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Life Outside: Fred Rich's Green Thumb

Fred Rich’s blog, Battery Rooftop Garden, documents the unfolding story of an “urban farm” sited 35 floors above New York harbor at the Visionnaire, the city’s first LEED platinum residential building.

In January 2011, The New York Times featured Fred’s “farm” in a Home & Garden section story on unique outdoor spaces. The building’s penthouse included a private “green roof ”—more than 2,000 square feet of earth underlain with drainage systems and root barriers, which permit planting directly in the rooftop “ground,” as opposed to in containers or planters. Fred reports that he almost immediately had the idea of undertaking a demonstration project in urban agriculture by converting the space from an “extensive” green roof (with 3-4 inches of soil), to an “intensive” green roof, with varying soil depths of up to 30 inches. The varying soil depths permitted the installation of an orchard (with heirloom apples, peaches, pears, nectarines and plums), a berry patch (with blueberries, raspberries and blackberries), and a wide array of vegetables and herbs, grown both on the ground and vertically on metal screens. Fred assembled a team of green roof experts, artists and “urban farmers” to help with the project.

After construction was completed in April 2010, the first season of experimentation began. It became time to test which food plants would succeed, and which would fail, in the tough environment of a city rooftop. Fred was surprised by the nectarine crop, which proved to be “extraordinary,” and also by an “amazingly prolific crop of Asian pears.” Failures included the potato crop. “They were delicious, but tiny—it’s a constant learning experience,” he says.

A “cold frame” (greenhouse-like box)—crucial to achieving an extended year-round harvest —was installed. After a few false starts, spinach and lettuce finally began to grow. Fred was particularly nervous about how the trees and other unconventional plants would survive tough winters but, “so far,” he says, “things are looking pretty good.”

In addition to documenting the success and failures of the fruits and vegetables, the blog emphasizes the potential social, economic and environmental importance of urban agriculture. Fred says that, “in addition to community gardens, a third of the housing units in New York contain some sort of outdoor space. Growing food locally alleviates poverty, changes diets and promotes health, improves the urban environment, and reconnects people with their food. And you don’t have to have a 2,500-square foot green roof to do this . . . we are trying to inspire people about the quantity and variety of food that can be grown in a small space like a balcony or fire escape.”

Fred supports young chefs interested in the local food movement by hiring them to cook for events at his apartment using only the food available for harvest from the roof on the day of the event. Fred explains that “there is no pre-planned menu; it’s a very different approach to cooking. My guests are amazed that you can eat a satisfying eight-course meal completely procured from an urban rooftop in lower Manhattan.”

“Of course,” he adds, “it helps if you like vegetables.”

When asked about a favorite meal or vegetable, Fred says that “part of what sustainable agriculture and local food is about is that you try not to bring to the table your own prejudices about what you like or don’t like. Instead, you embrace what is seasonal . . . . Did I mention that really fresh locally grown veggies taste much better, too?”

Fred plans to experiment with new fruits and vegetables throughout the year and to continue sharing the results on his blog.

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