Mark and Ben Cullen, roof top gardens, Sudbury, Montreal IGA
Built in 2016, this IGA store in Montreal was designed to take the weight of a serious roof top garden. The results are astounding. Co-owner Richard Duchemin says this store is the largest commercial roof top food garden in the country. Imagine: more than $80,000 retail worth of food on the roof annually. Supplied photo
The image of a Canadian garden is being turned on its ear. Take the concept of growing off the ground, for example.
As high-rise condos emerge on our urban landscape, we often lament the fact that green space is sacrificed for concrete and glass. However, if we think of a vertical tower as a vessel for soil and plant life, what are the possibilities?
If a condo unit includes a balcony and that balcony has been engineered to take the weight of water-laden pots and containers, what are the horticultural possibilities? Multiply the balcony by the number of units in a typical high-rise building, add the penthouse suites, with roof-top access and there is an impressive opportunity to multiply the “green space” that would otherwise exist in the building footprint.
The key is to recognize and take advantage of those opportunities.
In the historic centre of the City of Toronto, stands a series of buildings that house an impressive collection of balconies and “roof top” gardens. Market Square houses more than 600 residents in 287 units and most of them include a balcony.
During a recent visit to the site, we were introduced to a variety of enthusiastic gardeners, proud homeowners and renters alike. They have created a community network of green thumbs that engage regularly in meetings to share growing tips, exchange excess fruits and vegetables and to generally celebrate the bounty of their vertical oasis with food and wine.
Len Kubas calls himself “Farmer Len” and the moniker fits as he grows an abundance of food in his outdoor space. In addition to food, he produces blooms that attract pollinators like butterflies and bees on his third-floor unit. Len explains, “there is an active group that volunteers to maintain the flower and herb plantings in public places. Salivan Landscape provide wonderful large plantings around the complex.”
The idea of planting roof-top gardens is not limited to residential communities. We visited a grocery store in Montreal recently where 80,000 square feet of space is dedicated to growing food, flowers and producing honey. When we asked a horticultural friend from Montreal where we should go to have a great horticultural experience, she sent us to IGA, the location in St-Laurent, north/west of the centre of the city.
Built in 2016, this store was designed to take the weight of a serious roof-top garden. The results are astounding. We were told by co-owner Richard Duchemin that this store is the largest commercial roof-top food garden in the country. Imagine: more than $80,000 retail worth of food on the roof annually. There is no carbon footprint for this department as the food literally does not get loaded on a truck. An elevator takes it from the roof to the shop floor in seconds.
Voila: a model for the future of food retailing right here in Canada.
The five full-time staff who manage the IGA roof-top garden also grow flowers that are sold by the bunch on the shop floor. The same flowers produce nectar and pollen for foraging bees that produce, you guessed it, fresh honey, that is also sold in the store.
If the idea of growing food for resale seems strange and rare, that’s because it is.
On the other hand, the concept of using our flat, vertical space to grow plants and even trees is so simple we are astonished to think that we didn’t think of it a long time ago.
Alas, “we” did.
Market Square condos were designed by Jerome Markson in the late 1970s and built in 1981 and 1982.
The Montreal IGA, with automated irrigation, sophisticated composting system and organic approach to growing is not new, though engineering the rooftop may be.
In an age when youth are challenging the adult world to get their environmental act together, perhaps there is comfort in knowing that some ideas have been around a while.
As we speed up implementation, the sky is the limit.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.