To serve the best food, you need the best ingredients. All chefs know the importance of ultra-fresh produce and how it is sometimes difficult to find or grow. That’s when Urban Farming comes in handy!

Why grow in the city? Imagine:

  • Crisp herbs and greens still bursting with fresh-picked flavour
  • Tomatoes and peppers harvested at their peak ripeness
  • Becoming a green restaurant and cutting the carbon cost of travelling food and reducing the amount of packaging going to landfill
  • Getting the best prices in town
  • Reducing food waste
  • Special access to unique heirloom greens
  • Fixing your sourcing issues

These are just some of the benefits attributed to growing your own produce, or buying from local producers. Can cities, with their limited and costly space, accommodate the idea of growing your own vegetable, fruits and herbs? Thanks to new technologies, some restaurants and their chefs are already proving that it is both possible and worth it!

Buy direct or DIY?

Brad Long, of Belong Cafe, purchases ingredients from his neighbours at the Evergreen Brick Works, including Ripple Farms’ aquaponics production and the Bowery Project’s portable container gardens. While Long generally takes whatever growers bring, he appreciates the ability to sit down with the growers and talk about what they can grow for him. The exchange goes two ways: “Information is power. I want to know that I’m getting what I need. To understand food, you must know the cycles of life and the soil that produces it.” By asking questions and building trusting relationships with his growers, Long feels he is getting quality ingredients and creating stability for himself and the local community.

Kim Montgomery Rawlings and Guy Rawlings grew their own food before opening Montgomery’s Restaurant, yet the new space required a different approach. A lack of outdoor land led them to grow in containers on the rooftop, and they’re experimenting with vertical growing systems indoors in a room with no natural sunlight. Montgomery focuses on growing flowering plants and herbs that offer unique, high-impact flavours. These are items that don’t show up on supplier lists or can be expensive.

To Montgomery Rawlings, the effort that goes into maintaining a garden pays off with kitchen staff: “Getting out of the kitchen and nurturing the plants eases some of the stress of being in the kitchen. You also have a much greater appreciation out of the food when it doesn’t just show up in a box.”

Robert Mills, Executive Chef at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, would agree: “What better way to make sure your team has an appreciation for food by either involving them in growing produce themselves or having a close connection with an urban grower.” The Fairmont Royal York is well known for being Canada’s first hotel to have bees on the roof. The bees make enough honey to use in hotel desserts and to pass on to Mill Street Brewery for Apiary Ale. Mills is also excited about the environmental aspect: “We contribute to the ecosystem of the city. The bees not only pollinate our rooftop flowers, they travel as far as Toronto Island.”

Tips for getting started

Whether you want to buy more hyper-local produce or you’re considering starting your own garden, here are some tips from chefs who have broken ground.

Know what you’re getting. Long and Montgomery Rawlings both acknowledge that you don’t get into urban-grown produce to access cheap, large quantities of food. Urban growers generally produce small quantities of unique and premium products that you may not find anywhere else. Learn more about the scale your grower works at and pace yourself accordingly so you don’t clean out their supply in one order!

Small is a good start. If you’re starting a garden, try a few things first to see what grows well in your space. Montgomery learned that she couldn’t produce enough potatoes or tomatoes to make it worthwhile. She grows produce that delivers flavour and matches the restaurant’s scale, such as chilies, sorrel and salad burnet.

Look at soil quality and safety.  If you want to grow in the ground, Toronto Public Health has a user-friendly Guide for Soil Testing in Urban Gardens that makes it easy to figure out if your soil is safe for growing food. Container growing is an option for rooftops, balconies and any place with concerns about the soil.

Make the most of what you grow. Montgomery’s Restaurant is known for their creative methods for preserving the harvest, such as drying, fermenting and making syrup. This makes their signature flavours available throughout the year.

Get help! Montgomery Rawlings and Rawlings credit the warm support from people at Toronto Urban Growers and the Growing Connection for getting them started. The beekeeping project at the Fairmont Royal York began with help from FoodShare and the Toronto Beekeepers Collective. You can avoid some costly and frustrating pitfalls by tapping into others’ experiences.

Palais des Congres Montreal
Palais des Congres Montreal

Aqua-what? Where can I see city-grown food?

Within Toronto’s boundaries there are some mid-scale producers that resemble rural farms. Fresh City Farms, Black Creek Community Farm and Zawadi Farm are all examples of multi-acre farms that farm in the city.

With the scarcity and cost of land in cities, aspiring farmers are looking to other options. Indoor vertical systems can range from closet-sized units to warehouse operations (see Just Vertical). Aquaponics is becoming increasingly popular, integrating fish and plant production in a closed-loop system (such as Waterwheel Farms and Aqua Greens). If you want to see a variety of systems at once, try visiting Scadding Court Community Centre for aquaponics, hanging planters and shipping container greenhouses.

Like the rooftop at Montgomery’s Restaurant, green rooftops that keep buildings cool and help to absorb the flow of storm water can also grow food. In Montreal, AU/LAB created an award-winning garden on top of the Palais du Congres that supplies the in-house caterer and holds Canada’s first urban rooftop vineyard.

 

Author

As co-coordinator of Toronto Urban Growers, Rhonda Teitel-Payne balances policy work with developing on-the-ground urban agriculture projects in partnership with the City of Toronto and neighbourhood-based agencies. She keeps her hands in the dirt in her urban jungle of amaranths, tomatillos and sunflowers.