Home & Garden

Sky high veggies? Urban farming grows in unexpected places

CalSTRS Executive Chef Conrad Caguimbal offers a salad with roasted vegetables from the pension fund’s edible garden featured every day in the CalSTRS cafeteria in West Sacramento.
CalSTRS Executive Chef Conrad Caguimbal offers a salad with roasted vegetables from the pension fund’s edible garden featured every day in the CalSTRS cafeteria in West Sacramento. rbyer@sacbee.com

Fresh vegetables and herbs, harvested steps away from the kitchen; that’s a chef’s dream.

In the Farm-to-Fork Capital, it’s also a sign that a business has thoroughly bought into an ethos of sustainability. Grow tomatoes at your doorstep – or on your roof – and patrons know those veggies are as local as they can get. So do employees who like to know their food source is just outside their windows.

Popping up throughout California are statement-making gardens full of food. That includes the landscaping at the front entrance of West Sacramento’s CalSTRS building, home to the California State Teachers’ Retirement System.

“Most people grow landscaping as an afterthought,” said Lara Hermanson, the gardener/farmer behind Farmscape, which created the CalSTRS “Waterfront Gardens.” “They put in some shrubs and lawn, then forget about it. Food is much more interesting.”

Farmscape, the largest urban farming company on the West Coast, has created more than 700 edible gardens in unexpected places.

“We do anything from a couple of raised beds to giant rooftop projects,” said Hermanson, who started growing food as landscaping for wealthy families in Malibu who wanted “kitchen gardens” without the gardening part.

As part of its contracts, Farmscape provides regular maintenance as well as original plans and setup. Packages start at $79 a week for 125 square feet; consultations start at $90 an hour. That’s expensive for a residential vegetable garden, but more reasonable for business or public projects – especially for such high-profile landscaping such as at the entrance of a major building.

Businesses may want to grow edible landscaping, but have no clue how to do it, Hermanson noted. Farmscape takes care of everything from planning to planting to harvest. Adding color and beauty, seasonal flowers, herbs and ornamental plants are mixed in with the vegetables, so the beds appear manicured and attractive year round.

Besides looking good, these gardens have an immediate dividend: Fresh organic food.

“That’s what people love,” Hermanson said.

Farmscape’s most famous “farms” are on top of Levi’s Stadium, the Santa Clara home to the 49ers, and under the scoreboard at the Giants’ AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Featuring espaliered fruit trees as well as annual vegetables, the Giants’ garden had a better summer than the team.

“Produce from that garden is used in three little cafes (at the ballpark) that feature wood-fired pizza including gluten-free options,” Hermanson said. “They also offer vegan options for folks who don’t do baseball food.”

A short throw from the bullpen, hydroponic towers sprout berries and greens used in ballpark smoothies and salads.

“It’s kind of an idea garden,” Hermanson said. “During games, 40,000 people can see how good it looks and think about growing food, too.”

Dubbed “Faithful Farm,” the rooftop garden at Levi’s Stadium supplies fresh produce to the venue’s food service. It looks like a typical vegetable garden – except the soil is only 6 to 9 inches deep and it sits nine stories above the ground.

“We had a crazy good summer at Levi’s,” Hermanson said. “We harvested 5,000 pounds of food from a 6,000-square-foot space. We had a thousand pounds of just melons! We grew so many peppers, we harvested 100 pounds a week.”

Among the challenges of farming on the roof: It gets really windy (but so does AT&T Park) and it’s less protected from rain and sun.

“Everything is more intense on the roof,” Hermanson said. “We had trouble with all that rain (last winter). The little lettuce just rot; it wouldn’t grow. On Christmas Eve, we had another huge storm. And the wind!

“(In summer and early fall), it gets so hot up there, everything just gets cooked,” she added. “But we’re getting to know what works up there.”

On the banks of the Sacramento River, the CalSTRS garden is much more hospitable. Originally planted two years ago, it has 10 raised beds plus more than a dozen fruit trees. It’s also been prolific; this summer, it produced 2-1/2 pounds of food per square inch.

Executive chef Conrad Caguimbal, who oversees CalSTRS’s busy cafe, enjoys growing vegetables and herbs for cafe meals. Open to the public, the cafe serves about 700 meals a day.

“I love the fact I can actually harvest my own produce, take it to the cafe and create something delicious,” Caguimbal said, “and I never get my hands dirty.”

Each week day, he creates an “Earth Bowl,” featuring fresh selections from the garden that sits just outside the cafe’s patio. Using veggies picked that morning, a recent bowl mixed together kale, zucchini and caramelized carrots with barley for a vegan entree.

“A lot of people get excited when we harvest,” he said. “They’ve been watching those tomatoes and squash grow, too.”

CalSTRS chose edible landscaping because it fits with its overall sustainability initiative, explained Madeline O’Connell, the facility’s environmental sustainability specialist. For example, the LEED-certified building recycles 40 tons of organic waste per month to make energy. (That includes waste from the garden.)

“We also use the garden for educational events,” O’Connell said. “After all, we serve teachers.”

Hermanson loves the CalSTRS garden, in part because of its location. It welcomes the building’s 1,100 workers as well as visitors and passersby.

“It’s really fun,” Hermanson said. “It’s right on the river walk. People take lunchtime rambles and stop by the garden. When we’re out there, we get a lot of questions. Is this real? Where does the produce go? (Visitors) interact – and that’s exactly the idea.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington