Frozen Farming

By William Widmaier

A pumpkin patch in spring, apple orchards in early summer, pick-your-own strawberries in late fall--these are times and places in seasons that you don’t typically think about. As the holidays neared, and the first frosts reached into this city's soil, I thought about urban farms and what lay in store for them come the frigid winter months. Although it’s the city that never sleeps, does the urban farm get a break? How many rooftop gardens lay barren in the freezing winds of mid-January, and what would the alternative be?

I set out to answer these questions, unsure if I would I find a forgotten tomato clinging to the last vestiges of a vine, waiting for it’s moment among the compost, or if it would be hardy winter vegetables, growing steadfastly in a harsh urban tundra. The answer is a little in between both. No hardy vegetables would be picked, but certainly nothing was barren. In a metropolis that lists dollar amounts per square foot, a barren patch can’t be afforded.

In the vegetable beds of Brooklyn Grange, twelve stories up on the roof of building number 3 of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, farm manager Michelle Cashen leads me through the frozen landscape and into the two small greenhouses at the end of several rows of lettuce.

“We grow these microgreens year round, and sell them mostly to chefs and restaurants,” Cashen tells me, as she picks a seedling from the delicate soil. “Oh, spicy! That must be radish.”

The greenhouse is small, and the hazy plastic walls are coated with a thin blanket of ice on this particular morning. Humidity in the greenhouse is high, and water drips onto my shoulder, onto my notebook, onto the sprouts. The floor is wet and muddy, and it makes a little sucking sound as I walk through to see the budding sunflower and cilantro. I’m instructed not to eat too many, as there is going to be a harvest later in the day. As I nibble a radish sprout, I think about the hours in between cutting the seedlings and the time it takes to get to a diners plate. How perishable a single sprout can be, with only two or three delicate leaves and a tiny root. I imagine it can’t last very long. Instead of hardy winter vegetables, I’ve found the most delicate of all produce.


However, these little greenhouses aren’t the only green on the roof. The farm is lined with rows upon rows of cover crops, green and iced over.

“We start planting cover crops in October, when it’s still warm enough for the plants to take root.” Cashen tells me. The cover crops, and types they use, are there for a few reasons. Cover crops are used as a sort of holding place until the next season of crops can be planted. Cashen explains to me that it gets very windy on the roof and that cover crops help to curb erosion of the soil beds. She goes on to explain that the crops they choose are nitrogen fixers--they take nitrogen from the air and bring it down to their roots, enriching the soil for the next season of planting.

It’s frigid as we walk around. The cover crops, mostly clover and vetch, are frozen solid but they’ve done their job. They have built a root system that is holding the soil together. No lonely clinging tomato is left, but the greens that have grown are still waiting for their turn in the compost. The vegetable beds aren’t barren at all even though on this particular day it doesn’t seem to matter, because the ground is frozen solid too.

Brooklyn Grange
Brooklyn, NY 11205

Photos: Chia Messina & Jose Espaillat