Rooftop Roots
CAPTION: © Mandy Zammit
Food & Drink / Inspiration

Rooftop Roots

Words: Elliot Lewis-George Images: Mandy Zammit et al
Published: Autumn ‘15

London’s population is going through the roof and so too is its food production – quite literally – in a bid to find sustainable ways of meeting increasing demand. We explore some of the innovative ways forward-thinking Londoners are farming in an urban metropolis.

From trendy cocktail bars, eateries and even cinemas, it seems like the sky’s the limit when it comes to popping upstairs and putting the city’s rooftops to good use.

The former eighth floor car park of Stratford’s notorious shopping centre is one such regenerated roof. Now named Roof East, there’s a small shack serving up tasty cocktails, a cinema screen ideal for date night, and an urban park. What sets the site apart from other similar ventures, however, is its fully functional farm, found nestled in one of its corners.

Housed within the sort of shipping container that innovative urban dwellers have turned into apartments and offices, the GrowUp Box is one of many initiatives springing up in the capital in an attempt to cultivate a sustainable food system for an ever-increasing population who just love to eat.

“The GrowUp Box uses aquaponics and vertical growing systems to grow salads and herbs,” explains GrowUp’s aquaponics technician Oscar Davidson. “Aquaponics is a farming method that combines fish farming (aquaculture) with a hydroponic system (growing plants in water without soil).”

Housed within the box sits a 1,500 litre water tank that’s home to 150 well-fed fish, or carp to be precise. The nutrient rich wastewater from the tank is then pumped up to a greenhouse that sits on top of the brilliant-white shipping container. The water helps fertilise an array of growing crops that then return the favour by purifying the water that’s then pumped back into the fish tank.

“This 14 square metre farm contains 40 growing towers,” says Oscar, who joined the GrowUp team after leaving his office job last year. “And those towers can grow 400 plants at one time. That’s ten times more crops than a soil-based farm of this size and it’s made possible because we’re growing upwards.”

This ability to save on space and grow crops upwards in a city where the cost of land is becoming increasingly more expensive is only one of many benefits this urban farm can offer. Conventional farming is an expensive business that impacts heavily on the environment, but by bringing the production chain closer to the consumers, the costs of transporting, preserving and packaging are considerably reduced.

But how good do greens grown from fish waste actually taste? “We’ve had great feedback on the quality and flavour of the crops,” enthuses Oscar.

“We’re currently growing some oriental greens like Chinese celery and Thai green mustard for a Thai restaurant chain based here in London,” he continues. “They can’t always get this stuff from UK suppliers so they’re importing it all the way from Asia and that has a massive economic and environmental impact on their supply chain. It was great to see the delight on the restaurant proprietor’s face as she smelt and sampled the lovely produce we’ve grown right here in the GrowUp Box.”

And it’s not just cash savvy restaurant proprietors who are looking to buy locally produced, great tasting greens. The GrowUp Box, brainchild of Kate Hofman and Tom Webster, was brought to life in 2013 by the backing of over 300 supporters through one of the UK’s first successful Kickstarter campaigns.

Confident that aquaponic farming is a smart way of producing food, the GrowUp team opened London’s first commercial urban farm, housed in an industrial warehouse space in Beckton, East London, the team are confident they will be harvesting their first crop this year.

Unfortunately, the Beckton space is now closed – but the GrowUp team is working on the relocation and rebuild of their vertical aquaponics system to a new home where they will grow more delicious produce and fish and work to inspire more people into more sustainable food production methods. Watch this space!

However, it isn’t just the team behind GrowUp that are passionate about promoting the benefits of getting out there and growing your own.

The Edible Landscapes London project runs workshops in leafy Finsbury Park to teach Londoners how to recognise edible plants, grow them and, most importantly, cook with them.

Similarly, the Eastern Curve garden occupying an old railway line in Dalston offers raised growing beds for local residents to grow their own grub such as tomatoes, peppers and pungent herbs.

If you’re still not feeling green-fingered just yet then why not sample the goods instead. Ranked in Time Out London’s list of Top 100 shops, Dalston’s FARM:shop is just that; a farm within in a shop. It comes complete with a café that serves up sandwiches, soups and salads that only use ingredients grown either inside the walls of the little terraced building itself, or on local independent farms.

Farm:’s founder Paul Smyth and his team have also secured funding to realise their dream of creating an urban farm on another London rooftop. Not content with their own farm, the Farm: family are also pursuing their dream for a city full of farms by teaching companies such as Ikea and Samsung how they can utilise their unused spaces to cultivate edible crops.

“There are also websites that allow consumers to get hold of produce that’s been grown in an ethical way,” explains Oscar. “Websites like Farmdrop and The Food Assembly are basically online farmer’s markets that only stock produce by likeminded people who care about the methods behind what they make, and hold the values of sustainability close to their hearts.”

As Londoners, and inhabitants of a city that’s constantly growing and constantly hungry, perhaps it’s important that we all embrace some aspect of sustainable farming. Whether that’s getting involved with the community garden at Woodberry’s Redmond Community Centre, attending one of the Saturday open days at the GrowUp Box or simply making use of what extra space you have to grow your own delicious goodies.

GrowUp Box, 42 Newington Causeway, SE1 6DR

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Rooftop Roots
Caption: © Mandy Zammit
Rooftop Roots
Caption: © GrowUp Farms
Rooftop Roots
Caption: © GrowUp Farms
Rooftop Roots
Caption: Vibol Moeung
Rooftop Roots

“We’re currently growing some oriental greens like Chinese celery and Thai green mustard for a Thai restaurant chain based here in London.”

Rooftop Roots
Caption: Edible Garden, Redmond Community Centre
Rooftop Roots
Caption: Edible Garden, Redmond Community Centre

Grow your own

If you’re eager to join the ‘grow your own’ movement, check out these London-based suppliers and get your hands on the kit you need to get started, from traditional potted plants to hydroponics and aquaponics.

Autopot 4 Pot System

This easy to use hydroponic system is a smaller, fish-less version of the GrowUp Box. Pots are placed on a tray above a tank that you need to fill with a nutrient solution. Plants and drippers are placed in the soil-filled pots and left to grow. You can even set the irrigation frequency with a timer, which triggers the drippers to automatically feed the plants.

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Bio-Bizz All-Mix soil

Good soil in which to grow your veg can’t just come from your local park. The indoor gardening specialists at London Grow recommend using the all-mix soil from Bio-Bizz that contains an effective blend of soil (20%), compost (35%), worm castings (10%) and Perlite (30%) as well as a special 'pre-mix' (5%) of biologically active organic ingredients that have been fermented for a month to create a potent mixture.

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Fish Plant Family Unit

If you’re serious about farming your own grub and are willing to invest in aquaponics then the Family Unit might be for you. Large enough to provide a couple or a small family with plenty of fresh salad, it stocks up to 3.5kg of fish. The unit is small enough to fit into a small garden, greenhouse or even indoors. More importantly, it’s compact and easy to use. The first thing to decide is whether you’re going to grow fish to eat or for ornamental display.

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