Urban Garden Magazine pays a visit to the rooftop of Bell Book and Candle – New York’s first hydroponic rooftop-to-table restaurant!
New York restaurateurs, John Mooney and Mick O’Sullivan, could easily use one of many farmers’ markets in the Manhattan area to keep their pantry stocked with fresh produce. Instead, however, the industrious pair decided to keep things even closer to home by setting up a hydroponic garden on the roof of their soon-to-open restaurant, Bell Book and Candle. John and Mick’s vision is to provide the majority of what appears on their customers’ plates directly from the rooftop, with all the freshly-picked produce lowered by a pulley system straight into their kitchen.
The restaurant’s garden, on the rooftop of 141 West 10th Street between Waverly Place and Greenwich Avenue, Manhattan, is now home to melons, mint, garbanzo, tomatoes, lettuce, and much more. Their produce is grown in sixty vertical tower hydroponic systems, designed and engineered by Future Growing LLC., of Orlando, Florida. These incredibly productive, self-contained growing units allow Mooney and O’Sullivan to grow all the produce they need for their 94-seat restaurant in a relatively tiny space. The plants and white roof lining also help with keeping the building cooler in the summer.
“We went through several years of marketing and trials,” explained Tim Blank, founder of Future Growing LLC., “to develop the Tower Garden system. We never went mainstream with it until now. In the last five years we’ve made over a hundred tweaks to the system to get to the unit we have today. We found that generally people were confused by hydroponics, especially by nutrients. There are so many different types for different stages of growth and bloom. We thought there’s got to be a way to make hydroponics more accessible and relatively easy to do at home. Now we’ve simplified things enough so that two chefs, without any hydroponic experience, can manage their own roof-top farm of well over 1,000 plants.”
Amazingly it took just four days to transform the rooftop from plain black asphalt to a fully functioning rooftop hydroponic oasis! Plant starts were initially brought in from a nursery in Philadelphia but now the chefs take care of that too.
“It’s vital that the system was simple enough for anybody to use,” Tim explained. “John and Mick, like all business owners, need to stick to a strict budget. They can’t afford to hire in a full-time gardener to take care of their plants for them.” Now, just six weeks after installation, the only challenge is keeping up with the speed of growth!
“We’ve shaved 25% off the normal time needed to grow lettuce,” chef John Mooney told us. “Now we can go from seed to harvest in just four weeks! It’s incredible!”
The Tower Garden works by stacking growing units on top of a 25-gallon reservoir. Nutrient solution is pumped to the individual plant sites where the plants thrive in an oxygen-rich, soilless environment. The irrigation system is set on a timer watering the towers for three minutes out of every twelve. The Tower Garden is made from white, food-grade plastic, enhanced with UV protection so that it holds up in the unforgiving outdoor environment.
Despite the sometime extreme New York weather, John and Mick are confident that they can grow on their rooftop for ten months out of twelve. Even when temperatures occasionally drop to below freezing a nutrient heater can be installed in each reservoir and irrigations are set to constant, rather than intermittent, so the roots are bathed in 65°F water. This creates a microclimate around the plants so that they can survive the odd cold snap with ease.
Mooney believes that his rooftop garden not only drastically slashes his shopping bill, but also serves as a model for others who will need to start growing food closer to home.
“I believe in ingredients. I’ve always believed in responsible sourcing. And now I can produce what I need right here in abundance.” The chef-gardeners don’t use any pesticides. Instead, a vast population of beneficial insects protects their crops from bugs. Unbelievably, these beneficial insects found the garden—all on their own—high up in the middle of Manhattan. The rooftop is also frequented by a vast array of different bee species, all helping to keep their heirloom vegetables, including okra and red tomatillo, pollinated and productive.
“I was stunned. There are several varieties of bees swarming the plants. From bees you could hardly see to gigantic bumblebees. Here we are in the center of New York! I have to hand pollinate my squash in Orlando! I almost dropped to my knees in awe! Ladybugs everywhere. Lacewing eggs everywhere! Predator wasps everywhere! In six weeks we’ve created an entire ecosystem!”
Inspired? We thought you would be! Bell Book and Candle is due to open to its first customers this fall.
Bell Book and Candle’s garden boasts over 70 varieties of herbs, vegetables and fruits for its lucky diners including:
Healthy Mint Cuttings
“Rex” Bibb Lettuce
“Magenta” Red Summer
Summer Crisp Lettuce
Spicy Mesclun Mix
Garden Cress Disk – Cress Greens
Fresh Pick Bush Bean
Turkish Orange Eggplant
Okra Red Velvet
Pink Japanese Eggplant
Early Moonbeam Watermelon
Moon and Stars Watermelon
Spirite Honeydew Melon
Black Cherry – Cherry Tomato
San Marzano – Salsa Drying Tomato
Bell Book and Candle: www.bbandcnyc.com
Tel: 212 414-2355
And if you are interested in finding out more about the Tower Garden hydroponic system visit www.mytowergarden.com or come along to GROW 2010 in Los Angeles for Grower Day on October 2nd.