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


Rooftop Gardening in
St. Petersburg, Russia

By Alexander (Sasha) Gavrilov
The Agriculture Director of the Center for Citizen Initiatives
St. Petersburg, Russia

[new]Dr. Matin Price's Comments On Rooftop Gardening in Russia, February, 1997

Further Resources:
Center for Citizen Initiatives
3268 Sacramento Street
San Francisco, CA 94115
tel. 415-346-1875; fax 415-346-3731

The Roof Top Gardening Program started in St. Petersburg in 1993. The main goal was to investigate roof top gardening techniques developed by Dr.Martin Price of ECHO ('Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization' based in the USA) and introduced to St. Petersburg by Martin's assistant Mary Cochram.

The Russian people have experienced shortages of basic food stuffs and many hardships over the past decade. Roof top gardening is considered a novel idea for producing greens and vegetables for urban people who have no access to land outside the city. It makes it possible for them to garden even downtown.

The potential of roof top gardening is huge. We have done research, conducted tests and now have excellent information for interested Russian city farmers. For example in just one district (St. Petersburg has 12) it is possible to grow 2000 tons of vegetables. Our climate is approximately the same as Anchorage, Alaska, and we have an average of 60 sunny days a year. Our vegetation period is approximately 4 months (mid-May to mid-September). We grow leafy greens, potatoes, tomatoes, etc. We cannot grow corn, buckwheat, or water melons.

The total number of participants in our program is about 100. There are about 15 rooftop gardens in St. Petersburg (nobody knows the exact number because some people prefer not to advertise themselves for security reasons). There are also 2 gardens in the biggest prison in St. Petersburg named "Kresty" (one rooftop and another ground level). They help feed 10,000 prisoners. We started them a year ago and last summer we received three crops of greens. And you know, prisoners are the best gardeners! They prefer to be in the open rather than stuck in a cell and their gardens were in excellent shape!

This year we also started a ground level garden in the Artificial Limb Institute which rehabilitates invalids who lost legs or arms in the War in Chechnia (mostly boys of age 18-25). Now we are working with the administration of the Artificial Limb Institute on a program of rehabilitation. Our idea is to provide the invalids with basic knowledge of agriculture and at graduation present them with a certificate.

So, our roof top gardens continue to grow. This year (1996) the weather was good for gardening. There was lots of rain and moderate temperatures and we harvested good crops of salad greens, parsley, tomatoes and peppers. The cuttings for propagation of gooseberry and cranberry were also good. In summary we are satisfied with the accomplishments of this past season.

We used a shallow bed method for growing our plants recommended by Dr. Martin Price of ECHO. Soil mix is critical because we cannot use organic matter from polluted city lawns and parks (it is not recommended by our ecologists). The peat moss, ceramsit (?) (special insulation material consisting of balls of different size up to one inch), sawdust and perlite can all be used but are relatively expensive.

It is remarkable that vegetables tested for heavy metals from roof top gardens have lower levels of metal contaminants than vegetables bought and tested from city markets. Ground level gardens have slightly higher levels than in rooftop produce but still less than vegetables from market.

The city administration does not support us but the citizens of our city express a tremendous amount of interest in our work. Last spring we took part in an Exhibition "City and Flowers, City Design" where more than 2000 visitors came to our display. A week ago Kostia Ushanov (roof top gardening activist from Moscow) visited and told us about the developments in that city. We like what he is doing in Moscow.

We have published a book this year titled "Rooftop Gardens" and more than 800 copies have been distributed to administrators, health departments, architects, and heads of industry. We plan to organize a press conference soon to focus attention on city farming. In our book we describe the idea of blocks of apartments coming together and jointly recycling their kitchen wastes using Red Worms. It is already happening in one large 300 home apartment in St. Petersburg. Alla Sokol, our roof top gardening coordinator, (and author of the book) manages it.

Dr. Martin Price's Comments On Rooftop Gardening in Russia

February 22, 1997

The only place where I see rooftop gardening being given a really serious effort is in Russia. The big drawback in most countries is that those who are so poor as to be motivated by the need to grow food usually do not have access to the best rooftops. In Russia everyone in larger cities lives in buildings with huge sturdy rooftops constructed to handle the worst snowfall of a century.

Also, Russians in general love to garden. In poor Third World cities I believe the average city dweller, who has perhaps "escaped" from the life as a poor farmer, may not see gardening as a positive thing. In some cases, e. g. Port-au-Prince where I visited last month, water is so expensive that there is real question whether the produce would not be cheaper to purchase. (I saw water trucks going by the guest house all the time while I was there). Finally, Russians are well educated and tend to be scientific.

By far the easiest way to get a rooftop garden going in Russia is when an institution decides to build one. The director who made that decision also controls the rooftop. Apartment dwellers, on the other hand, may own the apartment but I am told that the government owns the stairways and the rooftops. So there are some political loops to jump through for a group of apartment dwellers to get permission to use the rooftop, with no guarantee of success. If the building engineer gives permission, and all goes well, he gains nothing. If he gives permission and it damages the roof, he would be in trouble.

The biggest factor limiting widespread use of the gardens in Russia, I believe, is fear that foot traffic will damage the water proofing. It would be easy to construct something to walk on, but anything that is not incredibly inexpensive is unlikely to be widely used. The people we want to target do not have a lot of capital!

The biggest problem in any city is finding what kind of recycled or inexpensive material of some sort can be used successfully as the medium from which the gardens are constructed. It needs to be sufficiently abundant that at least a few hundred projects could purchase/find it. Since any new combination of materials behaves differently, there must be a time of experiments to make sure the promoters have a sure-fire formula that less experienced people can assemble. That is the stage we are at in Moscow. With a small $6,000 grant, Kosti Ushanov did a great job last summer. It gave a start, but there is a long way to go.

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Revised December 1, 2001

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture