Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture

From Rooftop to Restaurant - A University Cafe Fed by a Rooftop Garden

Co-written by Aimee Blyth and Leslie Menagh
First published in Canadian Organic Grower Magazine

Visible from either side of the Otonabee River, a mere five-minute stroll across the Trent University campus bridge, a rooftop garden and little café are working toward social and environmental change, specifically a shift in food culture.

For about a decade now, Professor Tom Hutchinson, a local farmer and ecologist, has been supervising an intensive vegetable garden on the roof of the Environmental Sciences building at Trent University. The reasons for the garden are many. Historically, it has provided a site for monitoring the effects of air pollution and smog on agricultural crops. More recently, it has served as learning space for students in the Food and Agriculture Emphasis Program at the school. And in Toms' own words, "it demonstrates our ability to use unused space for productive purposes. Since most people live in cities it behooves us to maximize the ecological aspects of the urban environment. Rooftop gardens clean up pollution and create esthetically pleasing, calming places to be."


Today, the garden grows organic food for local groups interested in food security and sustainable agriculture. Among these is The Seasoned Spoon Café. "The Spoon" as the restaurant is affectionately called, has a mandate to source its ingredients locally thereby reducing the energy it takes to transport healthy food to consumers. It is the only restaurant of its kind at the university as it is a student-run, independent co-operative that stands as a politically driven alternative to Aramark. The American food catering giant which predominantly provides food on campus contracts other corporations such as Tim Hortons and Pizza Pizza. So, like Tom's rooftop, The Spoon also provides unique opportunities for practical learning, from studies in small business operation to bioregionalism.

While most students are away for the summer, the rooftop and the restaurant have hired us: a gardener and a summer cook. With a shared love for all things gastronomic and growing, staff, volunteers, and Spoon customers are increasingly aware of the varied components of local food culture, and their interdependence. Spoon cooks can often be found weeding, sifting compost, or harvesting food, in turn deepening their appreciation for seasonality.

Whereas fast food may have been an attractive novelty some decades ago, we have seen a significant shift in the desires of eaters at the university and beyond, toward food that is ethically produced. It tastes better because the flavours are as fresh and varied as local farmers' produce. Furthermore, the price is as easy to swallow as any other food served at the school, and is often less costly. In fact, what we're seeing is that taste is determined by much more than what generically-produced, hyper-packaged products could ever offer - the ingredients of which have travelled farther than any human is likely to travel in their lifetime, chocked full of unpronounceable preservatives that enable it to do so. People like to feel good about what they're eating. It feels - and therefore tastes - better "to know that the means of production are ecologically and socially sound", says TimWilson, customer and member of The Spoon. And at the rooftop garden, we are committed to doing just that.

The Gardener's Story

"What is it?", Scott, my fellow rooftop gardener asked.

I wasn't sure. I'd never seen this striking, green-black striped caterpillar before. We decided to leave it where we found it on the plant, and I went home to look it up; parsleyworm is its name. It eats the foliage of members of the umbelliferae family, including the parsley plant where we'd seen it. Like so many other gardeners, we were charmed by the beauty of this bug. One of my gardening textbooks - a rather dry book that I had thought contained no adjectives - describes the parsleyworm as "stunning". This little caterpillar, seems to have escaped the scorn that other garden pests command, such as the cabbageworm (which I, like most other gardeners, pick off whenever I see one). This distinction may not be without justification, however, as the parsleyworm, in the end, did little damage to our parsley crop. The trade-off was the later arrival of a another butterfly to the garden - a black swallowtail.


Working in the treetops among the butterflies, birds, bees and squirrels we cultivate vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers, including many heirloom varieties. Having never taken care of a rooftop garden before, I was surprised by the ways it differs from a traditional garden. The main differences can be summed up in two words: sun and wind. The resulting growing conditions tend to be more extreme. Even after a good rain, it takes very little time for the beds to dry out; our solution is mulch, mulch and more mulch. Even so, not everything grows well on the roof. In particular, we have difficulty with spinach, peas and beans. Other heat-loving plants, however, do very well including tomatoes, peppers and basil.

Another significant limitation on the roof is soil fertility. In the spring we recruit unsuspecting (or very generous) volunteers to help us haul compost from The Spoon. We further amend the soil with sheep manure from Tom's farm, green manure and compost tea. In particular using green manures or compost tea is labour-saving, because it precludes the need to bring more materials up to the roof through the Environmental Sciences Boardroom (the only access to the roof).

