You may not know it to look at Palo Santo, a eclectic Latin restaurant tucked into a decidedly urban (although inarguably beautiful) brownstone in Park Slope, but it happens to be one of the more pastoral places in the city. That’s because there’s a three-tiered garden secreted away on the roof, with bunny cages on the bottom level, flowers in between, and tomatoes and herbs up above — their leaves and tendrils stretching towards the sunbleached Brooklyn sky. And with every passing year, it becomes less of a hobby for chef/owner Jacques Gautier, and more of a mission — to demonstrate to other restaurants and landlords that this particular brand of urban agriculture is not only achievable, but entirely sustainable too.
You grew up in Washington D.C, which is every bit as urban, if not more so, than Brooklyn. So how and when did you develop a passion for gardening, and for eating what you grow?
Most of the time growing up, we had a house with a small backyard, so we were able to grow vegetables. And even after we moved closer to downtown, my mom was still very active in the community Victory Garden, which was also a strong influence on me.
Was having a rooftop garden always part of your long term plan for Palo Santo? When did you actually begin work on it?
It just kind of came naturally…it wasn’t something I necessarily planned, which you can kind of tell by looking at it! It just started with a few planter boxes in the front and back of the restaurant. I eventually realized I could grow special types of herbs or chili peppers that I was having trouble finding. And I kept adding to it year after year, and we started composting more which created more growing medium. It’s been about 8 years now, and our garden keeps growing bigger and bigger as we continue pushing the bounderies.
Can you take us through some of the things you grow, and tell us about how they’re utilized at the restaurant?
Herbs and tomatoes are the majority of what we grow. One herb that does really well here is papalo. Not a lot of farmers grow it in the U.S and it’s hard to import from Mexico because it’s really fragile. But we cut it every day and use it in tacos and salads and garnishes. We’ve become a little more specialized in what we grow, because after 8 years, we’ve come to know what works and what doesn’t. So we focus more on hard to find or expensive varieties of herbs and tomatoes that grow really well on our rooftop.
Is there anything you’ve tried to grow that absolutely wouldn’t work under these conditions?
Really big beautiful heirloom tomatoes. We’re lucky if we get one all season…and then a squirrel invariably comes and steals it. But we have a bunch of plants that grow tiny cherry tomatoes, and they do very well. And since they’re smaller, they ripen earlier in the season. We wound up having buckets and buckets of them this year. But since we grow in containers, we can’t really support anything that grows on a vine and needs a lot dirt and space to spread, like zucchini.
What are some difficulties unique to growing on a roof that you need to work around…like excessive sun exposure, or all the weight it puts on the building?
There’s definitely too much heat and sun, which is difficult. It’s also challenging for our rabbits, who don’t like heat and direct sunlight, so we have all sorts of tarps and canopies for them. We used to have shade from our neighbors tree, but they cut it down, which created an extra challenge. As far as weight goes, we have everything in Styrofoam containers and don’t use a lot of soil…I think our deepest pot is six inches-1 foot. And it’s very light, aired out soil. Of course, if we were able to just throw a big bunch of compost on it would be great…it would create even more compost and help kill off all of the weeds, but the reality is we just can’t. We have to spread it out very thinly. And that’s how we deal with the issue of weight.
You have three levels to your garden. Is there a rhyme or reason to what grows on each tier?
The lowest level gets the most shade, so that’s where we have the rabbits. The second level is right outside of my apartment, so it’s just a green roof with grass and wild flowers…partly for aesthetics and partly for the benefits of having a green roof. The office is right underneath, so it provides a decent amount of insulation and collects rainwater.
What are your active growing seasons, and what do you have to do to prepare for and maintain your garden through the winter?
With the rabbits especially, there’s something going on all year long. We have a small amount of perennials. The growing year actually begins in the fall after the first frost, when we start planting cloves of garlic that turn into bulbs. They stay dormant throughout the winter, and in spring, the shoots are the first thing that pop up. And that’s when we know its time to start planting hearty greens like kale and mustard that can germinate in the cold weather. Tomatoes just seem to plant themselves — old seeds just re-germinate and pop up through natural selection; whatever strains are best suited for the conditions of our roof. So wherever we see them pop up, we remove whatever else is growing in the planter and let them take over.