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Rocket Science – An edible rooftop garden in Portland

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Photo by Kym Pokorny from her blog “Dig in with Kym”.

Article by Kym Pokorny
The Oregonian October 2007

From atop the Rocket building, there’s no doubt you’re smack in the middle of a city. Swing around in a circle and you’ll see the sun going down on Big Pink, the arching Fremont Bridge thronged with traffic, the new aerial tram creeping up the hill to OHSU and the green-and-white 7-UP building plunked down squarely to the east.

When you scrape your eyes off Portland’s skyline and focus on what’s going on just below eye level, you may begin to doubt your urban sureness. The usual flat-topped, tar-papered city rooftop has been overtaken by edible productiveness, food that ends up in front of customers at the new Rocket restaurant.

Although chef’s gardens are nothing new in the restaurant nirvana of Portland, Rocket’s rooftop commercial garden is the region’s first and shrinks the city’s footstep on the planet.

“If you look around and see all the flat roofs, you can start to imagine a food-sustainable city,” says Marc Boucher-Colbert, one of the partners who contracts with Rocket restaurant to design and maintain the garden. “We’ve taken away all this space, but we can reclaim it.”

Reclaim it in a way that eliminates the energy requirements of refrigerated transport and the waste of land that can be used for other purposes. They’ve banished pesticides with organic practices, and they save water and fertilizer by experimenting with soil mixtures and watering systems. Efficient use of space means less labor.

All of this saves money for Rocket co-owners Leather Storrs and Mukund Devan.

Already the garden, planted in May, looks like nothing you’ve seen before. Raised beds covered in Space Age silver insulation send out harvests of small, cucumber-shaped white eggplant; ‘Tromboncino’ squash; abundantly productive ‘Paprika Supreme’ peppers; and the most delicious pineapple tomatillos. Long, white, elevated tubes are precisely cut along the top for pots of five varieties of red lettuce, an ingredient in Rocket’s signature salad. Strangest of all, though, 14 rigid-sided kiddie pools, blue as the ocean with sea urchins swimming on the side, are seeded with arugula in staggered stages of growth.

Storrs originally conceived of a fifth-story, all-glass private dining room to cap the Rocket building, red and boldly obvious in the midst of shabby East Burnside Street. When the city rejected his proposal, he and architect Kevin Cavenaugh began leaning toward an ecoroof, a specially designed garden that grows plants appropriate to alternating periods of baking sun and ample rain. The roofs, which have gained a popular, but not entirely successful, reputation in Portland, save energy through insulation and help manage storm water by absorbing rain.

But when Boucher-Colbert and Erin Altz , partners in Edible Skylines, approached the restaurateur about an ecoroof with an edible twist, he didn’t hesitate. A man with energy to match his enthusiasm, Storrs agreed, even though, as he says, “I’m all about meat. I drive a car that uses a lot of gas. But I can get into this.”

Already Storrs sees a savings, though things have been so hectic a scale hasn’t been brought to the site yet to calculate the exact amount.

And he’s getting used to controlling his impatience with bugs. “We had an aphid problem like you can’t believe. It was like a fuzzy angora of aphids,” he says with a shudder. “Then we started to see ladybugs show up. They were so systematic. They went from one end to the other, eating the aphids.”

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He’s jazzed, you can tell. But even more, he’s thrilled about the produce that makes its way within seconds to his kitchen down the steep metal staircase. Stuff like the arugula, whose flower is his logo and which goes into so many of his dishes. And the pineapple tomatillos that flavor a one-of-a-kind tequila cocktail.

But really, you can’t pin him down about his favorite. He seems equally smitten.

Boucher-Colbert and Altz are somewhat more pragmatic. But when they talk about their experiments, excitement creeps to the surface.

They’ve devised a variation on hydroponics that is so simple it’s astonishing it hasn’t been discovered by everyone. They fill the wading pools, tubes and raised beds with vermiculite or gravel to 2 to 4 inches and top with soil mixture. Then they drill holes through the sides where the vermiculite ends and soil starts. Water is added to the point it begins to just trickle out the holes. Roots reach down and suck up the water. The technique takes less water, time and equipment than overhead or drip irrigation.

The partners, recent graduates of Portland State University, share about 10 hours of maintenance a week on the roof during peak season, six hours this time of year. Altz has other projects in the works, including a rooftop edible garden for Trillium Charter School. Both still work “day” jobs but think the idea will catch on.

They look eagerly to a future where a different view unfolds from the Rocket building, one that reflects Portland even more than Mount Hood and the KOIN Tower’s pointed silhouette, one with green rooftops as far as the eye can see.

See Marc’s story about the roof garden here.

THE PARTNERS OF EDIBLE SKYLINES

WHAT / A consultation, design, installation and maintenance business for rooftop garden systems

CONTACT:

Edible Skylines
Erin Altz, Project Manager
Phone: 503-544-8727
Email:erinaltz@gmail.com

Urban Agriculture Solutions LLC
Marc Boucher-Colbert
Phone: 503-281-4701
Email:jambrazil2@yahoo.com

WHO / Marc Boucher-Colbert, 41

EDUCATION / Bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Catholic University of America, 1988. Master’s degree in sustainability education from Portland State University, 2006.

EXPERIENCE / Owner of Urban Bounty Farm, community supported agriculture, 1993-2001. Agricultural work with a women’s center in northeastern Brazil through Maryknoll Catholic volunteer group, 2006-07.

QUOTE / “My own passion for sustainable agriculture grows out of my experience in doing gardening. My relationship with the Earth is like bicycle riding for me. I love the feeling, and it has the benefit of being sustainable. But the primary experience is joy.”

NAME / Erin Altz, 26

EDUCATION / Bachelor’s degree in international studies with a focus on Latin America from Portland State University, 2006.

EXPERIENCE / Design, installation and training for traditional ecoroof at Meriwether Lewis Elementary School. Project coordinator of full-scale, rooftop agricultural garden at Trillium Charter School.

QUOTE / “Rooftop agriculture is an important tool in being able to re-create local food economies during a time of peak oil use and population growth. Why not food on a roof?”

More links to their work.

Green on top. Who would have thought to grow edible plants on rooftops? Erin Altz did.

Let A Thousand Balconies Bloom
Even the landless can reap the harvest.