Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Manhattan Rooftop Terrace – An Urban Garden of Eden

The table is set for a late summer dinner party at the Battery Rooftop Garden.
Manhattan Rooftop Terrace – an urban Garden of Eden
by Delia von Neuschatz


One hot afternoon late this summer, I found myself sipping a cool drink under a pergola dripping with ripe clusters of grapes. A few feet away was a fruit orchard delivering a cornucopia of apples, peaches, pears, nectarines and plums. And growing in the shade of the trees, were strawberries, blueberries raspberries and blackberries along with a profusion of herbs: mint, parsley, thyme and rosemary to name a few. I haven't even gotten to the vegetables. This plot of land offers up vine-ripened tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, eggplants, lettuce and much more in abundance. You name it and the chances are that it's being grown there.

So where is "there?" Was I in a large garden in the countryside? Or on a farm perhaps?
Two types of seedless grapes grow on the pergola.
No and no. I was perched 35 floors above Manhattan on a 3,000 SF terrace with killer wraparound views of New York Harbor and lower Manhattan. The lucky owner of this sylvan oasis which is located on top of the Visionaire, a platinum-LEED certified building in Battery Park City, is author, attorney and environmentalist, Fred Rich.

This keen conservationist wanted to demonstrate the variety and amount of food that can be grown in an urban environment and boy, did he ever! He writes in detail about his horticultural endeavors in his blog, Battery Rooftop Garden. ("Garden" seems too modest of a moniker, however. Considering the abundance of produce being grown there, "mini farm" is a more apt description.)

Those who enjoy visiting his website may be pleased to know that Fred's writing isn't restricted to his blog for this polymath has recently come out with a book. Christian Nation, a dystopian political novel about the perils of Christian fundamentalism, is Fred's first published novel.
Fred Rich, a partner at a Wall Street-based international law firm, is the rooftop gardener. On this particular afternoon, he was making preparations for a dinner party he was hosting to benefit Just Food, a non-profit organization which aims to provide New Yorkers of all income levels with access to fresh, nutritious, locally-grown food.
Cooking for the occasion is the estimable Executive Sous Chef at Gramercy Tavern, Howard Kalachnikoff, far right. (Howard's grandfather's brother designed the eponymous rifle.) Also harvesting produce for the night's dinner (and cocktails) are "urban farmer extraordinaire", Annie Novak and Rafiq Salim, a line cook at Gramercy Tavern. The evening's cocktail of choice was the refreshing Rickshaw made with basil-infused syrup, vodka and lime juice.
Rafiq with some of the day's bounty. The fruits and vegetables picked for the evening's feast were: salad greens, basil, carrots, beets, malabar spinach, radishes, kale, purple potatoes, peppers, eggplant, mint, apples and Asian pears.
All of the eggplants, scallions, carrots, peppers ...
Onions and potatoes come from Fred's garden. The delectable menu was as follows:

