Located on the cement roof of a lively Parkdale restaurant unexpectedly lays an assortment of luscious vegetation. Lemon balm, mojito mint and stinging nettle just to name a few, breed vivaciously out of plastic bins, which supply the restaurant below. It’s an excellent type of sustainable urban agriculture that the creators hope will soon be more commonplace than novelty.
The Container System
A Conversation with Katie Mathieu & Victoria Taylor
Interview By Abby Ainsworth
Photography by Antonio Fernandez
Video by Abby Ainsworth
Tell us a little about yourselves and your relation to the garden.
VICTORIA: Ok, my name is Victoria Taylor and I’m a landscape architect working in Toronto. I’m interested in green roofs and growing food and restaurants and eating food. So when I bought this building in 2009 with some partners, I was very interested in getting something going on the roof and I was looking for the right person to do it with. Then I met Katie and she had all this interesting experience with growing food.
KATIE: My name is Katie Mathieu. I’m a chef, permaculture designer and a farmer. About five years ago I went to a farm school on Cortes Island in British Columbia called Linnaea Farms and studied organic agriculture and permaculture. Then I had the good fortune to work for Michael Stadtländer for seven months and now I’m interested in studying container systems – the urban systems that are smaller and more complicated.
How did you two meet?
KATIE: Parts and Labour was doing a cattle call for bartenders and a friend of mine was going to it. We were hanging out in the morning and I just kind of went along, as a joke. I got an interview and I totally blew it but was kind of curious about the space so I came back and met [chef] Matty at the back door of the restaurant. Matty and I got along right away and we started talking about animal slaughtering and planting and he suggested that we start a couple buckets up top, just as a casual thing and then all of a sudden I was meeting you [Victoria] – we had coffee at the Drake. Yeah we had a blind date! [laughs] And all of sudden it just kind of blew up.
When you first started the garden what were you growing and how has it evolved?
KATIE: Peas and radishes and carrots and greens – stuff that I knew were small and could survive. Then we got really excited about tomatoes last year. We thought that because it was hot up here it would be easy to grow heat-loving plants but when we got 25 tomato plants when they were babies it was too hot for them. There was too much wind, it was too exposed and they suffered for it. And so that was something that we did a couple this year because we really like them and they did produce a lot of tomatoes but not as much as you would expect. We did a lot of chives and a lot of herbs for the kitchen downstairs. They were really excited about having those on rotation and being able to come up and get them. We have a big container of Cuban mojito mint for the bar this year. We started growing different kinds of mint last year but we got the mojito this year and Rob, our bar manager really likes it.
What’s the difference between Cuban mojito mint and the mint that we’re used to?
KATIE: It’s still a mint. The family is called lamiaceae. It’s still a common mint but it’s a specific variety that has a rounder leaf and less of – you know how spearmint has a finishing note that kind of tastes like toothpaste? Mojito mint has a rounder, chubbier finish that doesn’t compete with the high notes in booze and it’s Hemmingway’s mojito mint of choice.
Was this the first time you were ever growing it?
KATIE: Yeah. Everything else is pretty familiar; everything else was stuff that I’d worked with before so I’ve got comparisons for all of them.
And are the comparisons from Stadtländer’s farm?
KATIE: …and Linnaea Farms. Big time.
What are some of the less common items grown in the garden?
KATIE: Lemongrass, Stinging nettle, purple sage, okra chickweed, and red plantain.
Who would be able to get your herbs and who would you sell them to other than just the restaurant?
KATIE: Private clients that are interested in establishing bins and friends and family.
VICTORIA: We have brought people up here and they’ve said, “Can you help us start a small roof garden on our garage at home?” We made small, little models like that. What we would really love to do is massive roofs like this, figure out what it would be like to be on a commercial rooftop that has a structure and make it like a real farm. We’re interested in both forms.
KATIE: I’m interested in irrigation right now too. We have buckets underneath the hood fans in the kitchen. There’s condensation that comes off of them and when it’s really, really hot you can get four eighteen liter buckets on a really busy night. So things like that, like figuring out how all these machines and systems around us can accumulate and bring in water.
You were saying you want to expand– what would be your ultimate garden? Would it just be for restaurants or would it also be a communal garden?
KATIE: Community access would be amazing. Not just because you need the expert hands but also because I think it’s the only way to really get the model to expand and grow and the only way to teach people effectively, to get people involved from start to finish. I think that’s the only way you really get what works and doesn’t work in the system. You have to watch it all the way through. That’s what the farm schools are about.
