Chestnut Bonanza!

During the early days of autumn, for about three weeks, chestnut trees bear their fruit. Every October walking through Laurelhurst Park, I see about a half-dozen Asian-American elders standing below the majestic chestnut trees–waiting. It never appears to be the same elders, but there are usually about 6 and never more than 10. Some come alone. Others come in twos.  Each carry a plastic sack or basket to carry their bounty.

Majestic Chestnut Tree

One gentleman is framed in the sunshine with his head tilted back scanning the treetop–waiting. Two women, one my age and the other surprisingly much younger bat a wiffle ball with plastic racquets filling the time with friendly competition–waiting. Each day the chestnut foragers wander between the two clumps of about ten nut producing trees, waiting for the rewards to drop. Below each trees’ huge dripline, the lawn is littered with empty burrs, the sheath that encapsulates anywhere from one to seven chestnuts. In all the years I’ve walked the park during harvest, I had never seen anyone get a burr. I figured they must or they wouldn’t come. But, why don’t I ever see burrs falling?

Chestnut History

Harvested Chestnuts

Across the United States at the turn of the 20th century American chestnut trees were prolific.  In 1904 a blight, most likely triggered by the import of an Asian chestnut variety, quickly began the demise of four billion trees. The loss of the trees was horrific, as the wood was used for everything from furniture to railroad ties and of course, the nuts for sustenance. In earlier times, chestnuts were an important food that often substituted for potatoes in the American diet. Now, it is mostly a culturally significant holiday treat roasted by a Uwajimaya grocery store vendor and sung about in a Christmas carol. There have been efforts to cross the Chinese and American chestnut to create a resilient American breed but alas, it has not happened.

Sleuthing Seattle tree databases and lore, I couldn’t find out what type of chestnut tree live in Laurelhurst Park. These trees don’t warrant the Google reference of Queen Anne Hill’s majestic rows of edible chestnut producing  trees nor the University of Washington’s sorority row inedible horse chestnut tree canopy.

My Chestnut Reward

Chestnut Foraging

On my last sunny day park walk, imagine my surprise when  a chestnut burr literally dropped in front of me. The bright green burr practically sparkled in the autumn sun. I grabbed it with my naked hand and was surprised by the prickly intensity of the quill-like surface. I tucked the burr gently under my arm protected by the polar fleece of my jacket, wondering what I would do with this treasure. I had no idea how to open it. Fortunately, there were still a couple elders waiting for chestnuts to drop. I showed my burr to an older woman. Her eyes glistened with excitement.  I asked her how to open it. Rather than giving me verbal instructions, she put my precious burr under her foot. She squished it and rolled it back and forth until two chestnuts emerged. I held them briefly- their shiny smooth surface cradled in my hand. I had no idea what to do with two nuts!  I gave them to her. She dropped them in her plastic tote. She left with a satisfied grin on her face.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!


My Backyard Harvest

My yard is brimming with food now always arriving in the hot, sultry, dog days of summer. I plant only what I can grow, nurture and produce successfully. I don’t want failure. Gardening takes a lot of persistent, dedicated, focused work. Preparing the soil, pulling weeds, watering regularly and picking the produce. But, it’s worth it, because the food just tastes so good. I’ve been growing food for more than 40 years starting in my parents Connecticut backyard.

Blue Lake Pole Beans

Blue Lake Pole Beans

My first crop green bush beans was successful enough that I plant beans every year. It’s probably because I am spoiled by the immediate palate pleasure of my homegrown veggie rather than the days old, dull, drab, and sometimes even tasteless store bought version. (Fresh green beans at Thanksgiving are always disappointing!) I now plant pole beans, rather than bush beans, since they produce for several weeks ensuring a steady supply of the crisp, succulent, slightly sweet, but also savory slender shot of yum!

Moving to Massachusetts just out of college, I grew the standard east coast hot summer vegetables, tomatoes, cucumbers, and of course, green beans. The entire eastern seaboard is characterized by hot days with high humidity and occasional thunderstorms, driven by the warm, humid Gulf of Mexico air and high pressure systems in the Atlantic Ocean. New England is tempered from the most intense weather by the more northerly latitude sun angle, but still the summers are usually hot and humid enough to grow luscious fruits and vegetables.

