Full Bloom: Gardens and Living Walls Become Trendy Design Elements

By incorporating on-site gardens and living walls, a growing number of foodservice operators are conveying a message of freshness and literally bringing the farm to the table.

LYFEKitchen2LYFE Kitchen herb garden on display. Photo by Bridget ClausenGreen walls and gardens in foodservice spaces may not have hit the mainstream nationwide, but they continue to gain steam both as food sources and design elements, chiefly among independent restaurants and some healthcare facilities. The slow-food movement celebrates noncommercial farmers and sustainable practices and shows no signs of slowing down. Taking the concept further, chefs and restaurant owners are becoming growers themselves, with on-site gardens or nearby plots of land. In many of these cases, building gardens and green or herb walls don't just produce fresh food and "free smells," they add to the overall dining experience by providing a bird's-eye view to the origins of food.

"I think over time restaurants have become more interested in gardens and other green spaces," says Colin McCrate, owner, Seattle Urban Farm Co. McCrate designs, builds and maintains edible gardens for a handful of restaurants, including Bastille Cafe & Bar in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. But space, budget and operational constraints can quite literally hinder the growth of these installations.

"For a restaurant it starts with identifying the space for a garden or other greenery," McCrate says. "We've met with a lot of landlords who won't let the restaurant put a garden on the roof. Or the restaurant's square footage is so valuable they can't justify a need for the garden."

Still, there's a lot of value in having on-site greenery, McCrate adds. In the case of Bastille, "people associate the restaurant with the garden, and that shows they care about the freshness of their ingredients."

Gardens and green walls — also known as living walls — can cost thousands of dollars and require ongoing maintenance, making it difficult for some operators to justify. Then, there are potential operational considerations as well: impacts on workflow, watering and pruning maintenance, and food safety requirements in the case of produce harvested for commercial use. Some restaurants just don't have the staff (or means to hire the staff) to maintain these installations. But some do.

Rooftop Gardens

A rooftop garden offers obvious benefits: uberfresh, delicious food; control over what the foodservice operation grows and beautiful scenery, of course. But rooftop gardens offer some less obvious benefits, too — namely, the opportunities for education and community involvement that can arise.

"Not only are we growing food but growing people who can grow their own food," says Helen Cameron, who, along with her husband Michael, owns Uncommon Ground in Chicago, dubbed one of the "greenest" restaurants in America by the Green Restaurant Association. Cameron clarifies that the 4,000-square-foot garden atop their second location is actually a certified organic farm, complete with a full-time farm director.

"The purpose was to produce certified organic food for use in the restaurant, but we also work on public outreach and education," says Cameron. Not only can diners see the garden firsthand through tours and the occasional special event, students and other groups come through the farm regularly. Ten raised beds, about 4 feet by 10 feet, plus a handful of smaller beds made from untreated cedar, produce more than 1,000 pounds of harvest every year, including heirloom tomatoes, squash, greens, beans and more exotic vegetables like Tokyo turnips, Chinese leeks and delicate shishito peppers. The farm also produces 20 or so pounds of honey annually through its beehives.

"What we produce through the farm is actually just a drop in the bucket, considering we feed 20,000 people a year, but our diners love to see the farm and try new dishes with the food we just harvested," says Cameron. "I think the farm really connects people with Uncommon Ground's mission. We want people to become aware of how important good, clean, sustainable food is."

Dishes like the Sunshine Salad feature rotating seasonal vegetables and fruits each week. Homemade ricotta might top heirloom tomatoes with three types of nasturtium flowers for a twist on a caprese. Just this summer, Cameron began collecting green cilantro seeds — also called coriander — from the farm, along with hops and currants for the restaurant's house-made beer.

In the Alameda, Calif., headquarters of VF Outdoor, which houses offices for brands The North Face, JanSport and lucy, cafeteria diners are inspired by the 1,200-square-foot on-site garden, visible through windows off the main dining space.

"VF Outdoor is very interested in their employees' health and well-being. Sports and good nutrition are a big part of the company's core values and ours too," says Mary Clark Bartlett, CEO and founder of Epicurean Group, the foodservice management company for VF Outdoor. "The on-site garden makes a lot of sense. It's amazing to see something grow from seed to table. It's a teachable moment and reminds us where food comes from in a day and age when most people still think food comes from the grocery store."

At Bastille in Seattle, though the garden resides on the rooftop, guests can take a trip upstairs to view and learn about it firsthand. Executive chef Jason Stoneburner has also set up a long table and chairs for special, coursed dinners throughout the growing season that use produce harvested earlier that day.

"I think it's important to raise awareness about growing your own food, and the garden is a great way to learn and teach younger cooks, our diners and the community about that," says Stoneburner. "When you put that much energy into something, you can definitely see a difference in quality."

The 2,400-square-foot garden, consisting of about twenty 12-foot by 4-foot raised planter beds as well as climbing walls and trellises, grows mainly heirloom fruits and vegetables.

Other than the taste and education components, there's a cost-value element with gardens, Cameron points out. "Herbs and tomatoes are expensive by the pound at the height of the season," she says. "It's more cost effective to grow our own. We also try to grow crops that are prolific, like kale, which keeps coming back after you cut it. But we don't have space for cabbage, which needs a lot of room."

At Uncommon Ground, the farm also adds value by generating energy through the use of solar thermal panels that can be used to heat water through a heat exchanger. "That gives us about 10 percent of our overall energy needs," says Cameron.

Structural Soundness

From the get-go, the Camerons knew they wanted to build a garden atop their second location on Chicago's Northside. Good thing, because a roof must be structurally sound to hold the weight of a full garden.

"We had to modify the building dramatically," Cameron recalls. The basement of the 100-year-old building had to be dug out an additional 5 feet and filled with extra foundation to support the added weight on the roof. The structural engineer hired to build the garden also replaced the wooden beams with steel ones for extra support. On the rooftop itself, a stainless steel grid supports a raised deck for the garden, keeping it from sitting directly on the roof.

Bastille, housed in another 100-year-old building, required similar structural adaptations to support its green roof. Architects had to build in additional beams and support for the extra rooftop weight. Typically, because of soil's extra weight when wet, most rooftop gardens can only accommodate 12-foot-deep planter boxes, McCrate says.

Bastille also required improved access to the roof. In fact, architects built an entire staircase and elevator to the roof in anticipation of the regular maintenance required for the garden.

The integrity of the roofing surface needs to be examined, and access to basic services like water and electricity must be considered as well. Many rooftop gardens use drip irrigation systems or hoses woven throughout the beds to supply water. Many opt to use timers and/or rain sensors to prevent watering too much or too little. In some cases, wind barriers are necessary to protect the plants. "Most garden sites require a second decking over the actual rooftop membrane, which is often not designed to be walked on because it can puncture or wear down and create leaks," McCrate adds.