VICTORIA: And have it so that the public can come up here safely, have proper railings, have something other than just a ladder at the back. Have it so that people of all ages can come up and have a time to work on their garden up here, bring school groups. It would be great to have a place like that.
Is there a particular plant you’d want to introduce or take away?
KATIE: I like perennials. They like the bins.
VICTORIA: Yes, they do really well.
KATIE: I want to do more of them. They’re super effective, they produce really well. I really like the lemon balm too. It’s good for cold and flu and anxiety and I think it’s kind of funny to have that growing in a city, you know? I think it’s appropriate.
Victoria – How often do you come up here?
VICTORIA: Well, whenever I can. In the evenings and in the summer I come up here and hang out and do what I can and then on the weekends sometimes we have little work sessions. I’m here a lot at the beginning when we’re setting up for the season and then breaking it down, bringing everything inside. But Katie is really hands-on all week because I have another -
KATIE: You have another job!
VICTORIA: Another full-time job.
Since your background is landscape architecture, did you design the layout here?
VICTORIA: Yeah, we worked on that together with an engineer. We had to try and figure out structurally where we could have the weight and where the weight bearing walls are from underneath. There’s not really that much to design, but just figuring out what containers we were going to use and the soil mix too, talking to different soil suppliers. We wanted something that was really light but high in nutrients. So just doing some of that background research.
How often do you guys replenish your soil?
KATIE: It depends on what crop it is. Like a lettuce or things that are heavy feeders, they need to be replenished more often.
Can you talk a bit about your bin system?
KATIE: The bottom third is a water reservoir. It’s basically a recycling bin, a few pieces of election sign material and PVC pipe. Rooftop Garden Projects in Quebec made the prototype out of garbage and now they produce it and distribute it to people. So the water goes into the PVC filling pipe from the surface of the bin and goes down into the reservoir and then there are three areas of soil that extend into the water reservoir and act as candle wicks and they’ll pull the moisture up into the base of the soil and allow the roots to self regulate how much water they draw. I don’t think the plants would have survived up here without it because a heavy plant needs a lot of water. The big plants in two days with a heat wave would be bone dry. If I fill the reservoir up and soak the soil in a heat wave I would come back two days later and it would be cracking bone dry.
VICTORIA: Yeah it gets hot up here.
What’s the perfect weather for everything up here?
KATIE: How it was last week – 28, 25, 26 degrees (Celsius). Hot enough for everything to fruit and flower but not so hot that everybody gets all stressed out. Right now all the beets and carrots and peas and radishes and lettuce are super excited about this! They’re really into it!
Tell us about the hops that you’re growing.
KATIE: I’m growing three varieties for my cousin opening Bellwoods Brewery on Ossington and he’s starting a city-wide hops project and we were just studying to see how they do in bins and they’re only supposed to grow eight to ten feet in the first year and not produce hop cones and they grew 20 feet and produced cones.
VICTORIA: Oh, I didn’t know that.
KATIE: Yeah, hops love bins. It’s crazy, they did so well and they’re so attractive. And everyone likes beer, so it got a lot of people excited about roof gardens. The interest is always touch and go with urban agriculture but everyone got stoked about beer and it got a lot of attention.
Where do you see this type of system in five years?
KATIE: Hopefully just a casual thing that’s running all over the city and is not a big deal anymore, where everybody kind of knows what to do and the information isn’t precious or new and it’s just normal and everybody’s got their infrastructure going.
What would you say to someone who hasn’t grown anything out of a box or on their roof? What’s the easiest thing to start growing?
KATIE: Lettuce is pretty gratifying. With regard to seed sowing, it’s recommended that you just scatter it on top of the dirt and then rough it in, which is pretty easy for anybody to do. Then they come up pretty quick and they’re tasty, they’re super familiar and their lifespan is pretty short so it’s not, you know, it’s not a lot of time for tears. [laughs]
What would you like people to understand with the knowledge of what you two have started?
VICTORIA: Well, just that it’s possible. Even if there’s not access now, all you need is to put up a ladder, be safe about it and then get it going. Soil and water can get heavy, so checking with an engineer or architect before putting up something this size (or any size) is really important.
KATIE: I just really like studying it. It’s really nice instead of just thinking about it and talking about it. It’s really nice to be doing it – and doing it wrong and figuring out what’s killing things. [laughs] It’s been great to learn.