The Blog

The Good, the Bad and the Fungi on a Rooftop Farm

To me, the most compelling argument for the urban agriculture movement is the food itself, the snow peas and pole beans. The food you grow nearby is inevitably the tastiest.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

While I was tying up the hops vines this afternoon, my boss Michael Cameron came up behind me. He looked agog about something, and I was worried that something was wrong.

"Those beans!" he gasped.
"What beans?" I asked, still unsure if I was in trouble or not.
"The ones in the kitchen! Chris said they were from the roof. They're HUGE!"

Whew. And Mike was right, too. The Italian Pole Beans we're pulling off the roof right now are as long as my forearm, an inch wide, and sweet enough to be eaten raw. We're harvesting almost every other day and working them into a bunch of dishes on the menu. I've been pleased to say that the chefs have been very positive about the produce I've been delivering to the kitchen this season. Indeed, it would be easy to get cocky on occasion, like when the chef said the sugar snaps were better than any he was getting from the local farms.

But the truth of the matter is, it's an unfair contest. At Uncommon Ground we get to let our veggies vine ripen as long as we can and when it comes time to transport, all we have to do is walk it down to the kitchen (of course, by way of our washing station). Around here, sometimes the amount of time between the moment something is harvested and the moment a customer bites down on it could be under an hour.

To me, this is at the heart of the heart of the urban agriculture movement. Few people believe that urban agriculture can significantly replace rural farming as the primary mode of food production in America. Instead, it seems that urban agriculture has the opportunity to play a significant role in improving food security and nutrition, while saving urbanites money and building community. I believe very strongly in many of these ideas but they can be hard to communicate, especially when the discourse is peppered with terminology like "peri-urban," "phytoremediation," and "bioregional ecologies."

To me, the most compelling argument is food itself, the snow peas and pole beans. That the food you grow nearby is inevitably the tastiest. For almost every vegetable, the best it's ever going to be is the very second you pluck it from the vine, and every minute after that it's becoming a lesser version of itself. If you want to make someone a believer of urban ag? Let 'em pick a tomato and eat it right there. But then step back: the converted are generally the most zealous.

Outside of giant beans, the exciting news this week is that we started our tomato harvest. Small at first, the sungolds and the currant tomatoes are the ones coming in. If a fresh tomato isn't the very taste of summer, I don't know what is.

The sobering news, however, is that some of the tomato plants themselves -- in particular, those in our Earthboxes -- aren't doing too hot. We've had a couple different diseases on them this summer but the real tough one is fursarium wilt. Fusarium is a fungus that infects the vascular tissue of the tomato plant, preventing it from passing water and nutrients to the leaves. Slowly the plant dies back and eventually dies completely. Fusarium has no treatment, organic or otherwise, so it'll be a bit of a race against time to see if any tomatoes will ripen before the vines lose all vitality. I'll admit the wilt took the wind out of this gardener's sails.

Worse, the fungus is soil-borne, so if we replant tomatoes in the same boxes, the wilt will just come right back. The sure fire way to prevent this is to not plant tomatoes, of course. But a garden in summer without tomatoes is like a summer without sunshine, so we need a new plan. The plan, then, is solar sterilization . Briefly, it's letting the soil cook under plastic in the sun to kill the fungi. The downside is that the heat will kill essentially all the microorganisms as well, so we'll need to reinoculate the soil with some compost before planting.

But that's the oldest story in the book. Crops grow. Sometimes they fail. You don't have much choice in the matter; the farmer goes on.

Stop by to check in on us and how we're doing. Fridays the nation's first certified organic rooftop farm is open from 4 - 8, along with a bunch of farmer's market stands, country music, and a bar nearby. I'll tell you all the good news and the bad news.