Our Rooftop Garden

image of rooftop garden

Our approach to gardening on the Noble Rot rooftop is both production-driven and experimental-minded.  Almost any vegetable or any variety thereof has the right to its fifteen minutes of fame up there, but to stick around longer than that it has to deliver the goods over and over again, or, if it’s finicky, it has to provide something that we just can’t find at market, making us willing to tolerate its petulance.

A rooftop garden contends with the full force of wind and sun.  Add to that a shallow soil profile (because, after all, soil is heavy and it is on a roof), and the  criteria for vegetable selection become stiff indeed.  Besides constantly trialing different veggie varieties for their ability to thrive under those conditions, we are forever fiddling with the systems themselves.  A rooftop garden, no matter how extensive or intensive, constitutes some permutation of container gardening, so we play with different soil themes, fertilizer regimes (all organic!), irrigation schemes, and overall design dreams to realize our goals and make nature bend, slightly, to our wills.

Chefs do much of the work of this garden – all of the harvest and some of the prep and planting.  They gather baskets of produce during the day and then again run up during the evening press to snip this or that herb that is running low or to hustle ingredients for a made-to-order salad for a special restaurant guest.  Gardener and chef patrol the terrain frequently evaluating the merits and performance of each offering, and sometimes laggards or offenders are pulled out on the spot and consigned to the compost heap.   Nature abhors a vacuum here as much as elsewhere, so the soil in this high-output garden is barely ever without greenery or sprouting seed, sometimes being re-planted within minutes of harvest.

image of water bucket in the garden

Winter comes and with it some rest.  Endive, kale, lettuce, and arugula remain, but they are lightly harvested.  The garden and all its tenders take a breath, but only to begin the cycle again soon after solstice, hunched over seed catalogs,  ready to start transplants indoors, and confident, as all gardeners are, that the upcoming season really will be the best ever.


Marc Boucher-Colbert’s urban agricultural track was perhaps prefigured by a childhood which never included growing a single vegetable or flower and by an academic career focused on liberal arts.  Somehow from that soil-deprived formation, he emerged as an ardent tiller of the earth, apprenticing first in the boulder-strewn fields of New Hampshire then moving to the promised land of the Willamette Valley.  In 1993 he started one of Portland’s first community supported farms – Urban Bounty – which morphed into the Friends of Zenger Farm, which he  co-founded in 1999.  In 2005 as a PSU master’s student in sustainable education, he was taken with rooftop agriculture and discovered like-minded collaborators in restauranteur Leather Storrs and Rocket building owner/developer Kevin Cavenaugh.  Boucher-Colbert’s business Urban Agriculture Solutions LLC emerged at that time, leaped to the top of 1111 E. Burnside, and has been gardening there since for both Rocket and Noble Rot restaurants.

image of Marc in the garden

Marc is also Garden Specialist at Franciscan Montessori Earth School in East Portland.  With his wife and two children they live, and garden (surprise!), in NE Portland. You can follow Marc’s blog here: http://urbanagsolutions.blogspot.com

image of flowers in the garden

WHY WE GARDEN by Leather Storrs
When I was a kid my parents gardened and I weeded. One time I saw a show on burning fields rather than weeding them to introduce a little carbon into the soil. That didn’t go over so well when I tried it. Anyhow, I was mostly disinterested in gardening. I liked a good tomato and I knew that our fresh stuff was better than what we got at the store, but I didn’t really give it much thought. Even while I was getting really geeked about produce I didn’t realize it.

Part of my internship during my culinary education at the CIA included 6 weeks at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. I hated it. Every morning at 7 a.m. I trudged upstairs to the café and was greeted by a stack of boxes, taller than me, containing lettuces. My job, for the next six hours, was to clean these little heads in a big sink full of water. I would then spin the lettuce in a teeny, home sized salad spinner and layer the greens on linen napkins in tubs. After that, I’d make the pasta for the café, then I’d go home. I stood over that sink cursing Alice Waters.

image of flower bud in the garden

Looking back, I call it my Karate Kid experience. In the movie, Ralph Macchio does all kinds of menial tasks for the mysterious Pat Morita. Finally Macchio loses his temper “I’m just a lackey,” he thinks. But Wait! The repetition of his moves, the severity of their form… yep, Karate! It was the same for me, without foxy Elizabeth Shue in that fuzzy sweater. The repetition of my actions and the attention to detail required of me instilled a profound understanding of quality. In seeing the subtle variations in the lettuces day to day I began to know what to look for in a delicious green. I began to know good, intuitively. That understanding seeped into my appraisal of all products: meat, fish, fruit, chocolate, wine. The connection between the raw material and the finished product, the benefit of pristine building blocks was my take away from Chez Panisse and it informs the kind of cook that I have become. There is no substitute for fresh vegetables, artfully tended, harvested at their peak and cooked carefully.

As a cook, I have tried to find the best produce and protein our region can offer. Given the opportunity to grow my own I jumped at the chance. The Rocket building is extraordinary. Not only do we have easy access and electricity for our 3000 square foot garden, but we have unique water that comes from an ancient aquifer beneath the building. Every year we manage to jam more planters and beds up on our magical roof and Marc Boucher-Colbert unveils another innovation or introduces us to a new vegetable. The garden is the soul of Noble Rot.