There’s a secret garden on a roof of the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea, a farm run by volunteers who are all employees of the many companies in the building. Last week, an enticing message started showing in the building’s elevators announcing that the rooftop garden was open for volunteers. As members of the Centre for Social Innovation, a mission-driven co-working office and event space inside the building, the Untapped Cities team headed up to the 8th floor and followed friendly index card signs that said “Garden this way! up 2 flights.”

The shed was designed by Ralph Lauren, one of the many creative companies in the building, and built from wood repurposed from the Starrett-Lehigh Building’s rooftop water tanks, that were replaced. The cute shed will soon have a green roof!

On a large roof terrace, with stunning views of the Hudson River and Hudson Yards, we were greeted by Denise Pizzini the founder of Farm at the Landing in Hudson, NY. She was previously involved with the Starrett-Lehigh Building through the Centre for Social Innovation when she worked for the now defunct Stewardship Farms. The farm provided a community shared agriculture (CSA) program for building employees. Denise tells us that the minute she saw the roof here, she had a vision to grow a garden.

As the season continues, these growing containers will overflow with greens

She put in a proposal and the Starrett-Lehigh Building, known for its visionary social responsibility and environmental policies, approved the plan. (The Starrett-Lehigh, owned by RXR, is the first building to commit to New York City’s Zero Waste goals and is a member of the city’s Carbon Exchange challenge to reduce citywide emissions 80% by 2050. One of the large initiatives has been a 3-year, $23 million double window pane replacement to make the building more energy efficient, in one of the largest window replacements projects of its kind in the United States).

As Denise recounts, “I couldn’t have done this without the awesome vision of Mitchell Grant, the director of the building. He approached me and I saw the garden’s future unfold.  It’s an exciting project to be a part of. The shed went from my drawing on a napkin to Mitchell asking the creative team of Ralph Lauren to make it a reality. Brooklyn Grange took it to the next level and helped with installing our green roof with the wild flower meadow.”

Last year was the pilot season of the garden at the Starrett-Lehigh and armed with those learnings, Denise is training building employees who volunteer how to care for the garden. There are rows of silver galvanized stock tanks that will be watered through an irrigation system that will be turned on around the second week of June. The larger tanks are filled on the bottom with recycled plastic bottles, through a partnership with Action Carting in the Bronx, giving a second life to the bottles as drainage. “Landscape fabric is put over the bottles so the soil above it doesn’t all wash away,” Denise tells us. All the soil is pesticide free and the seeds are sourced from local farms, “who specialize in open pollinated and heirloom varieties which are so important to save since we need diversity,” Denise tells us.

There are also, of course, hoses, and in the meantime, volunteers are coming up on days that the garden isn’t open to building in general to hand water the plants. According to Denise, already planted in the garden include “perennial flowers and bushes like Joe Pye weed, echinacea and Budlia for our pollinator friends (must have something for the bees and butterflies!). Crops in the tanks so far include lettuce mix, chives, radishes and carrots, leeks, fingerling potatoes and onions. Indoors we have started heirloom tomatoes, peppers, annual flowers, summer squash, culinary and medicinal herbs.”

On our visit, we planted some red lettuce salads, cared for root vegetables, wildflowers, and seeded some grains. Last year, the farm successfully grew hundreds of pounds of potatoes, without really trying, says Denise. The season this year will go until the beginning of October, “but then we get to plant our garlic and flowering bulbs so really there is something to keep us all busy well into November,” Denise says. 

The plants, vegetables, and flowers that are in the works

Denise credits the Starett-Lehigh building for having the vision to execute the roof garden. She tells us, “The Starrett-Lehigh building has done a wonderful thing for their tenants by offering this fine amenity.  Gardening is so meditative.  It’s so important to get to connect with nature when you are working inside so much.  Humans need this experience for our well being.  It’s a happy place to be and the view is spectacular.”

Carrots from last year’s crop on the Starrett-Lehigh farm. Photo by Denise Pizzini

The beehives

Rudy, Denise’s dog, has found the shady spot on the roof

View of Hudson Yards

You can see the farm in full bloom during last year’s pilot season in the video below:

Next, check out 10 other unique rooftop farms in NYC