City Farmland

Rooftop gardens in New York City

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Can you have a farm in a city of sidewalks, streets, and skyscrapers? Rooftop farming is making it possible. If you live in a city, you might live an elevator ride away from one. These urban farms make eating locally possible, even in urban landscapes like New York City.    

Rooftop farming is a growing trend and a great way to bring fresh produce to cities like New York and Chicago. Produce can travel for days and sometimes weeks from other countries before it gets to a store and eventually to your plate.

Eli Zabar, a rooftop-farming pioneer in New York City, described a major advantage of his sky-high garden.

"By growing vegetables right here in Manhattan, the transportation to my stores is a very short distance," he said. "So we are not using a lot of fuel to get products to the store."

Although his rooftop farms only make a small profit, his customers get the freshest produce in the city.

"Produce grown and eaten right away always tastes better," says the owner of Zabar's gourmet grocery store. Zabar began his food company, The Vinegar Factory, in 1993. He began planning his rooftop greenhouses immediately.

Today Zabar has five greenhouses on the roofs of his buildings. His farms grow a variety of mixed greens, tomatoes, figs, and strawberries. It's completely self-sustaining with heat provided by the oven exhaust of his bread factory below. He also has his own beehives and composters.

But Zabar's farm isn't the only urban rooftop farm around. The Washington Post recently reported on rooftop farms sprouting all over the city. In the Jamaica section of Queens, the start-up company Gotham Greens is building a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse on a roof. The garden is expected to grow 30 tons of greens and herbs.

In the South Bronx, a housing developer is designing a 10,000-square-foot rooftop greenhouse for an eight-story building. It will be run by a local food co-op. On the Upper West Side, the Manhattan School for Children is building a 2,000-square-foot greenhouse, both for food production and environmental education.

The benefits of rooftop farming are the sun, the ability to custom-engineer the soil for each type of plant, and the lack of pests like snails, insects, and rodents found in a ground-level garden.

Soil is a big factor in rooftop farming. Zabar says it can make a big difference in how food tastes.

"I like using organic soil because it brings out a certain flavor in my tomatoes," he said.

Some new soil technology has been developed for rooftop farmers called Gaia soil. It's lighter than most soils, which is critical for roofs that are unable to handle the weight of typical farm dirt.

Challenges of running a large rooftop farm include cost, managing the amount of water plants need under direct sunlight, high winds, and hauling soil and other materials to a roof. To get started, a structural engineer must confirm the roof's ability to bear the weight. A base layer of heavy-duty plastic must be laid on the roof, and then drainage must be constructed. The most advanced farms use greenhouses.

If you live in a city or any place where land is limited, you can start your own urban rooftop farm.

Here are some tips on how to grow your own city vegetables:

1.    Get permission from your building or school to start a rooftop farm.
2.    A cheap way to get started is to go to a toy store and buy a kiddie pool or a basic sand box.
3.    Plan for composting to generate natural topsoil and fertilizer so you don't have to continually haul dirt to the roof.
4.    Plan for a water source and decide what type of soil to use to grow your produce.
5.    Organize a group of at least three to five people to help plant crops, maintain the garden, and harvest the goods!

Happy eating!

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