Despite these challenges, rooftop gardening provides a number of incentives. We need not worry about pests such as deer. Furthermore, what is a challenge in the summer - namely the warmer, dryer conditions - is an advantage in the spring when we're able to start gardening a few weeks earlier than the surrounding area. Thus the rooftop climate acts as a season extension.

Fortunately for us, the rooftop garden was a part of the initial building design. Thus, not only is there proper irrigation and drainage, but the building has sufficient load-bearing capabilities to support eighteen inches of saturated soil. To prevent water and roots from compromising the roof there is an impermeable membrane beneath the soil. The garden acts as a temperature moderator for the building below, cooling it down in the summer and insulating it in the winter.

On a larger scale rooftop gardens and sod roofs can do the same in a city. A recent study prepared by Ryerson University for the City of Toronto, found that green roofs significantly reduce stormwater runoff, reduce energy consumption and the reduce the heat island effect. Furthermore, they help to beautify the city and create more natural green spaces in urban areas - for everyone, including the black swallowtails.

Tips for Rooftop Gardening

The Cook's Story

For myself and many others, the field-to-table connection is much more than the transit of food from one locale to another. As described, it necessarily involves a network of relationships (social, economic, and political) that both pragmatically and psychologically change the cooking, serving, and eating experience. A respect for the grower and expanded understanding of the history of a food can increase its value in this way. I have a certain reverence for example, for basil.

My first day on the job this summer began with a basil harvest, probably my favourite food to pick and process. Like so many herbs that come from the garden, basil is one of those intoxicatingly aromatic plants at every stage of its life, and gets my digestive juices flowing right at the plucking. It's also a famous companion for tomatoes in and out of the garden, and so will often end up in Italian-style pasta dishes. At The Spoon however, basil pesto can find its way into everything from soups and salad dressings, to breads and stir fried dishes. And basil has done really well this year in the garden, so the café can expect lots of it on its menu this winter.

You may be curious to know that the word "pesto" is rooted in an Italian word that means "to pound" and broadly refers to a method of preparing or preserving that is not limited to basil. Contrary to the pesto generally found in restaurants and grocery stores, it doesn't have to include garlic, nuts, or cheese. These other ingredients can be added later if so desired. In fact for our purposes at The Spoon, the simpler the better, so versatility is retained for menu planning.

Winter is of course the most challenging time for the Spoon to maintain a varied menu, and so summer sourcing and food preparation has become of vital importance. The four months that the café closes its doors (while most university students and faculty are on hiatus) are essential for stocking shelves with preserves, frozen fruits and veggies, and dried herbs. "The position is still evolving", says Karen Sutherland, one of The Spoon's founders and former board members.


Sutherland recalls that "when The Spoon first opened we had to go to farmers directly to pick berries and buy veggies which was fun but not an energy or time efficient way to go. We couldn't find local distributors, which has necessitated the employment of a summer sourcing person even though the university is closed for four months. Now food gets delivered, and we've got the roof top, but we still need more producers. In January we start to run out of food. What does this say about our local food system?".

In 2002, the growing concern about the inaccessibility of locally-sourced food led a group of concerned students and food security enthusiasts to organize themselves through the Food Issues Group under OPIRG (the Ontario Public Interest Research Group). As a result they began The Stone Soup Project. They started by introducing themselves to farmers at the Saturday market and gleaned whatever produce was available. Once a week volunteers crafted as big a pot of soup as they could, schlepped it up to a Trent University foyer, and by donation filled the bowls and travel mugs of students and faculty alike. It was quickly realized that the need for this sort of food wasn't being met, and so the roots of The Seasoned Spoon Café took hold.

After much wading through the university's contract with Aramark which dictates its exclusivity rights, Spoon founders finagled the café's position as a purveyor of fare that "does not replicate other meals available on campus. But the other critical point in our exemption was that The Seasoned Spoon had to offer jobs, and research and other learning opportunities to students", says Sutherland. And so finally in the winter of 2003 we opened our doors, serving - with the exception of a few spices, oils, and hot beverages - an all-local menu.

Every summer's growing season and sourcing person generates a slightly different fare for winter. One of the delights in working with what's available is the chance to learn different recipes to suit the season. This year for example, with tomato plants and peaches in such fine form, I've asked my mother to share her family-famous chili sauce recipe. She's planning to join me from Orillia for a weekend of bottling in late August. It's another one of my favourite recipes as it compliments so many other foods; in wraps, atop potatoes or savory grains, on eggs and toast, you name it!

To learn more about The Seasoned Spoon, visit

Find out about study prepared by Ryerson University for the City of Toronto about green roofs at

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November 19, 2006

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture