Why I grow: Downtown rooftop gardening

Photo courtesy of World Coffee Cafe.

More and more of Asheville’s downtown dwellers are finding creative ways to use their urban spaces for growing food. Russell Thomas, owner of the Flatiron Building, tells Xpress how he and his staff are converting the rooftop of the historic building into a hydroponic and raised-bed garden that is a source of both veggies and renewable energy for the building and its businesses.


Photo courtesy of World Coffee Cafe.
Photo courtesy of World Coffee Cafe.

Mountain Xpress: Tell us about the history of this space. What made you decide to put a garden on the roof?

Thomas: I’ve owned the building for 29 years. My office is up there, so I would go out on the roof and enjoy the view, but it was just an empty, flat space. Last year we installed solar panels up there to help with heating the building’s hot water, and we tried putting out just a couple of plants. That didn’t yield much, but it made us realize the space was viable.

I think we put the garden in just because the time is right. Sustainability is a big thing in Asheville, and as a community, we’re getting smarter and smarter every year. I would love for the Flatiron Building to be an environment where everyone in the building is working in support of being more sustainable.

What do you grow?

Since we grow for World Coffee Cafe and the Sky Bar, tomatoes and basil are our biggest crops. We started there because we have lots of tomato needs and they are expensive. But we want to try something new every year and keep building it. Kelsey Hunn and Andon Crislip, my electrician and carpenter, took the lead on the garden. They built their own set up and tried a bunch of things. We have raised beds and planters, but they also built a hydroponic system to grow lettuce.

Photo courtesy of Russell Thomas.
Photo courtesy of Russell Thomas.

What are some of the challenges of rooftop gardening?

Well, watering is the big one. We don’t have a lot of hoses, so we’re fighting with dragging hoses from here to there. But we’ve always had this garage mechanic kind of mindset where we want to try building new things. We’re working on building a sprinkler system for the garden, but we want to make sure to reuse that water and the water that’s coming from the air conditioners. Right now we’re building a hydro-electric turbine and generator for the roof that would use that water to power the lights in the hallway.

Do you think this is something other downtown business owners and residents would be interested in? Should we expect to see more rooftop gardens?

The biggest advantage to being the owner of a building is having a space to hang out on the roof. When the world is crazy down here, you can go up there and escape. It’s a quality-of-life bonus, for sure. So yeah, I think people would be interested in making these spaces when they can. And I think more and more businesses are going to do this because ultimately the price of produce keeps rising, and Asheville has really embraced farm-to-table. If a tomato costs you $3, why wouldn’t you grow your own?

What do you have planned for next season and the future?

Our crew has their hands full, and they do this as a labor of love, so we see these things as our ongoing projects. But at some point we want to have a massive garden full of vegetables and flowers.  For next year, we want to increase the number of raised beds. And we really want to get more people in the building involved so that this can be more of a community garden. We don’t like to stay still for too long, so this garden is just one of the things we want to do to make this place a little neater and more sustainable.


For more information on the Flatiron Building rooftop garden, visit flatironbuilding.org.


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About Carrie Eidson
Multimedia journalist and Green Scene editor at Mountain Xpress. Part-time Twitterer @mxenv but also reachable at ceidson@mountainx.com. Follow me @carrieeidson

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