What do you do when you don’t have enough space for a garden? If you’re like the Evening Star Cafe in Del Ray, you head up to the roof, taking advantage of wide open sun and space.
Since late last year, the Evening Star has operated a full-sized rooftop garden, growing unique varieties of herbs and vegetables to serve in the restaurant down below. I met with Evening Star’s chef Jim Jeffords and chief carpenter/gardener Jonathan Stark to learn more about this bountiful endeavor.
When the Evening Star remodeled their interior at the end of 2011, all the restaurant staff were paid to help with the project. Jonathan had been working as a server and during the remodel, his talent as a carpenter and gardener shone. He’s now their full-time handyman and is the force behind the 400-square-foot rooftop garden as well as the raised beds and trellis at the Front Porch, the casual summertime alfresco dinner spot on the restaurant’s adjoining patio.
Construction on the garden happened in August 2012. Before they began, they consulted a structural engineer to determine the maximum weight they could put on the roof. (This is a must, if you’re trying this at home.) Though the roof is 4,000 square feet, they decided to build three rows of raised beds, eight inches deep, for a total of 400 square feet of garden. The three rows are four feet wide so there is space to access from either side.
The garden produces crops all year long. They used electrical tubes to structure a hoop tunnel to hold a tarp for a greenhouse in the winter. It actually can get quite warm under the tarp, so it’s important to ventilate. If you stand along Howell Ave, you can see the hoops, a reminder of the pure magic happening above.
Even if you aren’t constructing a roof garden, there’s a lot to learn about gardening here. Jonathan shared some of his tips with me.
Soil: Quality soil is a must, do not go cheap. Jonathan used a mixture of products including:
- Vermiculite — keeps the soil loose and from getting compacted
- Peat moss — helps with water retention
- Compost — adds essential nutrients
The compost they used is a mix of manure, vermicompost, and fish emulsion. Jonathan learned a lot about soil from this book, All New Square Foot Gardening, a great resource for anyone getting started in a small-space garden.
Pest Control: You don’t need to worry about any chemicals on your arugula, no pesticides are ever used in the garden. That said, they do need to protect against pests. Animals aren’t a problem, but they lost about 400 beets over the winter due to aphids. To combat pests, Jonathan made an organic mixture of orange soap, water and citrus (bugs hate citrus) to mist over the plants. The ratio is approximately 1 tsp soap to 16 oz water with a dash of orange juice.
Companion Planting: Growing different plants in proximity also helps with pest control, pollination, and to increase productivity. Cilantro is one of these plants that is a good buddy to have around. You can learn more about companion planting in this book Jonathan also recommends, Carrots Love Tomatoes, Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening.
Supplies: To build the raised beds, Jonathan purchased untreated lumber from a regular hardware store (the kind you would use to build walls in your home). He treated the wood with mineral and linseed oils to protect against the elements, now the wood should last 5-7 years. The oils are water-resistant and add a nice amber hue.
Only Evening Star staff are allowed up to the roof, but you can see Jonathan’s handiwork if you stop by the Front Porch. He built the beds and the trellis which will house flowering green bean vines as the summer progresses.
Layering: Once the frames for the beds were built, they layered gravel, landscaping fabric/weed barrier and then 8 inches of soil. It’s amazing the plants don’t need soil any deeper (note to self). When they were ready to fill the beds, they devised a pulley system to lift plastic bins of soil up to the roof. I’m sure that was a sight to see.
Here’s Jim (left) and Jonathan (right) adding the soil to the frames last year.
And Jonathan leveling it out.
Benefits: Besides huge monetary savings (they save $300-$500 month on micro greens alone), Chef Jim says one of the best advantages of the garden is the variety and quality of the herbs and vegetables they are able to grow. When you order produce from a distributor, you are limited by what they have in season, but now they are able to grow practically anything.
This plate of Easter egg radishes, micro greens, edible flowers and coriander seeds are just a few of the varieties growing upstairs that you can enjoy any day of the week. Freshness is a thing of beauty.
When I first heard Evening Star had a rooftop garden I thought oh it’s probably just a few tomatoes, peppers and herbs. Boy was I wrong. This 400-square-foot garden is a work of art, a well-loved and respected member of the Evening Star family, and promises a delicious and bountiful harvest for years to come.