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Eli Zabar's Rooftop Garden

Martha Stewart Living Television

You won't find many gardens in New York City. Space is scarce, the population high, and, as a result, most people can only manage a window-box harvest of a few herbs or strong flowers capable of withstanding the urban conditions. Eli Zabar, the owner of E.A.T. restaurant and the Vinegar Factory food emporium in New York City, was undaunted by the lack of tillable soil. To facilitate his attempts to produce good, out-of-season tomatoes, herbs, and lettuce, he erected three greenhouses on top of the Vinegar Factory's ten-thousand-square-foot roof. The largest of the three greenhouses is twenty-six by eighty feet, while the two smaller houses are twenty by sixty feet; all of them are kept warm by piped-in heat recycled from his bread ovens below.

Eli grows his vegetables in soil rather than hydroponically, a growing technique that uses other mediums, such as water. According to Eli, using real soil is integral to the good flavor of the tomatoes, baby greens, fig trees, and fraises des bois (wild strawberries) he grows to use in his restaurant and sell in the market. In an effort to keep all the processes of planting, growing, and harvesting as organic as possible, Eli brought in bees to fertilize the plants and ladybugs to eat aphids.

The greenhouse operates during the fall, winter, and spring months, shutting down during the summer when seasonal produce is easy to find. During the growing cycle, Eli tends to eight hundred tomato plants, including some eighteen heirloom varieties, such as Coustralee, Anna Russian, Old German, and Brandywine, and many beds of mustard greens, lettuces, and kale. When his greens, such as red Russian kale and arugula, bibb, and red romaine lettuces, are ready for harvest, his gardeners cut them with scissors and keep them fresh in ice water.