“Urban Farming from Backyards to Rooftops”

Front yards, back yards, parking lots, decks, and rooftops, all you really need is some extra space, sunlight and a little bit of planning and there really is nowhere in the city, that a garden can’t grow.

Jesse Banhazl  the owner of Green City Growers and Brendan Shea, the owner of Recover Green Roofs introduced themselves to the audience at the crowded Middlesex Lounge on April 30th, and dove right into the topic of urban agriculture in their Nerdnite talk, “Urban Farming from Backyards to Rooftops.”

Building backyard gardens is one of the things Jessie Banhazl helps people and businesses do. “There’s a lot of different ways that you can grow food in your yard,” she said.  One of ways to do this is by building a raised bed, which from the sound of it is the key to urban farming.

A raised bed is basically a sandbox, filled with the kind of soil you can grow vegetables in.  The soil goes on top of a root barrier layer, which is like a trash bag and protects the roots from absorbing toxins, and there is  a drainage layer, which helps shed the excess water weight.  This is extremely important, particularly when you’re installing something that’s going to add additional weight to a roof.

Raised beds are a critical component of urban agriculture not just because they can fit anywhere but, because they create a separate growing space which, if you intend to grow plants in the city for consumption, is key. “The reason for that is because there is a lot of lead in urban soil,” Banhazl said,”80-95 percent of the time when you test the soil there’s lead in it, so don’t grow plants you’re gonna eat in that soil.”

As the story of their collaboration unfolded they talked about realizing that people don’t always understand how fruits and vegetables go from a flowering plant to what you eat.  So, a lot of what they do is to educate people about the benefits of having an urban garden and how to maintain it.

That might sound crazy but as Shea pointed out, in an urban area it makes total sense.  “When you grow up in a city, if you don’t drive by a farm and you don’t see where food comes from, it comes from a box.  It comes from a supermarket,” said Shea

During their lecture they talked about installing a 2000 square foot rooftop garden for The Ledge, a restaurant in Dorchester, which was the project that initially brought them together.   Although the actual installation only took a few days, the process leading up to it was lengthy and included, designing a garden to fit around existing rooftop equipment (Electrical equipment, HVAC, Telecommunication towers), finding the materials they would need to build the garden and then installing it.

The story they told included craning what were literally tons of special soil onto the rooftop and then having to add compost to it because it lacked the organic components needed to grow vegetables.  There was also a cop detail, a partially closed road, and a last-minute dash to Western Massachusetts to see a man called Blue Sky and his wife Joyous Rose who were supplying the Black Lotus wood, which the project hinged on because it was being used to build the raised beds.  They were “an eccentric couple and they were totally onboard,” said Shea as he explained their concern over having not heard from them, in over a week with the installation date rapidly approaching.

There was a brief pause and someone in the audience asked, “Why is Black Lotus wood so important?”

Black Lotus is really important to the process,” said Shea, “it’s the densest wood you can actually find in North America and it’s rot proof, and heartier than pressure treated wood.”

Urban gardening does have a few unique issues.   Education is one of them, but there are also things like, garden maintenance and who is going to do it? Getting restaurants to use the food they have grown, staking tomatoes on a rooftop garden, and of course the scarcity of bees and insects when you’re high up on a rooftop.

In one of most entertaining moments of the evening Jessie Banhazl explained the very educational and unintentionally salacious way in which they have to manually pollinate some of the plants with the help of youth group volunteers, “you actually remove the male flower,” she said, “you pull the petals down, and then you take the stamen and you insert into the female flower and you just watch everybody get red when you do it.  But this is an urban issue.”

During a lengthy question and answer session they gave some very practical advice to potential gardeners.   Drainage is key, herbs are easy to grow, and if you decide to build a garden, build something you’re comfortable with and comfortable working on.   Banhazl also mentioned how in pinch they used kiddie pools to create a rooftop garden for the B.Good restaurant on Washington Street in Downtown Boston.  Even though in general she didn’t recommend it, for Be Good it seemed to work, “they got 700 pounds of tomatoes out of 25 kiddie pools,” she said.

The Nerdnite lecture was full of information, and inspiring.  After hearing them talk about the kind of projects they have worked on and what they hope to do in the future it sounds like this is really just the tip of the iceberg.  Although I’m pretty sure I will probably still forget to water every single plant I bring into my home, I really like the idea of living in a city where people are working hard to make things grow.