Posted by: Jacques | September 10, 2009

News from the Palo Santo Rooftop Garden

The end of a Summer of dedicated urban gardening yields chiles, tomatoes, squash, herbs, greens and life experiences. My successes and failures this season have taught me some difficult lessons, but in the end I have had a lot more to show for my work than I did last year, which I guess is the idea. Every Summer since I started gardening on my rooftop four years ago I have made a little bit more compost, filled more boxes, planted more seeds, and harvested more vegetables.
I Grew Tomatillos fot the first time this year

I Grew Tomatillos for the first time this year

I have been able to grow enough herbs to supply our kitchen with all of the green ingredients that have gone into our Chimichurri since June and I will probably get another month or two of growing season before the first frost kills the annuals and sends the perennials into dormancy.  Some of my home grown ingredients were snuck into various dishes with out much mention as in the case of the papalo on the tacos or the tomatoes and purslane in the little salads that we top our sopes with, but other ingredients took center stage in menu items such as the rooftop greens.
We used Tobacco Leaves as a spicy garnish for Pork Chops with Molasses sauce

I got the seeds when I was in Tobago last year, but last Summer I couldn't get them to germinate. This year I have 5 or 6 plants that are growing like weeds. We used Tobacco leaves as a spicy garnish for Pork Chops with Pumpkin and Molasses Sauce.

One night I was even able to put together a 9 course tasting menu focusing on our home grown ingredients. Each dish had one or more key ingredients from the rooftop garden. The couple who enjoyed that meal are regulars and have been so pretty much since day one, and one of them was celebrating a birthday.
Growing in an old trash can

Papalo Growing in an old trash can

Back in May at Edible Brooklyn’s Uncorked tasting we used some of our rooftop greens as part of a bean salad that served as a bed for bite sized pieces of seared local bluefish.

Purslane does well all the way through the hottest part of the Summer

Purslane is nice in salads and it does well all the way through the hottest part of the Summer.

Next week Palo Santo will be participating in a local food tasting event called Let Us Eat Local and I plan to use a good amount of homegrown produce. We will be making Pork Tacos with local pig parts and our homemade tortillas topped with rooftop salsa. All that will be paired with Brookly Brewery’s BLAST which is sort of like a hoppy IPA on steroids.

Rooftop Tomatoes

Rooftop Tomatoes

That pretty much sums up most of this year’s urban farming success stories, so what about the failures? Well… Besides the unfortunate leafy victims of the uphill battle with the incessant aphids the biggest tragedy this year was losing a rabbit. Maybe I got a bit over zealous when I decided to make a go at raising minor livestock on the third story rooftop of a Brooklyn townhouse? But I thought “how difficult could it really be?”

I guess here I should give some sort of explanation of why I took on the project in the first place. I could blame it on the strong influence of the Omnivore’s Dilemma which I was in the middle of reading, but in reality it stemmed from something whose roots went far deeper into my philosophical development. For those of you who didn’t know this already, I was a strict vegetarian for about five years up until about ten years ago when I graduated from vegetarian cooking school and went into the mainstream food service workforce. I made a conscious decision to force myself back into eating meat, fish, milk and eggs again. I thought about what direction I wanted my career to take me in and about how intertwined it would be with my own personal eating habits and I decided to broaden my opportunities. The road to success as a vegan chef looked narrow, and one of it’s biggest foreseeable drawbacks was that as a vegan chef I would most likely be more of an activist than an artist.

I had made my decision, but I have since then learned that some middle ground does exist. I have now become what one might call a conscientious omnivore. And though I am far from a career activist, I do what I do with a political agenda and I have aligned myself with a movement which aims to resensitize the general public to issues of food purity and the sustainability of our food supply. It has become of more and more importance to me to have intimate knowledge of my food and its sources. Which is really why I have put so much into my rooftop garden. More than just growing a few plants I hope to cultivate a deeper understanding of where my food comes from. So the next logical step was to try and raise my own meat. If the only meat I ever see are pink and red slabs wrapped up in plastic I might even forget that it came from an animal. An animal whose life was take in order to sustain mine.

So… My plan was to breed rabbits but I only got as far as one -a black and white little guy who I named Pedro Ximenez after the grape varietal. I had him for a few weeks and everything seemed to be going well. I built him a relatively large hutch that was shaded by bean plants and a plywood roof. I fed him mostly vegetable scraps from the kitchen along with some fresh leaves from the garden. He seemed happy and appeared to be healthy until one day he just fell over dead.  Maybe I shouldn’t have taken it so hard and just called the farmer upstate the next day to see if he could bring me another live healthy one, but instead I gave up. I just felt so guilty about what had happened that I couldn’t step foot in the garden for about a week. I was paralyzed every time I even thought about climbing up the ladder to check on what was still alive. Luckily it rained quite a bit that week, otherwise a lot of plants would have dried up because I wasn’t watering them. The experience could have just been part of the learning process, so maybe I’ll give it another go some time in the future? After all, a set back like that one only becomes a true failure when I give up trying to eventually succeed. If I have gained anything through this process of trial and error it is a much deeper appreciation for the toil of the farmers who feed us. Their jobs are not easy.

Tobacco Flowers with the Manhattan skyline in the background

Tobacco Flowers with the Manhattan skyline in the background



  1. Nice tomatillos. Where did you get the seeds from?

    • I got the seeds from a rotten tomatillo. most of the stuff that I planted just came from seeds that we collected in the kitchen or just grew out of our compost pile.

      • Wow, that’s brilliant! So what else have you grown this way? I’ve wondered if this works, now I know! I’ve got a little balcony garden myself with lettuce, arugula, onions, garlic, peppers, and herbs. Need new ideas though! 🙂

        Any winter sowings?

        Did you start the herbs from seeds? E.g. borage, the p….. one?

      • I started almost all of the herbs from seeds. Sorrel, oregano, parsley, papalo, borrage, lavender, savory, marjoram, thyme, etc. the only one that I have not had any luck with is rosemary. the seeds just wont germinate.

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