Urban Farmer Annie Novak Wants You to Raise the Roof

The prolific food and farming educator has just published her first book on how you can turn your roof green.

Nova_Rooftop Growing Guide

In Novak’s own words, this is the book that she wished she had had when she helped start Eagle Street back in 2008. Reprinted with permission from The Rooftop Growing Guide, by Annie Novak, copyright © 2016, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

It’s hard to argue against green roofs.

They can mitigate a building’s environmental footprint by offering natural cooling, water-treatment and air filtration. Some grow vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers with or without pollinator-friendly plants. Others are used for research, teaching or simply pleasurable green space.

That’s not to say that all roofs are constructionally sound for green roofing projects, but of the ones that are, the overwhelming majority lie fallow. In New York City alone for example, there’s about 3,000 acres worth of commercially-viable rooftop farming space, and I’d confidently wager that most of it’s dead as a doornail.

This is hardly news to Annie Novak, the head farmer and co-founder of the nation’s first commercial green roof vegetable farm, Greenpoint’s own Eagle Street Rooftop Farm. In addition to managing New York Botanical Garden’s Edible Academy in the Bronx and running her own field-to-fork education nonprofit Growing Chefs, Novak’s the author of just-released The Rooftop Growing Guide: How to Transform Your Roof into a Vegetable Garden or Farm.

In her own words, it’s the book that she wished she had had when she helped start Eagle Street back in 2008. It’s not just for those looking to start a business, though. It’s also for those interested in raising their roofs in whatever capacity they can, be it sowing low-maintenance ground cover or building a full-blown greenhouse.

We recently chatted with the prolific young Brooklynite to learn more about her inspiration, why many personal gardening projects fail and why she thinks we’d all do better if we regularly got our hands dirty.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Edible Brooklyn: Tell me a bit more about your background. Where did you grow up and what sparked your interest in gardening and farming?
Annie Novak: I grew up in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb outside of Chicago. I became interested in agriculture when I was in college, principally while studying with a really marvelous human geography professor, Dr. Joshua Muldavin. The year before, I had been studying in West Africa at The University of Cape Coast in Ghana. One day I was at video store (I like to go to video stores in foreign countries to see what kind of titles are available, as it informs what people think of Americans) and met a Ghanaian man whose father was the founder of the first fair trade chocolate company in all of West Africa. And I said, “Well, I like chocolate!” and he offered to show me some of the farms.

After a long drive, we went walking for over three hours through dense jungle, bushwhacking with machetes. It was so hot that my mascara melted and sealed my eyes closed. At that point, I told my guide that I thought the walk was beautiful, but wondered when we were going to see chocolate trees. The farmer who was leading us, who was shirtless and wielding a machete, turned around and started laughing. He said we’d been walking through chocolate for the entire three hours! I felt really stupid—and I hate feeling stupid. In that moment I thought, “I want to understand plants completely, and do this for the rest of my life.”  I’ve never looked back and I’ve been involved with farming ever since.

I want people touching soil, whether it’s on the roof or not…. I think it could make us all get along better on the subway.

EB: That’s a really interesting way to come about it! Alright then, tell me more about how Eagle Street got started. How did you go from West Africa to starting a rooftop farm in Greenpoint?
AN: Right after graduating college, I was lucky enough to get an internship with the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). It was a part-time position, so I started taking up work at the Greenmarkets as well as my own nonprofit Growing Chefs, which does food education in schools.

Several years later, in 2008, I was approached by Ben Flanner, the co-founder up at Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, because my name was out there as a really passionate advocate for food and farming. I also have a background of horticultural skills and education, and am just a “yes” person. Ben and I sat down to talk. I remember looking over the plans for Eagle Street and thinking, “Wow, this is a really brilliant idea, but there are some fundamental horticultural and agricultural flaws we’re going to come up against taking ground level growing up onto a rooftop.” My hesitancy wasn’t a reflection at all on the idea itself, just than there was no model, since no one was else had yet tried doing commercial green roof roof farming. In the end, this is why I wrote a book called The Rooftop Growing Guide. Thinking back a few years later, after starting that first year with Ben and then running the farm by myself, I remember thinking I wish there was a tool for someone like me. And I actually feel pretty lucky that it took six years of experience to write it because if I had written it that first year, it would have been a book filled with question marks, and now six years later, it’s now a book filled with a lot of exclamation points.

EB: What does the farming operation look like today? How has it evolved since from your original vision? Do you spend much time there now?
AN: We’re really fortunate. Eagle Street Rooftop Farm is hosted by a company called Broadway Stages, which is one of the largest television and film production studios in New York City. They financed the whole farm start-up atop one of their Greenpoint sound stages. From that point on, I run the farm as a for-profit business. We do restaurant sales and we have a market that we run once a month. To run the Farm, I’m there every morning before I head to work at the NYBG. I have a seasonal staff that comes in during growing season. I’m there on Sundays for the market, and we have an all-staff day on Mondays where we touch base and we try to set people on the right track for the week.

Many rooftop gardening projects fail because people are using a potting soil, which dries up very quickly. They’re using a plastic container that breaks down under UV light.