Green salad w/ oregano flowers
Roasted carrots and beets with pistachios and cremont
Malabar spinach with poached egg, pecorino and radishes
Kale shot with apple and mint
Ricotta tortellini with pesto and purple potatoes
Arctic char on eggplant puree with Asian pears
Mint desert
The six steel, 4 x 4 vegetable beds yield an embarrassment of riches. In addition to the food pictured and listed above, there are green beans, asparagus, peas, chard, arugula, broccoli, celery and rhubarb. Fred plucked a mizuna leaf for me to taste. City girl that I am, I had no idea what that was and after experiencing the peppery explosion in my mouth, I will never forget it. This Japanese mustard plant should be used in lieu of lettuce in every sandwich as far as I'm concerned.
An herb garden also delivers sage, verbena, tarragon, chives, peppermint and dill. Fred crushes his own fresh mint to make his famous mojitos.
This year, the orchard planted with eight dwarf and semi-dwarf trees proffers no less than four types of apples (Red Fuji, Red Winesap, Macoun and Royal Gala) along with pears, plums and nectarines. The twin glass double-helix fountains are designed by artist Eve Vaterlaus. They pleasantly echo the elliptical shape of the building.
Several more varieties of pears grow on sturdy copper espaliers or wire frames. All in all, there are six types of pears (three Asian and three European) that grow on the terrace.
Jane Orgel, volunteering for Just Food, was on hand to help with the party. The Royal Gala apples come from Fred's orchard, of course.
Fred, with Gramercy Tavern's Micah Fredman and Rafiq harvesting grapes for the evening's festivities.
There are numerous places to sit from which to take in the breathtaking views.
The photos taken on a hazy afternoon don't do the expansive views afforded by Fred's terrace justice.
An apple tree with million-dollar city views.
The terrace even accommodates a "secret garden" with a bench for two, shielded from prying eyes by a variety of ornamental plants including a beautyberry shrub.
The appropriately-named beautyberries.
The panorama from the secret garden takes in Battery Park, the Staten Island Ferry terminal and on this particular day ...
... the Queen Mary docked in Brooklyn.
If terrace-envy has set in, consider this: we all benefit from green spaces such as this in some very important ways. Sustainable farming expert, Annie Novak, who helps Fred cultivate his garden, enumerated the widespread benefits of green roofs. First, these roofs are very effective in collecting storm water, the advantages of which are obvious post-Sandy. Second, they help cool the city. We all know how stifling this heat-trapping concrete jungle can get in the summertime. And third, they are cost effective. By providing insulation in the winter time, they lower a building's heating bills.
Annie Novak holding a pack of lemon drop peppers. "The environmental benefits of rooftop gardens are massive," she says. As the proprietor of the acclaimed Brooklyn-based, Eagle Street Rooftop Farms and the educational program, Growing Chefs, she ought to know.
Annie lovingly cares for Fred's handmade English spades. Needless to say, everything is grown organically. A composting machine tucked into one of the kitchen cabinets ...
... provides all the necessary fertilizer. Photo: Fred Rich.
There's another great advantage to all this and that's environmental conservation. Despite the harsh microclimatic conditions which exist 35 floors (or about 400 feet) above ground, insect life has flourished. So much so, that last year, a biology graduate student at Columbia University, Jeremy Law, visited the rooftop garden in order to study the ecological diversity that has developed there.

His findings? No less than 15 orders and 35 families of arthropods, i.e. bugs, particularly bees whose numbers have been declining throughout North America, have been flourishing within its confines. Jeremy was surprised by this considering that there are a total of 41 insect orders in existence. "The bottom line," concludes Fred, "is that the unusual diversity of my plantings has succeeded in creating the diverse insect population necessary for prolific harvests of fruits, berries and vegetables." Happily, neither ants nor mites have been found on the terrace.
The insects collected in the garden.
A bee enjoying the lavender flourishing on the terrace. Photo: Peter Doyle.
Curious to learn more, I recently caught up with the Rooftop Gardener and asked him some questions:

1) Can you elaborate on what prompted you to cultivate this garden?

I have long realized that when in the City I have a thirst for plants and the outdoors, and having some sort of balcony or terrace was a priority when I was looking for a new apartment. When I first saw the extraordinary green roof at the Visionaire, I instantly had the idea to use the infrastructure to push the boundaries of urban agriculture. Green roofs in general have been pretty timid creations, with an emphasis on iron-clad plants. I was not afraid of failure, and Mark Morrison [the landscape architect] and I decided to take lots of risks and try plants that never before had been grown on a green roof. For example, the idea of a small orchard of eight fruit trees: four heirloom apples plus peach, pear, nectarine and plum, was nearly unprecedented. It could have failed – actually it still might, although this year's apple, peach and pear crops are superb.
Luscious peaches ...
Crisp apples ...
Succulent nectarines ...
And golden pears growing in the orchard. Photos: Fred Rich.
2) What are some of the challenges of growing things on the 35th floor?

The number one issue is wind. Lower Manhattan, and the Battery in particular, is the windiest part of New York City. In one bad storm, all the leaves were stripped off of my kale plants. For many rooftop gardeners, another challenge is keeping the green roof soil irrigated. This is not a problem for me, as the Visionaire, as a green building, provides me with recycled grey water for irrigation, and the soil is kept moist with a drip irrigation system. Although there are challenges, let's remember there are multiple advantages, most importantly, no deer, no woodchucks!
The furniture was secured before Hurricane Sandy swept in. Photo: Fred Rich
3) What kind of impact has this garden had on your life?

The clearest impact is on diet. During the summer and autumn, when here, I try to eat exclusively from the roof – so I am a sort of seasonal vegetarian. But more importantly, the nutritional quality and flavor of fresh picked produce – and I mean 30 seconds to 5 minutes fresh – is extraordinary. This morning for breakfast I picked the first apple of the season, feasted on two perfectly ripe peaches that fell from the tree while I was doing yoga, had the last of the blueberries, and a small salad of Malabar spinach, sweet yellow peppers and yellow tomatoes.
The garden allows Fred to regularly enjoy just-picked berries for breakfast.
Photos: Fred Rich.
4) How does it feel when you walk out onto the terrace and survey the lush greenery and everything that you are growing?

I have been a keen gardener for 25 years. I always feel better when I am around plants – and of course now science tells us that this is something quite tangible. I'm sure you've seen all those studies showing how hospital patients get well faster when exposed to greenery. So I am a great believer in the greening of the city – not just parks, but integrating plants into our residential structures. When my guests come for dinner and sit with grape vines above and plants all around them, it's the green embrace that makes them want to stay, not the big views.
Fred has organized part of his terrace according to picturesque Japanese landscaping principles. Elaborating on the design of the space, he says: "Mark Morrison, the landscape architect and green roof expert who did the overall design, came up with a solution that separates the "farm" part of the garden from the entertaining and ornamental part of the garden, and provides a mixture of intimate spaces for entertaining and more open spaces for receptions and events. The Japanese principles ... were applied to one small part of the roof: the need for planting in the area visible through the living room window to create a two dimensional "picture" that is interesting and pleasing year-round – this is similar to the approach taken in one type of Japanese courtyard garden, where the principal objective is to paint a picture seen in two dimensions from inside the house." And indeed, the terrace provides beautifully verdant views from inside Fred's penthouse apartment as well as from outside.
There's an abundance of flowers in the garden too including roses ...
Lilies ...
And irises.
There's also a prickly pear cactus. Photos: Fred Rich.
5) Do you enjoy it year-round?

Yes. I have an experimental cold frame and have succeeded in growing spinach all winter. I love to step outside first thing in the morning all year round, to connect with the weather and the outdoors as a start to the day. In the winter the sunsets are fabulous, and more than a few cocktails have been enjoyed outside during the winter months.
The insulated cold frame functions as a miniature greenhouse, extending the growing season.
6) What is your advice for someone who wants to have a garden in the city, but has limited space and resources?

Sunlight is the main thing. Even if you have a small balcony or even a fire escape that gets enough sun, you can take a small plastic children's swimming tub, punch a few drainage holes, fill it with soil, and grow food. There is tons of free advice available on-line for the small-scale urban farmer, and the costs of getting started are very low.
Top to bottom: A "before" photo of the terrace. Construction of the green roof took three months; The planters for the fruit trees have open bottoms to allow roots to penetrate the ground below and to allow water to flow freely; Three different heights of vegetable planters allow for three different soil depths.
7) Which environmental and land conservation groups are you involved with?

I have been involved with Scenic Hudson for many years, and am still Chairman of the Scenic Hudson Land Trust. It's a fantastic organization that is leading the charge to preserve the great iconic landscapes of the Hudson Valley, mobilizing significant resources to save Hudson Valley farms from development, and also serving its traditional role as watch-dog of the Hudson Valley environment.

I co-ordinate something called the New York State Environmental Leaders group, and serve on the Board of the national Land Trust Alliance.

8) Have you written anything else besides Christian Nation?

I've done articles on international law, project finance, the Olympic games, local history, garden history, and a couple of book reviews.

9) How do you find the time to juggle a successful legal career with your gardening efforts, philanthropic activities and writing?

Get up early, and work on long-haul airplane flights. No other secrets.

As for me, I'm trying to figure out how to infiltrate Fred's next dinner party so as to savor one (or two) of his bracing cocktails and mouthwatering farm-to-table fare – all in a peaceful verdant landscape with Hudson River sunsets. Life just doesn't get much better than that.
Cocktails in the Battery Rooftop Garden. Photo: Peter Doyle.