Asheville is hardly a metropolis plagued by the detriment of urban sprawl. But it is a city of sustainability, and that means that in the heart of downtown, some businesses are making the most of their patch of property with innovative rooftop food-production projects.
“Next time you are on an upper floor in a building or on a roof, take a look around,” says Kate Blatt Ancaya of Living Roofs Inc. “Not only is there opportunity for additional space for gathering, but also for capturing stormwater, cooling the city and reintroducing regional foliage color. Even small patches of plants in urban landscapes can provide food and support migrating birds and insects such as native butterflies and bees.”
Kate and her husband, Emilio, founded their green roof design and installation business 11 years ago on the cusp of the urban garden trend. “We were excited about their potential in our Southern cities and viewed them as a creative way to reintroduce ecology and plants back into the urban landscape,” she explains. Now the duo has installed gardens both floral and edible on rooftops across the Southeast, including a few in their home base of Asheville.
The benefits of these projects are innumerable, says Kate. “Rooftop gardens provide increased access to outdoor green space and increase the value of buildings for tenants and owners,” she says. “Aside from the visual amenity of a rooftop garden, the plantings on a roof contribute a wide range of benefits, such as lower rooftop temperatures, stormwater runoff reduction, filtering the air and sequestering carbon. Similarly, a rooftop garden provides habitat and nectar sources for pollinators and other wildlife.”
Up in the air
One of their most recent projects was in conjunction with the Hyatt Place hotel’s Montford Rooftop Bar. While the Montford’s eighth-floor open-air seating area serves up sky-high views as Instagrammed as any mountaintop, there is, in fact, another rooftop in play for the business — and chef Philip Bollhoefer is making just as much use of this one.
Bollhoefer is already known for his dedication to local fare, but with his latest project, he takes the concept to the next level. Early this summer, he asked Living Roofs to install a rooftop herb garden on the hotel’s bright white roof — a series of galvanized steel washtubs outfitted with an automated watering system. He then brought in Anna and Paul Littman of Ivy Creek Farm, from whom Bollhoefer has sourced fresh produce for years, to plant and tend to the starts.
Just a month later, the tubs are hidden beneath thick, trailing vines dripping with butter-yellow squash blooms, fiery nasturtiums and piles of plum-colored Johnny jump-up violas. “It’s a small space, but you can have such a large impact with herbs and edible flowers,” Bollhoefer says, his thumb deftly deadheading the drooping blooms in his garden.
The herbs and flowers he grows in the space above his kitchen are woven into nearly every dish on the menu. The citrus marigolds, so named for their lemony flavor, are found in the brunch menu’s Citra hops-cured trout and crab fritters. The parsley peppers the house tater tots, the dill colors the trout dip, those blazing nasturtiums accent many of the house cocktails. The verdant garden has even inspired new dishes, such as the watermelon salad, which is flavored with the garden’s opal basil. “We won’t have to buy basil, parsley, chives or edible flowers all summer,” he says.
Not all of Asheville’s living rooftop structures are green in color. Locally based Bee City USA encourages cities around the country to invest in pollinators, those buzzing, winged critters that are the unsung heroes of our food supply.
“Honeybees have sweetened the pot for all pollinators with their delicious honey. They are a gateway pollinator, introducing us to the other bees, butterflies, moths, bats, hummingbirds, beetles and flower flies responsible for keeping our planet lush and fruiting,” explains founder and director Phyllis Stiles. “Our work at Bee City USA is about galvanizing communities across America to welcome them into our landscapes with a variety of yummy, pesticide-free flowers.”
In the interest of supporting pollinators, some local businesses, including the Renaissance Asheville Hotel and the French Broad Food Co-Op, have installed honeybee hives on their roofs.
According to Anne Kimmel, beekeeper at the Renaissance, the benefits of the hives are manifold. The pollinators bolster Asheville’s ecosystem, and the hotel was even able to incorporate some of its hives’ honey into its restaurant’s dishes this spring.
But perhaps the best payback for Kimmel is the emotional impact. “I had no idea, and many new beekeepers express the same sentiment, how happy the bees make you feel when you hang with them,” says Kimmel.
It’s not easy being green
Living Roofs is responsible for local rooftop projects as varied as the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center on Livingston Street and downtown’s new Garage Apartments. But according to the Ancayas, Asheville has only started to scrape the surface of its potential for using roofs as a space to produce food.
“The Montford project is a small but fun example of how leftover spaces, such as rooftops, can be used in unexpected ways,” explains Kate. “Rooftops are great spaces to grow food, particularly in urban areas or in food deserts.” With just a little underutilized space and the things nature provides — water, sun, soil — restaurants around town could tout these hyperlocal merits. So why don’t they?
For many, it’s intimidating. “The startup cost and time can be daunting,” says Bollhoefer. “It takes hours of manual labor to get the soil and planters installed, and having a third party company can be quite expensive. The [return on investment] can take well over a year depending on which route you go.”
And that route can be another factor. For restaurants like The Montford, where each plate and every drink are meticulously crafted, it makes sense to grow delicate herbs and flowers that require little space. But even Bollhoefer acknowledges that rooftop gardening has its limits; in the finite surface area of roofs, growing more common items — specifically, vegetables — at the capacity required by the restaurant industry is impossible.
With so many incredible resources available from local farms, some businesses may see planting and tending their own gardens as an unnecessary expenditure. “I think one of the reasons growing food on rooftops is not more widespread is because we are so lucky to have so many farms and farmers markets nearby,” Kate Ancaya says. “In larger, more urban areas, rooftop farms and cultivating food are an important addition to existing food sources.”
For some businesses, especially those housed in aging downtown buildings, rooftop gardening may not even be an option. “It’s important to consider the roof load that growing plants, even in planters, will add to the roof. Often, older buildings cannot add the extra weight unless there are modifications made to the structure,” explains Kate. Also, the lack of rooftop plumbing in many historic buildings poses a problem for gardens and even rooftop hives, since bees need a nearby source of water. Some restaurants and bars that occupy these properties might not even have access to the roofs at all.
Labor of love
Once the project is installed, a new obstacle emerges: maintenance. “Maintaining a garden anywhere is a lot of work. There are pest problems, irrigation, wind and many other environmental factors that can have negative impacts on growing on a roof,” explains Bollhoefer, who has recently been at war with aphids. Because a roof is such a specific microclimate, there’s no other tasty vegetation to distract them. “Food and beverage is a crazy field, and taking on additional projects that can cost hours of extra work per week for products you can buy from a supplier doesn’t always sound like a good plan.”
It’s those hours of upkeep that pose a specific problem for some businesses. The Flat Iron Building, for example, had a rooftop garden installed several years ago, but it’s a project that seems to be floundering. Asked about the garden, the Sky Bar’s general manager, Joe Dunn, trails off after mentioning the volunteer basil that sprouted this spring and occasionally makes it into the bar’s cocktails or pizzas. Without a passionate caretaker at the helm, these gardens will return to the urban wild.
But with dedication and spirit as well as an initial financial investment, the rewards are tangible. “It is definitely a labor of love, and I am more than happy to add extra time on to my week to grow food,” Bollhoefer says. As Kimmel says, these projects don’t just grow food — they grow happiness.