and-white tulips.
On one path, near the 1728 house, Chinese dogwood and grape hyacinths; on
another, white dogwood trees; near the waterwheel, blue clematis.
Farther south in Delaware County, Swarthmore is the very definition of that old
cliché, the leafy suburb, but it’s a flowery one, too. On the way to the Scott
Arboretum at Swarthmore College, I passed home gardens whose pink and rose
azaleas acted as hors d’oeuvres, whetting the appetite — which was soon sated.
The whole campus, some 330 acres, is actually the arboretum, and garden staff
members can direct you to which of the more than 3,000 ornamental plants are
Or you can pick up a map and turn on your cellphone. Dial (610) 717-5597, watch
for cell pictograms as you walk around the campus, and you’ll be guided on a
tour of featured perennials, viewing blooms like Ruby Slippers lobelia and
Purple Smoke baptisia.
I decided simply to wander. The plants, labeled with Latin and common names, are
spread throughout the campus but are grouped in “collections” of peonies,
lilacs, rhododendrons and so on. Some roses, in a crescent-shaped garden, were
already out in May — large-flower climbers like White Dawn and Silver Moon and a
pale, soft Harison’s Yellow Hybrid. Scott also has several courtyard gardens,
like one at the science center that has a variety of blue and purple flowers set
against rocks, bamboo and river birch trees.
Be careful of the brochure boxes around the campus. More than once, the brochure
came with hundreds of ants.
Heading to Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, I wondered: Could this possibly be
the way to the country’s oldest existing botanical garden? So near the airport,
trolley tracks and oil tanks? Yes, Bartram’s, which dates back to 1728, is an
urban oasis. John Bartram traveled all over the eastern United States to gather
and bring back trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants to these grounds, which
descend gracefully to the banks of the Schuylkill.
You can descend along a winding trail down to the river, too — Philadelphia
high-rises are off to the left, industrial hulks to the right — passing trees
like osage orange, green ash, river birch and baldcypress, intermixed with wild
ginger and pachysandra. Woodlands and specimen gardens, not ornamental gardens,
dominate Bartram’s. The pretty flowers mainly populate the upper gardens, near
the 1728 house, where you’ll find wild blue geranium, light blue stars and blue
George Washington visited here, and so did Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin
Franklin, for whom a white-flowering tree was named (Franklinia alatamaha, alas,
blooms in late summer, so I did not see the flowers). Were it not for Bartram,
the tree would be extinct. The last wild one was seen in 1803.
Another history lesson awaits about 20 miles north of Philadelphia, at the
Highlands, a late-18th-century Georgian residence. Most people come to see the
mansion, but off to its right lies a two-acre formal garden exemplifying the
Country Place Era style that flourished from around 1895 to 1940. While catering
to personal wishes of the owners, the designers sought to respect the land and
use historical motifs.
The garden is being restored, and some parts — the vine-covered walkways on both
sides, for instance — are not complete. Walk through them anyway; a grass allée
meets you, stretching to the far end of the garden, where sits a classical male
Off to the side is a little parterre garden, four rows of four plots, anchored
at the center by an armillary sphere. The plants fall into three categories —
medicinal, culinary and scented — and include orange and apple mint, chives,
golden lemon thyme, apothecary’s rose, bronze fennel, purple cornflower, and
lavender, all in various stages of bloom.
The colors, the scents, the scenes — there and at the other four gardens — are
just a sampling of what visitors will experience. I’m already thinking about a
return trip to Philadelphia, for another group of gardens, some other time.
IF YOU GO
An overview of gardens open to the public in the Philadelphia area is at
In some cases, the gardens are free, but there is an admission charge for the
houses on the sites.
Bartram’s Garden (54th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard, Philadelphia;
) is open daily, except holidays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free.
Chanticleer Garden (786 Church Road, Wayne, Pa.; 610-687-4163;
www.chanticleergarden.org ) is
open Wednesday to Sunday, April to October, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Fridays till
8 p.m., May to August; $5 for people over 16.
Jenkins Arboretum and Gardens (631 Berwyn Baptist Road, Devon, Pa.;
) is open daily, 8 a.m. to sunset. Free.
Highlands Mansion and Gardens (7001 Sheaff Lane, Fort Washington, Pa.;
www.highlandshistorical.org ) is open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to dusk.
Free. House tours are Monday to Friday, 1:30 and 3 p.m.; $5.
Scott Arboretum (Swarthmore College, 500 College Avenue, Swarthmore, Pa.;
) is open daily, dawn to dusk; office is open Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to
noon, and 1 to 4:30 p.m. Free.
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