Rooftop Garden – Reflections from the Roof

On a crisp afternoon in early November I met up with Micki – lead gardener of the CTO / TAS rooftop garden – while she planted cloves of garlic for overwintering. As a fellow vegetable grower, I know that each passing season gives a gardener new insight into his or her craft. Micki’s reflection on the season reminds us that the rooftop garden was about more than just growing veggies.

TAS: Creating a rooftop garden and growing food on a roof was a learning experience for all of us. From your perspective as the lead gardener, what crop was the star of the show and why? Which vegetable (if any) had a rough go on the roof? Could we do something differently next year to enhance the growing environment?

MM: So many of the crops thrived in the microclimate on the roof. The rock stars were the peppers and the tomatoes. We grew 6 heirloom varieties of tomatoes on the roof and all of them produced so well, we had a hard time keeping up! Those two crops kept all of us volunteers very busy.

The Asian broccolis had a hard go of it this year and we ended up losing an entire crop of bok choy to a flea beetle infestation. The zucchini and cucumbers also started out so strong and then we lost them to disease. We learned a lot from these two devastations; next year we will be prepared to cut our losses to flea beetle earlier so that we can keep the beetles off the roof as much as possible. With the zucchini and cukes, we have learned to space these crops out differently to prevent spreading of disease. We will also aim to be on the roof more frequently to be on top of any issues as they arise!

TAS: Let’s get to the numbers. How many pounds of produce did this roof garden produce? How many pounds per square foot? How does this compare to Cultivate Toronto’s in-ground gardens throughout the city?

MM: The roof produced approximately 370 pounds throughout the harvest season. We were very happy with the poundage, especially considering we planted quite late in the season. The Earthboxes themselves represented 200 square feet, but because we needed to leave space in between the boxes for human movement and airflow, the garden’s total footprint was about 570 square feet. This means that the roof garden produced 0.65 lbs per square foot.

Compared to some other in-ground gardens that Cultivate Toronto runs, the rooftop proved to be very productive per square foot. In Cultivate Toronto’s East York Hub, the gardens produced about 0.3 lbs per square foot. This means that the roof garden produced twice as much food per square foot that the East York in-ground gardens.

Earthboxes are known for the highly productive growing environment they provide. Not only did we begin with a high quality soil mix, but the self watering feature of the Earthboxes helped to ensure the soil always remained moist. I’m guessing that exposure to full day sun was also key. Of course, the garden got lots of love from the volunteers, and that goes a long way!

TAS: What were your reasons for becoming involved with Cultivate Toronto and how did working on the roof provide a unique urban agriculture experience?

MM: When I moved to Toronto last year, the first thing I did was seek out urban agriculture groups to connect with. Cultivate Toronto was a natural fit for my values and interests. I was so excited to be asked to manage the rooftop garden. It was a completely new growing space for me and I am very interested in addressing the barriers to accessing local and wholesome foods, such as lack of land space. Growing on a roof seemed to be a great way to demonstrate that food can be grown in a variety of spaces.

TAS: Part of Cultivate Toronto’s urban farming model is to train young people to become urban growers. How did you facilitate this training on the roof?

MM: Teaching was a new challenge for me. I knew that the impact of teaching interns how to farm could be huge – they could go back to their communities and start their own practice, teach others the art of growing food, and become very involved in creating better food systems – if I could teach them well. My main goals were to instill in them a confidence to try new things and the importance of observing the garden to learn.

Ultimately I tried to teach the interns as I had been taught by my mom and dad back home; with our hands. The hands-on learning component of working in the garden is the most important piece.

TAS: Describe your most “teachable moment” either for yourself or one the Cultivate Toronto interns you were working with.

MM: I think the most teachable moment for the group was when I was learning alongside them and growing something I hadn’t before. I was very transparent about any crops I had little knowledge on and hope that they were able to see how taking on a new crop doesn’t have to be a scary thing. By the end of the season I could really see how the interns had taken on the can-do attitude and were comfortable in experimenting and leading activities in the garden! It was exciting to see.

TAS: How was the surrounding community involved in the roof garden? How do you envision an expansion of the garden’s community engagement next year?

MM: This year being the pilot phase of the rooftop garden meant that most of our energy was invested in operations. Some of our outreach activities included hosting garden tours for community members, the recipients of our food, as well as the Toronto Food Policy Council. Now that we have established the garden and worked out the operations, we can start to focus on how the rooftop can further integrate and become a linking piece in the Regent Park food system. I get really excited discussing the future possibilities with community partners and members; the opportunities are endless!

TAS: How else would you like to see the garden evolve next year?

MM: Next year I would love to work with community members in the garden to really drive some strong educational programming. I think workshops that will correspond to the seasons or current gardening tasks would be a great way to get the community involved and we would love to have a bee farmer up there with us! The dream is to see the garden evolve into a community hub where people are brought together by truthful food and nature. My heart would be so full!

TAS: Thanks Micki! We are so appreciative of your efforts on the roof this year, along with the other fine rooftop gardening gals. Shout outs to Katie, Ilham, Melissa, and Meredith who weeded and watered and delivered food throughout the hot summer months. You girls rocked the roof!

Feast your eyes on the photos from the roof garden taken in early August.