I think the thing that the farm does really successfully, in addition to growing delicious food and making amazing hot sauce, is grow people. In addition to our volunteer program, we have a long term apprenticeship to train future urban farmers, horticulturalists and advocates. We have apprentices who have been placed at the High Line, and we have folks who ended up working at farms in Minnesota and Texas. For example, one past apprentice, Robyn Shapiro, who went on to co-found the Lowline, an amazing public project. I’ve been really proud of what our trainees end up doing because at the end of the day that’s one of the biggest values of urban farming is that you create a culture of educated consumers. Farming and engaging with nature is a biological impartive. I want people touching soil, whether it’s on the roof or not.

EB: Yea, that’s great. Why do you think the general public should be interested in turning our rooftops into farms or gardens?
AN: Gardening offers a really wide range of benefits. It definitely depends on the model of garden that you’d like to start. Most people start with container gardens because they’re the easiest to bring up to the roof. If your main objective is to grow vegetables or flowers or herbs, getting started in containers is a classic gardening practice and a good place to start.

The model that we use at the Eagle Street Rooftop farm is the green roof, a total separate system than container gardening. It astonishes me that more buildings aren’t outfitted with green roofs because of the innumerable benefits they have for cities and landscapes in general. Green roofs capture storm water, which is practical in a city like New York that has a century-old sewage system with combined sewage overflow. Green roofs can mitigate heat island effect. Now we’ve shown that green roofs can grow food, too.

I think the thing that the farm does really successfully, in addition to growing delicious food and making amazing hot sauce, is train people.

I feel very deeply that people should garden. Gardening is the number one hobby in America. It’s a good way to get outside. It’s a good way to connect with whole parts of the world around us that we sort of block out most of the day when we duck indoors to work or sleep. I’m lucky because my job keeps me outside probably 90 percent of the time. As long as I’m wearing sunscreen, bring it! It helps my mood, it helps my health, it helps my microbiome and it makes me a better person. If we spent more time outside, actively engaging in the richness of the natural world, I think it could make us all get along better!

EB: What would you say is the number one obstacle in creating more green roofs in New York City?
AN:  Rooftop gardening—not just green roof gardening—have a few local obstacles to surmount. The first one is safety. Would-be gardeners need to acknowledge that not all rooftops are either legally accessible—whether it’s not having legal parapet height or just not being able to accommodate the additional weight load of a garden. Another common obstacle is often a question of resources. When gardeners get started, often they walk around their local hardware store and they buy a plastic pot and they buy potting soil that is mostly peat moss and they put it on the roof and it fails. It fails because they’re using a material that dries up very quickly and they’re using a plastic container that breaks down under UV light. A basic education in which materials work best, what kind of growing medium or soil should you use, which plants are going to thrive—anything you can do to educate yourself before you get started can really help. Don’t be shy about educating yourself! I’m always amazed by the amount of time New Yorkers spent researching where to go for dinner—just spend ten percent of that time learning about rooftop gardening, and you’re already well ahead of the game!

But rooftop gardening is very doable. Part of it’s going to be a function of your building’s structure, and part of it is going to be your desire to learn a little bit before you get started. That’s why I wrote a book! If you read it, you’ll end up a lot better educated and you’ll have a much more successful garden. People are doing incredible things across the country. I included their stories in the book to make it universally applicable.

EB: I mean yea, as you show, people are doing really interesting things around the world as well. Circling back to what inhibits the existence of more rooftop gardens though, you said it’s partly a resource issue, but is there a lot of  legal bureaucracy?
AN: My experience working with Goode Green and other green roof companies—because again, I don’t install green roofs—the feedback I hear is that most building owners are really gung-ho, but at the end of the day, it just becomes a question of cost and the structural capacity of the building itself. So I think generally speaking it’s not actually a legal issue in the city—permits are available and green roofs are being built all the time. It’s more that as a building owner, if at the end of the day, if you’re building a building from scratch, the roof is the last thing that you build, so that’s most likely when you’re over budget. For example, Rooflite, the company we worked with to develop our green roof media (our soil), have said that their biggest year for green roof installation was 2010. I was really flattered because that was the year after Eagle Street Rooftop Farm was founded. But they said, no, it was a good year because that was when the government had released the most money toward green initiatives. So no matter the inspiration available, it often just comes down to funding!

EB: And the expenses are ongoing too, right? I mean it’s not just like you pay for it once—I imagine there’s maintenance required to some degree, depending on the project.
AN: Hopefully not, and particularly if it’s a non-vegetable green roof. It’s just the upfront cost can be anywhere from $10-20 per square foot to install. There’s always upkeep to some degree, but a well done green roof can be very low maintenance. For example, one of the rooftops we featured in The Rooftop Growing Guide is a Chicago-based prairie-style landscape. It has no irrigation, it self-seeds, and the ownde doesn’t really have to weed up there. It’s pretty magnificent.

EB: Yeah, sounds amazing. Can you tell me a bit more about Growing Chefs and what you’re doing at NYBG? Do they offer resources to New Yorkers who might be interested in starting a green roof?
AN: Yeah, absolutely. I’m the manager for The Edible Academy, a two-acre vegetable-gardening-focused site in the New York Botanical Garden. We’re actually celebrating our 30th year on the site this year, and our 60th year of programming! It’s my eleventh season there.

And Growing Chefs is a nonprofit that I founded in 2006. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of garden to table school programs in New York, so I set out to create the job I wanted and the program I saw lacking. We work with schools across the city doing mostly science-focused food education where we try to use math skills and science skills while learning to cook. It’s tons of fun!

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Ariel Lauren Wilson

Lauren is the editor-in-chief of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn.