The verb “to schlep” seems peculiarly suited to New York City, and a walk from the Garment District through Hell’s Kitchen towards the Hudson River is quite a schlep. Of course, there are other ways to get to North Javits, the events consortium’s latest addition on 11th Avenue, such as via Hudson Yards, at the end of the High Line. There have been some proper pockets of greening on Manhattan’s west side over the last decade and a half (including the addition of Little Island, a garden pier by 14th Street), but the sights and sounds around this part of town still mainly consist of shiny new skyscrapers and relentless drilling.
It is a great relief, then, for a visitor to step out on to the one-acre roof that is the Farm at the Javits Center, established in 2021 in a collaboration with Brooklyn Grange. The most noticeable sound is the chirping of crickets.
Photography by Valery Rizzo for Gardenista.
The people at the Javits Center are smart, and from the beginning they sought the input of Brooklyn Grange, experts in large-scale rooftop farms. (See the rooftop garden they designed for Vice Media here.) This one is only entering its third year but it doesn’t take long to establish an ecosystem. Up here on the fourth floor, the senses are immediately focused on the macro: a grasshopper jumping, a mix of honeybees and solitary native bees working on late-blooming celosia flowers.
The roof gardens at North Javits were implemented at the same time as the new building’s construction, and they have benefitted from forward planning. Beds of different depths accommodate fruit trees in three feet of soil, as well as rows of leafy crops and perennial shrubs of currants and berries in beds that are 12-18 inches deep. Excess rainwater runs into a tank under the roof (with a holding capacity of 344,000 gallons) where it is filtered and returned to the farm for irrigation.
The Farm at the Javits Center is the definition of “state of the art” with a pavilion shaped like an airline hangar that can seat several thousand people. It is glazed at either end for maximum views of the farm-to-table experience, with a smooth terrace around it for outdoor gatherings. Should weather suddenly change, giant “garage doors” open or close in 45 seconds.
With all this infrastructure and tons of space, the events space and farm can accommodate the most precise requirements. They can produce tomatoes of a certain diameter on a specific date; it’s a scientific approach to growing and feeding. The chefs pride themselves on their growing proficiency at “total food utilization practices,” traditionally known as pickling, canning and freezing. Inevitable excess goes to Rethink Food and other donation partners.
The ambition and scope of the foodscape operated by Brooklyn Grange includes a hydroponic greenhouse for winter productivity. The biodiversity of the food forest, part of the 38-tree orchard, creates a more complex and resilient space in which to grow food for people and other species—all of whom desperately need green infrastructure in any built environment.
Half a dozen pear trees and 32 apple trees, long grown in the New England region, were originally planted as an orchard of 10,000 square feet. Its ambitions were soon expanded to incorporate a layered food forest (or forest garden), which is better able to offer food, shelter, and breeding ground to birds, insects , and other organisms. There are different micro climates all around the rooftop.
Despite the ultra-sleek surroundings, insects are supported in the pollinator meadow. Although this raised bed of native perennials flowers successionally, giving a long display for visitors, the bed is generally left alone, being an important habitat for ground-nesting insects such as solitary bees. “We do very little maintenance in the pollinator meadow, in part to provide consistent habitat and forage for other organisms,” says Orion Ashmore at Brooklyn Grange. The plantings include Joe Pye weed, purple coneflower, snakeroot, false indigo, columbine, black-eyed Susan, mountain mint, and plants in the sunflower family (Helianthus).
The food forest is intended to mimic a natural ecosystem and is made up of mixed layers of understory trees and shrubs as well as perennials and ground cover. Many are native to the New York region, such as elderberry, pawpaw, beach plum, American licorice, serviceberry, Montauk daisy, and false indigo. Other layers of the food forest come from non-native Euonymus japonicus ‘Green Spire’ and anise hyssop.
Migratory birds make full use of the several green roofs at North Javits. The first, planted mainly with low-lying sedums, stretches over seven acres of flat rooftop and is an important nesting site for herring gulls. The installation of the intensive green roof (the farm) has attracted more birds, with the greatest increase in diversity noted in the forest garden. Says Dustin Partridge, a director at NYC Audubon: “Each spring and fall millions of migrating birds pass through New York City as they travel between their breeding and wintering grounds. Javits provides critical high-quality stopover habitat for these birds to refuel during their journeys in a part of the city that is generally impervious surface.
“Nearly 60 bird species have been recorded using the green roof network, many which arrived with the installation of the farm and food forest. Migratory birds using the green roof include Common Yellowthroat, Palm Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Lincoln’s Sparrow and Swamp Sparrow. Dozens of native insect species use the roof, as do five bat species—all of the bat species that can be found in New York City.”
A food forest is a self-perpetuating ecosystem requiring minimal human input; its shelter and shade helping to make hummus for the soil, which is protected with nitrogen-fixing cover crops (such as native clover) or edible crops such as strawberries. Woody perennials, like wind-hardy Russian sage, false indigo, euonymus, stay in the ground over winter, and crops are left in place later than in a conventional farm.