Rooftop Gardens: Is Gardening Over Your Head?

Rooftop Gardens: Is Gardening Over Your Head?

By Tracy Moran

Urban rooftop farming in Brooklyn, NY.
SourceSiegfried Layda/Getty


Urban farming has been booming a while — but now commercial-scale urban farming might be undergoing its own boom, which means a helluva lot more for global ag.

By Tracy Moran

Big supermarkets may convince some urbanites that strawberries ripen in December, but green-thumbed city dwellers know better. They’ve learned that zucchini flowers are edible and that herbs need full sun. And with trowels in hand, they’re using what little outdoor space they have to dig up a fun hobby and healthier lifestyle. 

Urban farmers with window boxes, balconies and rooftops in cities worldwide are reconnecting with their food source and turning concrete jungles into homegrown produce aisles. 

Urban farmers … are reconnecting with their food source and turning concrete jungles into homegrown produce aisles.

Nearly 800 million urbanites are helping to produce nearly 15 percent of the world’s food. While much of that is done in the name of food security, a growing proportion is thanks to urban farmers who prioritize greener living.

Hannah Cleaver, owner of Eat Your Roof in Berlin, helps folks grow their own edible gardens. She and fellow urbanites appreciate that gardening can be a meditative practice for stressed-out townies.

Her favorite time of day? Watering hour. “You can’t really do anything else. You have to just stop and water. It’s great because it slows you down.” 

Cleaver helps individuals plan rooftop gardens — from buying pots and seeding to cultivating. She’s even helped businesses transform roofs into communal areas in team-building exercises. And it’s not just individuals puttering around with their watering cans: Companies, too, in some of the world’s most sophisticated cities have also caught the gardening bug, from banks in London to apartment blocks in Paris and skyscrapers in Hong Kong.

An apple with a view grows on Hannah Cleaver's terrace in Berlin.

An apple with a view grows on Hannah Cleaver’s terrace in Berlin.

Source Courtesy of Hannah Cleaver

Besides a healthier diet, gardening provides the luxury of plucking produce at its ripest — and at your leisure.

“When my apples are ready, I walk out in my pajamas, look out across Berlin, pick an apple and eat it,” says Cleaver. “I’m the happiest person you can find in her pajamas at 7 a.m.”

Gardeners and grocers alike are taking a fresh look at the gray rooftops and seeing green.

For cities, the rooftop plots offer obvious environmental perks while also adding a dash of color. But even the largest urban farm doesn’t yield enough potatoes for annual consumption, forcing gardeners to buy the odd spud. Stores and urban agricultural operators are wising up to this and beginning to offer more locally grown options that require fewer road miles and less consumer guilt.

Take Whole Foods in Brooklyn, N.Y., for instance. They’ve built a new store and rooftop garden in partnership with Gotham Greens, a startup pioneering urban, commercial-scale agriculture. The store leases the space, and Gotham Greens owns the greenhouse, growing produce for shoppers downstairs.

It’s a great idea, using underutilized urban space for urban agriculture. “We’re excited about [its] commercial viability,” says co-founder Viraj Puri.

Gotham Greens already has two rooftop gardens in New York City and is unveiling another this year, with two more planned for 2015 and plans to spread its crops further afield. Much more than a feel-good venture, Gotham Greens has raised $15 million in investment capital and expects sales to increase 150 percent this year.

Since over half of the world’s population lives in cities, the homegrown variety and urban agriculture business models make both environmental and business sense.

Gardeners and grocers alike are increasingly scoping their city landscapes in search of fertile fields. They’re taking a fresh look at the gray rooftops and seeing green. So where will your garden grow?