New York, NY
With discussions of urban farming filling news articles and successful examples seen in the work of groups like Brooklyn Grange, it seemed only natural that COOKFOX would use a portion of our 5600 square foot roof to explore our own interest in urban agriculture and rooftop farming.While researching the Haudenosaunee longhouse for the Syracuse Live / Work / Home project, our office discovered the Haudenosaunee’s documented symbiotic farming technique known and praised by most as the “Three Sisters.” The story told varies according to different tribes. According to one legend, corn, climbing beans, and squash are three inseparable sisters who only grow and thrive when they are together:“A long time ago, three sisters lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different from one another in their height and in the way they carried themselves. The little sister was so young and round that she could only crawl at first, and she was dressed in green. The second sister wore a bright, sunshine yellow dress, and she would spend many an hour reading by herself, sitting in the sun with the soft wind blowing against her face. The third was the eldest sister, standing always very straight and tall above the other sisters, looking for danger and warning her sisters. She wore a pale green shawl and had long, dirty-yellow hair. There was one way the sisters were all alike, though. They loved each other dearly, and they always stayed together. This made them very strong.”- told by Shelia Wilson, a member of the Sappony tribe.The diversity created by these three specific crops is mutually beneficial: the corn provides a natural structure for the beans to climb; the beans add necessary fertilizer in the form of nitrogen to the soil; and the squash spreads to cover the soil, blocking out weeds at the ground level, while its leaves act as a “living mulch” to retain moisture in the soil. The tradition of inter-planting corn, beans, and squash in the same mounds, widespread among Native American farming societies beyond the Haudenosaunee, is a sophisticated, sustainable system that provided long-term fertility and a healthy balanced diet to generations.Our own Three Sisters garden has become a seasonal harvest, with active experimentation into saving heirloom seeds for future seasons. The second generation of our garden’s corn crop was successfully grown from seeds previously harvested during the first growth. Each season we test and plant multiple varieties of heirloom crops and other native species to determine the right balance. We have also begun to experiment with bee-friendly plants to help those crops that do not self-pollinate. While the Three Sisters represented a very strong and cooperative relationship amongst the crops, research into the work of Toby Hemenway mentioned the use of a “fourth sister,” plantings used to attract bees for pollination purposes. Our efforts in urban agriculture have progressed in various stages since the completion of our green roof in 2006, yet beekeeping has only been legal in New York City since March 16th of 2010. Inspired by the mention of this “fourth sister”—its implications driving a stronger link between flora and fauna—and to help further our research and interest in our organic food production, we established our own apiary on April 4th of 2012.The initial 12,000 honey bees which established our colony are of the Italian A.M. Ligustica subspecies, by way of a purveyor based in Vermont. As of August, the colony had grown to 60,000 bees. Using their natural instincts, the bees are able to find and gather pollen from our own vegetables and surrounding trees, rooftop plantings, parks, and even community green markets surrounding Union Square.Flying to visit an estimated 50-100 flowers during each pollination trip, they return to their hive on our rooftop to perform a dance that identifies the distance, direction, quality and quantity of the food supply. The pollen and nectar they return with is used to create the honey comb structure and honey. To produce 1 pound of honey, honey bees must visit 2 million flowers, and on average will produce 60-100 pounds of honey per year. As of August of 2012, our rooftop hive had produced over 35 pounds of honey. Honey bees are the only insects that produce food for humans. This fact not only represents the production of the honey itself, but through the pollination of more than 100 crops, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, honey bees provide 80 percent of the country’s pollination services and represent one of every three bites the average American eats. The honey bees are an active part of not only our ongoing research occurring on the roof, but represent a larger connection between man and nature.The natural ecosystem on our green roof has become an example for our own work in urban environments, highlighting the need for social and economic diversity in order to create thriving sustainable communities. The growth of our "Three Sisters" garden and its companion Apiary reminds us that biodiversity and interdependence are essential to healthy systems.