The locavore pizza joint Roberta’s is a neighborhood institution in Bushwick. A recent Friday afternoon found it filling up for lunch, the air scented with wood smoke from its backyard pizza oven, customers chatting in an open-air patio.
But across the patio and through a wooden gate, a different world awaits. Fig, apple and peach trees cast shade over sprouts of arugula, chamomile, and baby lettuces. Strawberries poke out from among the spinach leaves. The first tendrils of a grape vine snake up a wooden post. Johnny jump-ups, nasturtiums and sunflowers interrupt the greenery with jewels of purple, red and yellow. And the air is sweet with the smells of cinnamon basil, anise, and tomato leaves.
This is the backyard that supplies a portion of Roberta’s produce, and the lush tangle of greenery is actually a meticulously plotted urban farm boasting over 60 plant varieties. Head gardener Melissa Metrick left her interns to pore over seed catalogs and urban planting guides while she gave me a tour of the gardens. Above the orchard, herb boxes, and berry bushes are elevated greenhouses packed with vegetables, flowers, and edible weeds like lamb’s quarters. And even higher up are a set of brightly-painted beehives on the roof, humming with activity in the midday sun.
Like many city farms, Roberta’s has to pack pastoral dreams into a tight urban space. “It’s intensive gardening,” Metrick says. She uses a system of “companion planting,” a polycultural practice that pairs mutually beneficial crops together. Leeks and carrots share a bed, as do squashes and beans, chamomile and apples, strawberries and spinach. Compost bins reduce waste, and pest-repellent plants keep bugs at bay. Because the farm does
double-duty as an event space, most of the crops are planted in moveable packing crates, and can be rearranged to accommodate community gatherings, parties, and art installations.
The farm provides about 15% of the restaurant’s produce, supplementing from local sources like the Brooklyn Grange. Metrick buys seeds from responsible companies (Johnny’s Seeds, Baker’s Creek), and has used starter plants from local Silver Heights Farm. She works with the chefs each season to decide which crops to plant, and they both play around with flavors and varietals – she showed me chamomile that will end up in homemade gelato, four types of
heirloom tomatoes, a black currant bush, bright yellow strawberries, and sprouts of lemon cucumber. An aquaponics system is underway to expand the farm’s growing possibilities.
While Roberta’s is a private farm that supplies the restaurant, Metrick and the owners see it as a community space firmly rooted in the urban agriculture culture of Brooklyn. Heritage Foods USA has its radio headquarters in a repurposed cargo container beneath the greenhouse. The farm has several interns who learn not only horticulture, but farm finance as well. A mentorship program is in the works for this summer, pairing young people from the community with experienced interns. Metrick hosts classes for school groups, open garden hours, and local plant sales, where “people from the neighborhood come and ask me plant questions.” And of course, “customers ask all the time to see the garden,” sometimes scoring a tour with one of the farmers or managers.
Next time you’re in the neighborhood, hop off the L train at the Morgan stop, and you may get a glimpse of this lush urban paradise yourself.