With the growth of the urban agriculture movement, it’s no longer shocking to realize produce at the farmers’ market was grown down the street, even if you live in the grittiest metropolis. But finding locally grown seeds—of plants specifically bred to thrive in an urban environment—is an anomaly. In New York City, Zach Pickens has been filling that unique niche since 2011, with his seed company Rooftop Ready Seeds.
Pickens says he first started saving seeds when he moved to Brooklyn six years ago, to save money and find plants that could thrive in the tough conditions offered by New York’s rooftop gardens: intense wind, unfiltered sunlight, hot nights caused by the urban heat island affect, and limited container space for roots to extend.
At the end of each season, he’d collect the seeds from the plants that did best at his rooftop garden in Bushwick, and then plant them the next year, which would lead to a stronger harvest and, eventually, a very-limited edition product line.
Seed saving is a not new practice, of course, but it’s a dying one. Outside of major companies, only about a dozen seed-saving groups exist nationwide according to the New York Times. While most farmers may have traditionally done it, today it’s usually less complicated to order seeds from the catalogues of the huge multinational corporations that control most of the market.
But as companies like Monsanto have patented their genetically-modified seeds as "intellectual property" and sued the farmers who’ve saved those seeds for piracy, seed-saving has become a political project for some agriculturists, who see it as a key to sustainability and independence from corporations.
But Pickens takes a rather low-key tone about the whole thing. When asked about his motivations, he says "I come from a place of farm education and really wanting as many people as possible to be gardening in the city. If I’m presenting a product that people are going to have more success with, they’re probably going to be more likely to keep gardening. And I see that as a good thing."
In addition to his rooftop space, he also searches out the top seed from the fields of Brooklyn Grange, an urban farming company operating on two New York City rooftops. They split the bounty fifty-fifty.
Pickens offers a variety of seeds for sale online and in three New York City garden shops—including basil, beans, flowers, okra, carrots, collards, and lettuces— which he packages in silk-screened envelopes.
But home gardeners can’t expect to buy everything from Rooftop Ready Seeds. Pickens hasn’t found a full-size tomato that will do great in the limited spaces offered by container gardens (which usually don’t have more than 10 inches of root space), so he only sells cherry tomatoes, which tend to do better.
And for other crops, he sees an advantage to New York’s conditions. "Peppers and okra do really well […] because it stays so warm at night in summers, because of the urban heat island effect. We get increased production because of that—all the concrete trapping the heat and radiating it back out at night. That’s a little bonus for us."
Gardeners interested in Pickens’s seeds should act quickly. According to his website, "Because growing space is tight in the city, our seeds are all limited edition. When they’re gone, they’re gone until next year."