Urban farmers in New York City face many obstacles—from high winds, to lack of space, extreme temperatures, and more. But now, there’s a line of seeds made just for them. Zach Pickens of Rooftop Ready Seeds, a small NYC start-up, has been cultivating, packaging, and selling seeds bred specifically for New York urban farms for the past four years.
Every fall he lets a portion of his crops go to seed and saves the ones that have done the best—those that have been the most flavorful or produced the most fruit in rooftop conditions. Along the way he has developed a few new varieties and honed pre-existing ones. For example, after last year’s harsh winter, he selected seeds from the hardiest of the survivors.
“I was saving seeds from year one,” Pickens told me while giving me a tour of the small urban farm he manages for Chef Tom Colicchio’s River Park Restaurant in Manhattan.
Pickens moved to New York from Ohio in 2007 with a Masters in Political Science, not farming. When he and his girlfriend (now wife) moved into their apartment in Bushwick, they discovered a 4,000-square footroof deck, and, conveiently, a landlord who said: “Sure, grow anything you want up there.” That first year he saved seeds from his basil crop.
At first, seed saving was part of Pickens’ efforts to repurpose materials, reduce costs, and “find ways to do things outside the norm.”
Urban agriculture was just beginning to take off, and Pickens, tired of being locked up in academia, threw himself into his new hobby. After attending a weekend workshop taught by Ken Greene, founder of the Hudson Valley Seed Library, he spoke to Greene about his plan: to sell seeds he had cultivated from his rooftop to other urban farmers. Greene thought it was a great idea and in 2010, Rooftop Ready Seeds was born.
As a novice gardener, I had no idea where seeds came from––other than a packet––so I asked Pickens to educate me. Most people don’t understand how crops go to seed, he kindly assured me. For one, he said, it involves harvesting plants at a much different stage of development then when you might want to eat them.
Pickens walked me over to a crop of Redbor kale, which had “bolted” or gone to seed.
“You wouldn’t want to eat this,” he told me, as he pointed to the dried shoots growing out from the middle of the curly purple leaves. Blowing in the wind at the top were long beige seed pods. He opened one up and crushed it back and forth in his palm with one finger so I could see the round, brown seeds, they were so tiny I almost missed them.
Pickens lets the seeds mature and dry, then he separates the seed from the chaff. “It’s labor intensive and delicate and you want to do it in a controlled environment,” he said. He uses low-tech tools including a tarp, a clean, dry trashcan, and a screen.
But that’s just one way to get seeds. Pickens pointed to a wrinkly red Ahi Verde pepper on a yellowing plant that was just about ready to harvest. To remove the seeds, Pickens puts peppers into a blender with water. The seeds deflect off the blade without being damaged, then they get strained, washed, and dried. In fact, all the seeds Pickens harvests go into a hot water bath to be cleaned of any mold or unwanted layers. Then they’re dried and stored in a cool, dark place––either a refrigerator or at the bottom of a closet. I wondered if Pickens’ wife has a hard time finding space to store her shoes, but I didn’t ask.
In addition to River Park Farm and his rooftop in Bushwick, Pickens grows plants at Brooklyn Grange (where he also teaches seed saving classes) and Weeksville Heritage Center. “An important part of having these four locations is isolation distance,” Pickens told me. When some crops, like carrots, go to seed, their pollen can travel up to two miles. “If you want to grow more than one variety of carrot, you need to literally plant them further part,” he said. This year, Pickens will be selling Chantenay carrots, a variety that tastes great and grows exceptionally well in small containers.
One of Pickens’ favorite aspects of the job is meeting other urban farmers. Many of them stop by before or after eating at River Park Restaurant. This year he’ll be selling a variety of green bean given to him by an Italian couple with a home farm in Sheepshead Bay. They referred to it simply as their “long Italian bean,” but they urged him to take some seeds and grow it. The heirloom bean will be available for sale in December, newly named after the husband: the Mateo bean.
This year Pickens will have 50 varieties of seeds for sale on his website, up from his previous years. New Yorkers who want to start stocking up for spring, can also find them at New York Botanical Garden Store, Dig, Urban Garden Center, and Crest Hardware.
Photos, from top: Seed packets by Chrissa Yee, Zach Pickens in his garden by Larissa Zimberoff, Mateo bean seeds by Larissa Zimberoff.