SEATTLE IS A food-loving city with a nearly year-round growing season.
In celebration of this week’s Dining Out focus, I’m chatting with Colin McCrate, fellow GROW writer and co-founder of Seattle Urban Farm Company. SUFCo works with homeowners, community gardens and restaurants who contract them to design beautifully productive, site-specific landscapes utilizing sustainable farming practices. McCrate and I dished about working with chefs, rooftop plots and collaborating to produce some very local food.
Each growing season begins with someone from the SUFCo team meeting with the chef at the garden to assess the previous year’s harvest. Crop selection is geared toward each restaurant’s menu offerings.
“This is also when we hear about new varieties and obscure edibles that chefs want to explore,” McCrate says. Decisions are made to ramp up production on successful crops and adjust quantities to minimize waste. A bit of space is reserved for experimental crops and new varieties. Once a plant has proved it can survive rooftop conditions, it is added into the regular rotation.
SUFCo focuses on highly productive fruiting crops — like beans, peppers, tomatoes, summer squash and cucumbers — that have an extended harvest season compared to carrots or beets, with a one-and-done yield. And herbs, lots of herbs. McCrate observes that restaurant kitchens have a seemingly endless need for herbs, which fortunately are productive and easy to grow. Succession plantings throughout the growing season produce a continuous harvest.
But managing rooftop growing conditions takes finesse. These gardens enjoy unlimited sun, but they also bear the brunt of wind and the elements. And while heat trapped by roof-surfacing materials warms shallow planting beds — which promotes rapid growth and a long, productive growing season — it also can quickly fry tender vegetable crops. In every garden, growing beds are filled with a rich potting mix amended with granular organic fertilizer and watered by a drip irrigation system.
At Sushi Kappo Tamura in the Eastlake neighborhood, standard 2-foot-by-2-foot green-roof growing modules are intensively planted with traditional Japanese crops like shiso, shishito peppers and cucumbers.
“All of these crops seem to do very well on the rooftop and can be easily used in their kitchen in a variety of different preparations,” McCrate says.
Production at Quality Athletics in the Stadium District follows a similar protocol, with an integrated green-roof system planted out with an expansive herb garden. A steady supply of fresh rosemary, thyme, parsley and cilantro, along with cherry tomatoes, peppers and tomatillos, is a flavorful asset for the busy kitchen.
Across town, in the historic Ballard neighborhood, SUFCo has tended the rooftop garden atop Bastille Café & Bar since it opened in 2009. Raised beds designed to adapt to growing conditions throughout the year include structural frames that accommodate insulating plastic sheeting or shade cloth as needed. In addition to its regular workhorse crops, Bastille is known for trying out new varieties and then challenging the kitchen to find ways to use them. Some examples include papalo (sometimes called Bolivian coriander), Mexican sour gherkins, spicy green basil and spilanthes.
While SUFCo cultivates the crops, harvesting is left to the chefs and their kitchen staffs, ensuring same-day freshness and, more importantly, flavor. This also allows them the flexibility to control the size of the crop if a dish calls for tiny radishes or baby greens.
“The chefs and cooks love being in the garden and having the experience of watching things grow, harvesting them and then preparing them,” McCrate says. “It seems to really tie the whole culinary experience together.”