Urban Gardeners Plotting on the Roof, in the Streets of Portland

Avesta's 409 Cumberland Ave is the home of Portland's first roof-top garden.

Bangor Daily News

May 14, 2016

By Kathleen Pierce

PORTLAND, Maine — At the corner of Cumberland and Forest avenues five stories up, epic views of Back Cove and the White Mountains unfold before you on a clear day. It could be the perfect platform for cocktail parties, but from this perch, above the city bustle, champagne isn’t quaffed over gossip. Conversations on the roof of 409 Cumberland focus more on mulching, fertilizer and the best time to plant peas.

“Your rosemary is doing really well,” urban agriculture specialist Laura Mailander told 81-year-old Barbara Kerwin, who came up to the apartment complex’s greenhouse to inspect her flourishing raised bed.

As the first community rooftop garden in Portland enters its second season, Mailander, who works for Portland nonprofit Cultivating Community, is helping residents make the most out of their 5-by-5 plots.

“This is high-altitude gardening,” said Mailander, who knows that wind is a challenge up here and protecting these rooftop beds, a benefit of this healthy-living-themed building run by Avesta, is crucial.

Cities pose unique challenges to gardeners, whether on a roof, a community plot or their backyard parcel. And as more denizens of Portland embrace the activity, some ground rules apply. On the upside, pent-up urbanites get outside and commune with the elements. If their thumbs stay green they can nourish themselves and skip the lines at the farmers market. But when you are planting in public, it’s a harsher reality than country calm.

Over at the Bayside Community Garden, Portland transplant Christopher Papagni, a restaurant consultant, was tying up peas and planting marigolds on a recent spring afternoon. He just plunked down $20 to cultivate a 6-by-12-foot plot for the season. The Brooklyn native was thrilled with his luck.

“When your hands are in the dirt, it’s the way we were meant to be,” said Papagni, who is an experienced home chef living in the West End. “I don’t know if there is anything better than planting and sitting down to eat what you grew.”

Pointing to the sign that warns passers-by “Please Don’t Pick,” he admitted, “I am a little concerned I might not get to eat the things I grow.”

Unlike gardeners in more rural areas, it’s not deer or foxes this urban farmer is worried about. Though another sign warns: “These garden plots belong to people in the community. Please respect their hard work and do not touch the plants or vegetables,” theft happens.

Bayside Community Garden coordinator Deborah Van Hoewyk says the 27 beds located in this open tract on Chestnut Street are hard to police.

“People steal the produce, sleep in the gardens and use it as a latrine,” she said.

Despite that reality, there is a waiting list.

“Urban gardening is very hot right now. It comes and goes. The farm-to-table movement that says food should be fresh and food should be local” drives the trend, she said.

Like tiny house living, gardening in confined spaces takes planning and pluck. Urban gardeners must decide “where to locate the plants and how many to plant,” said Van Hoewyk. “You are not going to plant a pumpkin patch” or endless rows of tomatoes.

The other thing to remember is time. Out of sight shouldn’t mean out of mind.

“It takes work, It’s a commitment. It’s not that you throw some seeds in June and come back to a bounty all summer,” said Van Hoewyk. “You can’t abandon it.”

She suggests urban gardeners start with herbs, which “take less space and enhance your meals, no matter what you are cooking.”

Greens for salads are another winner.

People can grow a wide variety. We have one man who grows black chickpeas, Asian veggies. Garlic, which you plant in the fall and harvest in the spring, is another good option,” said Van Hoewyk.

For rooftop gardens, where full sun can beat down all summer long, an irrigation system helps.

“The soil gets really dried out. It’s important to have a cover on the soil. We mulch with a thick layer of hay, which retains the moisture and absorbs the heat,” said Mailander. “If you don’t have an irrigation system, you’ll have to water and mulch often.”

To get the soil up five stories, Avesta used a crane. But Mailander recommends independent homeowners use what’s handy. “Compost, leaves, manure … garden in place,” is her motto.

“My philosophy is if you have bare soil, you have dead soil,” said Mailander, who has a Mainer’s toolbox of DIY solutions at the ready.

“I try to use as many free things as possible. Seaweed is great because it’s adding all the nutrients you need to the soil. Add it on top throughout the season,” said Mailander. She suggests rockweed, which is “a free form of fertilizer, it’s really sustainable. We are so lucky to live in Maine where we have so many resources.”

And speaking of resources, green roofs do more than nourish humans and please city pollinators (which have found their way up here).

“Rooftop gardens absorb the heat that would otherwise be absorbed by a black rooftop,” said Mailander. “Urban gardens, trees and green space all help to cool off cities in the hot months. They also absorb water during heavy storms, minimizing the runoff into Casco Bay.”

Looking down upon the dozens of empty flat roofs visible from 409 Cumberland, one wonders why more gardens are not flourishing high above Maine’s food-forward city. Kerwin, who comes up with a basket and cane to harvest spinach for salad, has a solution.

“Get rid of all the pay garages and cars and we’ll have a lot more room for gardening.”

Looking for more?

Check out Avesta's blog, The Porch Light, for more news, updates and stories.

Contact Development and Communications Manager Sara Olson at 207-553-7780 x3352 or by email.