ISSUE 105  |  Editors' Picks 2013

Taking ‘Bread and Roses’ Literally in Brooklyn

December 31, 2013 4:00 PM

BY Jeanne Rostaing

A hundred years ago when some women workers used the rallying cry “Bread and Roses” during a strike at textile mills in Massachusetts, they were demanding basic survival plus the right to have beauty in their lives. Today clever women with talent take both for granted. Sarah Owens may be the only one who has taken the slogan  “bread and roses” quite so literally.

The curator of the venerable Cranford Rose Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Owens goes home and bakes until midnight two nights a week, selling her homemade bread from her BK17 Bakery to customers who subscribe for four weeks’ worth of loaves online. 

Above: Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing.

Opened in 1928, the Cranford Rose Garden has one of the largest collections of roses in North America, with well over 1,000 varieties. When Owens arrived in 2009, she inherited a garden that was famous but seriously in need of help. It had been without a rosarian for almost a year. Volunteers and staffers were working valiantly to keep things under control, but the garden was untidy and, much worse, riddled with rose rosette disease (RRD), a systemic and highly contagious scourge that can be spread by tiny mites.


Above: Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing.

When Sarah Owens took on the Cranford Garden, she was just finishing her training at the New York Botanic Garden School of Professional Horticulture. It was the final step in transforming herself from a ceramicist to a horticulturist. What had to be done at BBG was not for sissies. There is no cure for RRD so the infected roses (Owens estimates as many as 200 or 20 percent of the collection) had to be destroyed.

Above: Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing. 

About a quarter of the soil in the nearly two acres of garden was turned and amended with organic compost to a depth of three feet, using a backhoe and bobcat. Affected isolated plants had to be dug out by hand. Owens estimates she has probably, on her own with just the help of a shovel, removed and replaced 100 yards of soil over the last five years.  


Above: Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing.

Visit the rose garden now and you’d never know it had ever been in trouble. The beds are once again planted with healthy roses and Owens, with her artist’s eye, has added a profusion of perennials and annuals. They help to keep down weeds and provide color even when the roses are not at their peak.   

At this point, you might think Owens would relax a little, maybe sit back and let the kudos pour in, but no. Now we come to the “bread” part of the story.   



Above: Photograph by Rebecca Baust.

As she tells it, Owens was doing a lot of reading about nutrition and learned that phytic acid, contained in most grains and therefore most breads, inhibits digestion. However, that is not the case with sourdough bread. So, being the type of person who likes to see things for herself, Owens rolled up her sleeves, created her own sourdough starter, and began baking bread in her tiny Brooklyn kitchen.

Above: Photograph by Rebecca Baust.

She found that using sourdough instead of commercial yeast made the bread extremely digestible so she baked at first for herself. Through the Internet, she connected with other bakers all over the world and began to evolve her own style: rustic, handmade, artisanal loaves fashioned from the highest quality flours.

Above: Photograph by Rebecca Baust.

Gradually the word got out about Owens’ breads.  She shared them with co-workers, and soon more than a dozen people had signed up for weekly bread deliveries. Then she took the bread to a local CSA and signed up 30 more customers.  Then friends in Park Slope signed up and so did their friends. Soon it was a business with a name, BK17 Bakery, and a website, and you could order breads online.

Photograph by Rebecca Baust.

At least two days a week now, Owens works all day in the rose garden (a very, very hot job in summer, a demanding job in all seasons), and then goes home and bakes until midnight.  If you get to watch a bake, as I did recently, you are amazed at her energy and stamina.  Muscles developed by gardening come in very handy when hefting dough that can weigh 70 to 80 pounds.

Owens says she does not expect to become a fulltime baker, but she plans to build her business by adding more clients.  The income will go to paying off student loans. In the meantime she is enjoying the way bread can be a powerful link between people. 

Customers email her photos of how they serve the bread–and shots of their children eating it. Everyone seems to have some sort of childhood association with bread and Sarah’s loaves, so old-fashioned and made with so much care and love, feed both the stomach and the soul.  

If you would like to try your hand at baking with sourdough, here’s a recipe for Sarah Owens’ Buckwheat Levain Bread, a customer favorite. If you’re more interested in simply tasting one of BK17 Bakery’s loaves, you can place your order right here.

Above: Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing.

And if you’d like to see Owens’ handiwork in the Cranford Rose Garden, it’s open from 8 am to 6 pm most days this summer. For more information, see Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Inspired by other garden-to-table recipes? Here are a few favorites. 

Planning your spring rose garden? Here are 60 images of Garden Roses in Bloom and 23 posts all about roses.

N.B.: This is an update of a post published July 10, 2013 as part of our Locally Grown week.