Changed Coasts

In 1985, I moved west across the 100th meridian or longitude line, where the climate changes from humid conditions to a semi-arid/arid climate, which roughly follows the western edge of the plains states of Kansas, Nebraska, and Dakotas and actually forms the eastern border of the Texas panhandle with Oklahoma. Most of the west generally has hot, dry summers with an occasional, rather rare flash-flood thunderstorms. In recent years, the west’s winters have been dry with infrequent storms, hence the incessant California drought.

I landed in one of the two thin slivers of the west coast’s unique growing climates. The Californian Mediterranean coast is hot and dry similar to the rest of the west, but gets moderated by the Pacific Ocean bringing in the moist oceanic air, but never freezing temperatures. The Pacific Northwest’s maritime climate in Seattle is home to warm, dry summer days and cool summer nights. Winters are a different story, hence, “It rains all the time!” Being so far north the angle of the sun is shallow and our winters are punctuated by dark and dreary days and continuous rains. (Okay, maybe I exaggerate the continuous rains, but that’s what we want you to believe.) The benefit is the wet days fill the Cascade Mountains, just a one-hour drive east of Seattle, with snow, thereby replenishing and storing our summer water supply.

Cherry Tomatoes

Cherry Tomatoes

With a brand new growing climate, I had to learn again how to grow great food! Seattle’s maritime growing climate is like a symphony, with the temperature modulations ebbing, flowing and moderating as each season progresses with fewer extremes and changing over a period of days rather than hours. My east coast sensibilities had been used to the mid-May growing season being like the 4th of July fireworks–coming fast and furious with a quick rise from cool spring temperatures to scorching, humid days. To grow food in the Seattle it’s still an educated guess to predict when the spring rains and cool temperatures will stop, or whether our summer will be bone dry and require endless irrigation. Or will we have the year of the “green tomato” with summer daytime temperatures never exceeding 70 degrees?

Italian Prune Plums

Italian Prune Plums

Thankfully, this summer’s weather has been cooperative and my garden is plentiful. Green pole beans and tomatoes are paired with zucchini, basil, thyme and parsley. I grow garlic and lots of it–both hardneck and softneck varieties. It’s easy. Plant in October, cut the scapes in May for stir fry dishes and harvest in June, repeat. My sole Italian prune plum tree bore 180 pounds of fruit. Bags of cut-up plums fill my freezer, Zwetchendatschi–my grandmother’s Bavarian plum cake recipe–is always a treat, honey-syrup canned plums fill my cupboards and I gave 15 pounds of plums each to two of my favorite local food establishments–Sand Point Grill and Cereal Box Bakery. Four blueberry bushes, close to barren this year, an established rhubarb plant, and a vigorous, logarithmically, increasingly producing Interlaken white seedless table grape round out my garden.

What’s Next?

Seedless Interlaken Grapes Drying

Seedless Interlaken Grapes Drying

Growing my own food makes me happy, tastes good and keeps me engaged with nature. As much as possible, I purchase the rest of my food from local farmers at Farmer’s Markets, PCC Natural Markets and Metropolitan Market. Even so, I’m starting to think when can I slow down? Forty year of gardening is getting close to enough and I’m interested in letting someone else grow my food. Where can I live so I can get produce as fresh as what I can grow?

Thankfully, a new type of food-growing residential developments called agri-hoods are just beginning to sprout across the nation. In Washington state, Elk Run Farm and Skokomish Farms are two such communities where a farm is integrated into the development. Elk Run Farm replaced a section of an abandoned golf course with a 4-1/2 acre farm, while Skokomish Farms has a large farm serving 20 homesites on 750 acres. When will the next community builder (aka developer) create an agri-hood for those who crave it?

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. She is also the Chief Operating Officer of MetroAG Strategies founded to integrate growing food into places where people live. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!



Brooklyn Grange’s Edible Green Roof

Take the M train to the 36th Street station. Climb the stairs and exit the station and greeted by the six- story edifice built by Standard Motor Company in 1919. Enter the building. Push the elevator button and be whisked to the roof. Leave the city behind and enter a robust urban farm with views to the bustling New York metropolis below. I was welcomed by Bradley Fleming, Brooklyn Grange’s Farm Manager extraordinaire at Flagship Farm and best man at my niece’s San Franciscan wedding the weekend prior. Atop the roof flourishes a one-acre farm totally hidden from the sidewalk below.

Brooklyn Grange's Flagship Roof Top Farm

Brooklyn Grange’s Flagship Roof Top Farm

Bradley was busy completing the final tasks for the farm’s fifth season. With one more week of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes to be delivered, he expected them to be filled with chard, kale, eggplant, sunchokes, salad greens, green tomatoes, and other delectables. Workers broke down and composted the no longer producing tomato and pepper plants. Scattered around the site were three bee hives producing honey and winding down the job as the farm’s pollinators. Laying hens offered eggs. A compost bin accepted spent vegetative matter which was processed in part by a solar powered forced air system.

Fortuitously, the Standard Motor Company concrete building was built to construction standards that could easily support the weight of Rooflite, the composted soil mixture blend, rain and irrigation water, equipment, and farmworkers. The existing parapet walls met the height requirements for the “fence,” such that workers and guests are protected from falling to the street below. The rooftop drainage system functioned properly and only had to be modified slightly with porous plastic caps that allowed enough water to remain on the roof to irrigate the plants, but allowed any excess to be discharged. It was as though 100-years ago that the architect’s knew the building would once support a green roof to grow produce!

How Is It Built?

Even so, creating the farm was a challenging proposition, as the City of New York would only permit a crane to be located at the western, narrow end of the building where supplies could hoisted to the roof. Materials were hand carried and carted almost 500 feet to the far side of the building to begin construction. First the base layer, an impenetrable cloth sheet that thwarts roots growing into the concrete roof was placed. On top a Conservation Technologies drainage mat, resembling multiple plastic egg cartons butt up against each other, was lain to capture and hold irrigation and rainwater water for the plants’ thirst needs. Finally, a permeable filter fabric was lain to limit soil sediments from filling the plastic cups. Ultimately about 1.2 million pounds of Rooflite were lifted and carted to all corners of the roof for the approximate 10-inch thick growing medium over the one acre site.

Mexican Sour Gerkin

Mexican Sour Gerkin

Then, planting rows, walking paths, and produce washing and aggregation station were sited. Now five years later since initial construction, farming protocols are established. A sprinkler system waters newly planted seed in early season for germination. Drip irrigation lines follow each planting row and run for 20 minutes three times per day during the peak season. Plantings are sequenced such that produce is available from mid-May through late October. Being a small, specialty farm, allows Bradley to experiment with unknown produce varieties. I had Mexican Sour Gerkins for the first time; a miniature, watermelon look-alike cucumber growing on a trellised vine. All produce is organically-grown, but not certified.

As with any farm operation, Mother Nature can have her way. Keeping the soil on the roof, will be the biggest upcoming winter obstacle, as winds can blow fiercely on the roof. This winter they are testing a ground-up hop mixture as a wind cover, that will also compost and provide nutrients for next spring.

Why It Works?

Brooklyn Grange has been profitable since the first year, as they have great produce for sale with diversified produce offerings and have benefited from New York City’s green initiatives. New York City has a combined sewer and stormwater system that can become inundated with as little as a quarter inch of rainfall, prompting policy makers to create a Green Roof Tax Abatement program that pays property owners to reduce their stormwater runoff. Water captured by the plant material and farm ground reduce stormwater runoff, thus limiting the impacts from this one-acre building’s impervious surface.

Roof Top Chickens at Brooklyn Grange's Flagship Farms

Roof Top Chickens at Brooklyn Grange’s Flagship Farm

To expand their business with the expertise gained from Flagship Farm, Brooklyn Grange now offers design, consulting, and construction services for other building owners that want green roofs–whether food producing roofs or solely vegetative roofs. Sedum roofs require much less soil coverage and water, which significantly reduces roof weight and therefore are suitable for those structures that are not as robustly built as the Standard Motor Company’s building. Weddings, farm to table events, and rooftop yoga are other services that are available on Brooklyn Grange’s urban oases.

Whether these intense green roof farms are replicable across the country remains to be seen. The lack of urban growing space, the unbelievable amount of traffic, and the green roof incentives are a few of the many reasons that Brooklyn Grange has been successful in reducing the miles that great food must travel to satiate a customer base yearning for fresh, local produce.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world.