The salad at Motor City Brewing Company in Midtown is almost too pretty to eat. Mixed greens are tossed with cherry tomatoes, roasted red peppers and artichokes and then sprinkled with a rainbow array of edible wildflowers: purple pansy, blue bachelor’s button, yellow baby marigold, orange and red nasturtium, and the neon orange blossoms of a scarlet runner bean plant. The dressing is a sweet roasted tomato vinaigrette. It’s orange with flecks of dark purple opal basil.
The flowers and basil were grown just around the corner on the rooftop of the Green Garage, a Midtown coworking community, business incubator and living laboratory for green business practices. Solar thermal heating keeps the building warm, and employees are encouraged to save food scraps and paper waste for composting. The building — a former Model T showroom — uses about a tenth of the energy and water of a traditional office building and produces about a tenth of the waste.
Volunteers Kirsten Lyons and Helen Bradley started a garden on the rooftop of the Green Garage in 2012. They wanted to find out if it would be feasible to rent the space to a local gardener to provide him or her with enough income to make a living, or at least a supplemental income. The Green Garage sells the flowers and herbs grown in the garden to local restaurants and other businesses.
“We’re trying to show that there’s an opportunity for profitability on a triple-bottom-line basis,” said Sarah Schnell, who manages the garden. Triple-bottom-line means that in addition to generating a profit, the garden is intended to benefit the environment and the community.
Schnell, 24, is a resident of St. Clair Shores and a student at Wayne State University. She’s studying environmental science. Her glowing tan is evidence of the many hours she’s spent on the roof. She looks forward to coming to work every day, she said, because “I get to hang out with a bunch of plants that are so happy to see me, and it’s a very peaceful place.”
Schnell started volunteering at the Green Garage in 2015. She was working at Moosejaw in Grosse Pointe, when a coworker — who was also an intern at the Green Garage — noticed that she liked taking care of the plants around the store and invited her to a community lunch at the Green Garage. Schnell started volunteering between classes and discovered a passion for urban gardening.
As a volunteer, Schnell learned the ins and outs of rooftop gardening: what kind of soil and fertilizer to use and how to grow plants in a container. “It just opened my eyes to a whole new way of gardening,” Schnell said. She later became an employee at the Green Garage and the garden’s primary caretaker.
Rooftop gardening presents some unique challenges as compared to gardening on the ground. First off, the weight of the soil must be taken into consideration. Standard topsoil would be too heavy for the roof to bear. Instead, Schnell uses what’s called a “soil-less media mix” made up of peat moss, rice hulls, pine bark and compost.
Another challenge stems from the fact that the plants aren’t connected to the ground. Plants living in the ground have access to microbes, microscopic organisms that help plants absorb nutrients. “If you were to grow the same plant in the ground versus in a container, the plant that’s in the ground is normally going to outgrow the plant in the container,” Schnell said. So she brings the microbes to the plants in the form of compost.
The size of the containers — reclaimed shipping containers donated by General Motors — is also limiting. The soil in each container is only about a foot deep. “We can’t really grow viney plants,” Schnell said. “We’ve tried.”
For example, last year she and the volunteers planted cucumbers in the containers, but they just wouldn’t stay, well, contained. They snaked their way into other containers and coiled around the plants inside.
The containers also drain much faster than soil in the ground. “Plants that love water, like tomatoes for instance, they don’t typically do as well up there because the containers aren’t able to hold as much water for a long period of time,” Schnell said. The tomatoes survived, “but they weren’t as happy as they could be.”
Some of the limitations of the rooftop garden are self-imposed. In an effort to be as green as possible, Schnell and the volunteers water the garden exclusively with rainwater collected with a rainwater catchment system. This posed some challenges last summer when temperatures soared and rainfall was scarce. In fact, 2016 was the warmest summer on record in Detroit, according to the National Weather Service, with only 8.49 total inches of rainfall.
With all the challenges posed by rooftop gardening, deciding what types of plants to grow has been a process of trial and error. This year’s garden boasts 45 varieties of plants, including herbs, edible flowers, and cut flowers. In past years, volunteers also grew salad greens, but last summer’s hot, dry weather left the plants withered and bitter-tasting. So this year, Schnell decided to plant a wider variety of herbs instead.
With the growth of urban gardening in Detroit, locally grown herbs like basil and thyme are widely available, so Schnell decided to plant herbs “with a little bit of a twist on them,” she said. “Instead of growing just sweet basil, we have lemon basil, lime basil, thai basil and cinnamon basil.” She also grows orange thyme, orange mint, chocolate mint and pineapple sage, along with more traditional herbs like rosemary, spearmint, chives and anise hyssop.
The unique herbs have inspired Mikey Pierce, kitchen manager at Motor City Brewing Company, to create some unique dishes, like a pizza with pineapple sage pesto. The sage has a pineapple aroma and a sweet, fruity flavor, Pierce said. He also uses the herbs to create sauces, salad dressings and herb-infused oils. “Since the stuff Sarah brings us is so nice, we really try to make sure that it’s featured,” said Pierce.
Arrangements of cut flowers from the Green Garage — including ageratum, sunflowers, zinnias, bee balm, cosmos and gerber daisies — also adorn the tables at the restaurant. Currently, Motor City Brewing Company is the garden’s only regular customer, but Schnell hopes to take on additional clients in the Midtown area soon.
Currently, six volunteers assist Schnell in the garden on a weekly basis, mostly people who work at the Green Garage and give an hour or two each week to help water the plants, arrange flowers and learn about gardening. Sharing her passion for gardening is one of the highlights of the job.
“Getting other people to understand that you can grow food in your backyard, if you can grow it up on a rooftop where the conditions can be windy and harsh and really sunny and hot up here, (and) just getting people exposed to being in a garden is a really awesome thing,” Schnell said.
City life can leave you feeling out of touch with nature and green space, Schnell said, but being in the garden provides a sense of having been transported somewhere else. “It’s kind of a surreal experience while you’re up here,” she said.
Schnell also appreciates the sense of community created by the garden. She said that while she’s taking care of the garden with the volunteers, “I get a chance to talk to other people and see what’s going on in their lives.”
And seeing how gardening brings people together gives her hope for the future of Detroit.