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On a Mission to Green Our Nation’s Capitol: A Q&A With Rooftop Roots

On a Mission to Green Our Nation’s Capitol: A Q&A With Rooftop Roots

November 23, 2015 |

Photo courtesy of Rooftop Roots.

Photo courtesy of Rooftop Roots.

For urban farmers, clever space utilization is key, especially in a major city like Washington D.C., where planners estimate there will be a need for 200 million square feet of new housing by 2040. Using rooftops can change the game and offer major ecological benefits along with fresh local food. Rooftop Roots is a team of D.C. locals who have been working for five years to scale up rooftop growing in their city and supply local food banks with the harvest. Seedstock spoke to executive director Thomas Schneider about how it’s done.

Seedstock: I understand that Rooftop Roots was born in a conversation between you and Christian Patrizia, your marketing director whilst hanging out on a roof. How long between that conversation and the first seed getting planted? What were some of the first steps?

Thomas Schneider: Gosh, the idea came up on July 3, 2010. I started thinking about it more and more, trying to figure out how to make it work, and asking random people I met what they thought about the idea. That fall, we came up with the name and the concept, and that winter we started reaching out to folks in the non-profit arena to figure out where to get started.

We put up our first garden at a friend’s house in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. We drove up to Baltimore and got a bunch of those white five-gallon buckets from a pickle maker, made these sub-irrigator planters using a design we found on the internet, added some soil, and watched chaos ensue.

Seedstock: How many gardens have you established, and how much produce has been donated?

Schneider: We’ve built nine gardens so far, donated tens of thousands of servings including lettuce, greens, tomatoes, carrots, radishes, beets, okra, herbs, and other crops to underserved communities and food banks in the DC metropolitan area

Seedstock: How do you identify likely roof space?  

Schneider: Google Earth is a pretty handy tool in identifying potential locations. Most of the situations where we are growing on roofs, the client has reached out to us:, “Hey, we got this roof space and we want to use it to grow food.”

Seedstock: Are most organizations open to the idea of a rooftop garden, do you think?

Schneider: I think there is growing awareness about the opportunities that urban landscapes provide for growing.

Seedstock: How do you find partners?

Schneider: A variety of ways. Social media has been very helpful in spreading our meSeedstockage, which has in turn gotten people to reach out to us. We also leverage the local non-profit sector: community development, food aSeedstockistance, personal and environmental health advocates, and faith-based organizations.

Seedstock: Have you run into any regulatory issues?

Schneider: Most of the time, when we look into a possible rooftop location, for a variety of reasons it doesn’t work out. But we haven’t run into any regulatory issues. Liability issues, yes. The biggest challenge is satisfying lawyers’ concerns about letting individuals on a roof, particularly when it isn’t purposed for public/regular acceSeedstock.

Seedstock: Is there anything you have learned from experience working with local government and have they had to modify anything or take any action to facilitate what you do?

Schneider:  Local governments here in the DC area have been quite supportive, although funding availability is quite limited. DC recently paSeedstocked the Urban Farm and Food Security Act, which among other things, provides tax incentives to property owners that lease their property for urban agriculture. This wasn’t in response to anything specifically we were doing but to strong grassroots efforts by several other leading urban agriculture organizations in the city. And the D.C. Department of Parks and Rec, along with the public schools, have been leading proponents,  offering programming to citizens.

Arlington County, VA has a strong Master Gardeners program, and has really started to take more action in this arena. There are several committees taking on various aspects related to urban agriculture, and I’m happy to say that I’m an active participant in their efforts.

The great thing about urban ag and food, in general, is that it affects all facets of life and can be a unifying theme in bringing the community together. I think jurisdictions here in the area understand that, and as such, are working to promote it more and more.

Seedstock:  What essential advice would you have for people in other cities who would like to get urban rooftop ag going?

Schneider: Don’t be afraid of failure. Not everything is going to work out how you imagine it, but give it a shot. As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Installing a garden takes months, so plan well ahead of when you want to start growing.· Start small, and then expand your garden. White materials help to moderate soil temperature.

And remember the bigger the plant, the bigger the container you need to grow it. Dwarf varieties of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are becoming more and more popular; I recommend trying those out in containers, no matter what space you have. That’s the great thing about online seed retailers, the ability to get the harder to find seed varieties!

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