Local food in an urban setting: Why a rooftop vegetable garden makes sense

It’s a very hot and dry day in Downtown Toronto. The asphalt is melting the soles of shoes, and there’s little relief to be found, even as the lunchtime crowds of the business and entertainment districts head to the shore of Lake Ontario for a break. While a heat wave blasts through the city and local farmers pray for rain, there’s a quiet and lush oasis in a most unlikely place.

Vivian Fleet, Sustainability Coordinator at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre

Vivian Fleet, Sustainability Coordinator at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, shows off some basil grown at the Centre’s rooftop herb garden.

Neatly tucked away under a tidy pergola, rows upon rows of fresh green herbs peek up from their pots and arch towards the clear downtown sky. Basil, thyme, rosemary, lavender, parsley and myriad other herbs bask in the heat of their new home, high atop the roof of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. It started as a bit of a dream, which became a concept, and then a project. Just a few weeks ago, the doors to the roof were opened and the rooftop garden was finally planted.

It’s not the first rooftop herb garden in the city, and it certainly won’t be the last. Individuals have been cultivating rooftop gardens for some time, and now with so many businesses adopting sustainability practices, adding a green roof, growing herbs or keeping a rooftop vegetable garden just makes sense.

“Our herb garden fits in perfectly with what we’re trying to achieve here,” says Vivian Fleet, Sustainability Coordinator at the MTCC. The herb garden is accessible to staff and easily visible from the bridge connecting the north and south buildings, and according to Fleet, “stands as a physical reminder of our environmental and sustainability initiatives.”

An herb garden or green roof makes practical use of available urban growing space, increases storm water retention, and helps keep buildings cool in the summer and warm in the winter, thereby reducing the energy requirements of a structure. In fact in some cities, including Toronto, new building bylaws require green roofs on new buildings over a certain square footage. Green roofs can include succulents and trees, but it the hospitality world, growing edibles that can then be used in the kitchen is not only great for the environment, but food costs as well, as we see more and more hotels and convention centres from Montreal to Vancouver sowing vegetables, keeping bees for honey, and even raising chickens. With many businesses adding a local food element to their sustainability practices, the convenience and freshness of rooftop edibles is as local as it comes.

Having something you can see, smell, touch, and care for takes staff engagement to a whole new level. At the MTCC, the chef himself chose the herbs, all locally grown, and a rotating group of dedicated staffers head up on their lunch breaks, taking turns watering, trimming, and harvesting. It’s a bit of a commitment, but there has been no shortage of people willing to take on the task. On a sunny summer day, spending part of lunch or a coffee break amidst fragrant plants and flowers instead of holed up in a food court seems like a no-brainer. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that those who work in urban areas are more satisfied and happier throughout the day when they are able to connect with nature, even through small tasks like weeding and watering, or simply taking a few minutes to check out the progress of the growing plants. A garden can have a profound calming effect, enriching our work environment and allowing staff to connect a company policy with a living, breathing manifestation of it.

The herb garden is also quite the conversation piece among staff and guests alike. Questions from clients about “what’s growing on the roof?” prompted the installation of a sign marking the spot and telling the story of how the herb garden came to be. While the garden’s output is modest at the moment, there are plans for expansion and more space to utilize in future.  For now, says Fleet, as she moves the basil to a sunnier spot “It’s about community and staff engagement. We’re happy to have this project off the ground. It’s only the beginning.”

Knowing the benefits, how do you go about creating a rooftop garden? Here are some tips to get you started:

  • If you have the space and the budget, get the rest of your organization on board and write up a proposal. Having the company involved at every stage of the process fosters ownership.
  • Check how much weight your roof can handle. Planters, soil, water, and plants can quickly become heavy, and your roof may be better suited to shallow plantings of drought-resistant varieties.
  • Decide what you want your garden to be. You may want to concentrate on edible plants, vegetables, or a garden that attracts pollinators. Rooftop gardens can be container gardens, or more sophisticated module configurations.
  • If you’re growing vegetables, make sure to include a water source, electricity source, open and shaded areas for your garden. When days become shorter, lighting can be helpful too.
  • Assemble a team to help with watering and maintenance, and make sure you have coverage when people are away.
  • A small composter close to the garden works in two ways: kitchen scraps can be added to provide compost for the garden, while providing a place to dispose of spent plants, deadheaded flowers, or other organic garden debris.
  • A barrel to collect rainwater is an environmentally friendly way to conserve water. Plants also prefer rainwater to treated city water.

Kelly Hughes is the Local food Procurement Officer at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Follow Kelly on Twitter or email her at [email protected].

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