Roof Garden Rocket


By Paula Crossfield

[I’m envious of Paula’s rooftop garden, which has everything described here and an amazing view. Paula is a founder of Civil Eats. – mb]

I made a decision in early April that has improved my quality of life immensely: I broadcasted hundreds of lettuce seeds throughout two, 2 ft. x 6 ft. raised beds on my rooftop.

One bed was seeded with “European Mesclun Mix,” from the Baker Creek Seed Bank in Petaluma, California (a gift from my lovely fellow editor at Civil Eats, Naomi Starkman). The second bed was filled with “Ultimate Salad Bowl,” from my other favorite seed place, the Hudson Valley Seed Library. For four weeks, the sun, soil and water have worked their magic. Now, I have delicious red and green curly lettuces, baby kale, radicchio, endive, mizuna, mustard greens, mache and orach (a relative of spinach). And arugula!Now, every day for a week, I’ve gone up to the roof, picked a variety of greens and herbs, washed and prepared a salad — and if its nice weather and not too windy — I take some time to eat my lunch up there, where there’s a spectacular view of the city. This is a necessary respite for me: There is no wi-fi up on the roof, and I leave my phone down in the apartment, giving myself the time to be “out to lunch” as Cathy Erway described in her apt post about our changing food vernacular right here.

It hasn’t been easy: there was a round of real work in building the infrastructure of the garden, which required hours for bringing 1500 pounds of soil up six flights of stairs (I live in a tenement building with no elevator), along with the boards, tools and amendments to build and prepare the beds.

But the growing part is easy. To paraphrase Milwaukee urban farmer Will Allen, if you grow good soil, the plants grow themselves. Good soil is all about compost (I add a little seabird guano now and then, too). As an added bonus, when you are working with good soil sowing closely is not a problem — and you can thin seedlings out, eating the baby leaves and letting the other plants gets bigger. For lettuce, even a windowsill is adequate for growing. There is no space too small for happy-in-dappled-sunlight greens, and there is absolutely no special expertise needed.

Having a garden in the city is not about meeting all of your food wants and needs. Instead its about highlighting what you eat — adding something freshly picked to a dish (it really does make light years of difference taste-wise), or for me, starting ten bush bean plants from seed so that I can get enough of a harvest by the early June to make my pickled ‘Dilly Beans’ to give away and serve as snacks.

It’s also about the simple pleasures of planting a seed and watching it grow. It is only now, when I have perennial herbs and plants re-appearing, garlic coming up from last fall’s planting, and towering Tuscan kale that tastes sweeter after the winter frost, that I realize the value of the hard work of building a garden on the roof: a place to work a little patch of soil in the city and reap abundant rewards.

Last fall I planted spinach and arugula, which stayed dormant under a cold frame through the winter. I removed the cold frame at the end of March and the plants bounded into giant green bushes from which we began eating in April. Now, as the arugula goes to seed on one side of the garden (not so bad: as the leaves haven’t lost much flavor and the flowers are delicious), I have more thriving and taking root in my lettuce bed.

The unpredictability of gardening lay in its creative challenges: when life gives you too much arugula, make pesto! (And serve it, if you have time over gnocchi.)  

Arugula Pesto

Makes: 2 servings

Time: 5 minutes

A big bunch of arugula

Two cloves of garlic

1/4 cup of olive oil

1/2 lemon, or to taste or 2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1-2 tablespoons pine nuts

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

In a food processor or mortal and pestle, combine the ingredients and process until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning.  

I served my arugula pesto over gnocchi, the recipe adapted from Mark’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I was serving two, so double it if you like more. When the gnocchi were done, I added shallot and butter to a cast iron pan with salt and pepper. After it cooked for a few minutes, I added a splash of white wine and let it cook off a moment, then added the gnocchi and about 1/2 cup of the arugula pesto. I cooked it until warm, then served the gnocchi with fresh-grated Parmesan. 



Makes: 2 servings

1 medium spud, preferably the starchy russet type

1/2 cup of flour

Hardy pinch of salt and pepper 

1. Peel and boil the potato in a pot of water until soft, but not falling apart. Keep your boiling water, just turn it off for a few minutes. Put the potato in a bowl and mash it with a fork or process through a potato ricer if you have one (I don’t). The goal is to remove all of the lumps. Add the salt, pepper and flour and combine them well until you have a malleable dough. (I break down and use my hands here, which really helps produce a dough-like consistency.)  

2. Roll out a section of the dough into a 1/2 thick tube, using a knife to cut it into one-inch pieces. Then use the back of a fork to press each one into a gnocchi, starting at one of the cut ends (How to Cook Everything Vegetarian has a great visual; see above). Start the heat under your water again, and you can begin dropping the gnocchi into the boiling water, without overlapping too much. They will cook for about a minute before rising to the surface, at which time you can place them on a plate, and they are ready to combine with your sauce and eat.  

Posted in Farming


  1. Anonymous said...

    Is this photo recent? This arugula plant has bolted, which could indicate too much sun and heat. Here in D.C., our arugula and our radishes have already bolted for these very reasons. Because of extreme exposure on rooftops, gardeners should be providing shade and coolness for sensitive greens (most brassicas prefer cooler weather). Lettuces als do well with less sun and definitely do not like the heat.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Paula … sounds like a great way to make a salad. Plus, you can’t beat the view, I bet. My wife and I were just discussing when we could start eating the lettuce from our patio container garden this morning (several heads of Jericho romaine). Looking forward to the harvest! (Just made some guacamole with some of my container-grown cilantro a couple of nights ago.)

  3. blakekahan said...

    My arugula has also bolted, but I too am enjoying the flowers until the whole plant gets too rangy. They smell like honey! I hadn’t considered eating them yet, but might on your recommendation. So far, they’ve graced a few vases indoors.

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