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Ryerson Urban Farm

Ryerson Urban Farm (RUF), opens in new window operates two rooftop farms in downtown Toronto on the Ryerson University campus. The main production site is a quarter-acre rooftop farm located on the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre and a second site has recently been completed on the Daphne Cockwell Complex. RUF grows food utilizing ecological and spray-free practices with particular emphasis on soil health. The farm seeks to build capacity for rooftop farming through explorations of production, research and engagement. The site is currently closed due to construction upgrades and COVID-19 protocol.

Below, you'll find videos that let you explore the rooftop farms, learn how to make more of your outdoor space at home with a garden, and access guides to creating self-watering plant containers, compost bins, and more!

Digging In: Creating a Sustainable Future Through Urban Farming

Spending time at home has everyone talking about using their outdoor spaces in ways we never imagined. Whether you have a big backyard yard, a balcony or even a sunny window ledge, you can reap the benefits of growing your own food, herbs and flowers. In this webinar, learn from renowned urban farming expert, Arlene Throness, on how you can take advantage of the warm days ahead through gardening. Your thumb is about to turn green!

Growing Food in the City

In 2019, Ryerson Urban Farm was featured in Exploring Alternatives as a showcase on growing food on an urban rooftop farm. Exploring Alternatives is a resource for alternative living video content. In the video, Arlene Throness, Urban Farm manager, gives an overview of the quarter-acre rooftop farm located on the Andrew and Valerie Pringle Environmental Green Roof above the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre. Arlene tells the story of how the Urban Farm was integral in establishing Toronto’s green roof bylaw.

Guides for at-home workshops and DIYs!

Background

In the city, it’s often convenient to grow plants in containers. Self-watering containers (also called “sub-irrigated” containers) have a reservoir of water at the bottom that is wicked up to the growing medium by capillary action, where the roots absorb it as needed. The water reservoir reduces the rate of evaporation, meaning that you have to water less often, saving both water and time. It also encourages plants to develop a healthy, deep root system.

Continue reading for instructions, or download the PDF.

Supplies list:

  • 2L Soda Bottles or smaller bottles for smaller planters
  • Wick (can be yarn, twine, fabric strips; cotton is best, but other materials possible)
  • Soil/potting mix
  • Seeds or seedlings (herbs or lettuce are a good option)
  • Coconut coir (optional)
  • Fabric stopper (optional) a piece of fabric and elastic band

Tools needed:

  • Scissors
  • Small knife

Instructions

  • Thoroughly rinse and clean the soda bottles and remove the labels
  • Use a small knife to puncture a hole about one third down the bottle
  • Use scissors to cut around the bottle to separate the two sections. The smaller portion with the bottle opening is the planter while the bottom portion will be the water reservoir
  • Flip the bottle opening over into the bottom reservoir and see if it fits. You can trim the top with scissors to make it less jagged if needed
  • Next, make the wick. Cut 3-4 long strands of yarn, twine or fabric strips. Tie the pieces together leaving about 2 inches at one end
  • Place the wick into the bottom of the planter with the long end facing the bottom
  • Hold the wick in place while filling the planter with soil. The soil will hold the wick in place. Spread the wick strings evenly through the soil.
    • If using a fabric stopper, take a piece of fabric and secure it to the planter bottom with an elastic band. Puncture a small hole in the fabric with scissors or a small knife. Lead the wick through the hole with the long end facing down. The wick should be held in place by the knot. Fill the planter with soil while spreading the wick strings evenly through the soil
    • If using coconut coir, hold the wick in place while filling a small amount of coconut coir to the bottom of the planter to hold the wick in place and provide maximum drainage. Fill the rest of the planter with soil.
  • Plant your seeds or seedlings (see tips)! Try to acquire seedlings where possible so you can immediately use your planter’s harvests, but if starting from seed, plant about twice the depth of the seed.
  • Fill the reservoir with water making sure that the wicks are touching the water. The wicks will absorb the water upwards and keep soil hydrated. Periodically water the tops of the planter as well if it is looking dry
  • Place planters in a window and enjoy! If possible, keep herb planters in the kitchen in an easily accessible place while cooking because that is where you will use it most!

Tips

  • Use safety precautions when handling tools
  • Add mulch to your container to help further minimize water loss
  • Pack the soil tightly, but do not compact too much or the roots will not be able to grow through the soil
  • If you do not have the exact materials included in this workshop, experiment with what you do have on hand
  • Stick to hardy perennials like mint, rosemary, thyme and oregano because they will be able to grow indoors but still need adequate sunlight. Place in a south-facing window if possible but west-facing windows will also do. Avoid plants like basil because they need full sun and do not do well indoors in the winter

Background

In the city, it’s often convenient to grow plants in containers. Self-watering containers (also called “sub-irrigated” containers) have a reservoir of water at the bottom that is wicked up to the growing medium by capillary action, where the roots absorb it as needed. The water reservoir reduces the rate of evaporation, meaning that you have to water less often, saving both water and time. It also encourages plants to develop a healthy, deep root system.

Continue reading for instructions, or download the PDF.

Supplies list:

  • Two 5-gallon pails (source: Uline, Home Depot, ask at bulk store/DIY wine stores)
  • One 3-inch round aquatic basket (source: Grow It All or other hydroponics stores)
  • One 18-inch long x 1-inch diameter PVC pipe (source: Home Depot)
  • Growing medium made up of: 1 parts compost + 1 part coconut coir + 1 part soilless mix (choose a soilless mix that contains peat moss and perlite for drainage)
  • Extra coconut coir to fill aquatic basket
  • Water (for soaking coconut coir and soilless mix if needed)

Tools needed:

  • Power drill
  • Drill bits (3-inch hole saw for aquatic basket, 1-inch hole saw for PVC pipe, 1⁄4-inch bit for drainage hole)
  • Hacksaw (for cutting fill tube)

Instructions

  1. Prepare the lower pail.
    • Attach the 1⁄4-inch drill bit to the power drill and drill a hole anywhere on the side of the pail, 4 inches up from the bottom. This is your drainage hole for overflow.
  2. Prepare the upper pail.
    • Attach the 3-inch hole saw bit to the power drill and drill a hole in the middle of the bottom of the pail. Attach the 1-inch hole saw bit to the power drill and drill a hole between the middle hole and the side.
  3. Prepare the fill tube.
    • Using the hacksaw, carefully saw one end of the PVC pipe at about a 45 degree angle.
  4. Prepare the aquatic basket and wicking material.
    • First soak the coconut coir in water according to package instructions then fill the aquatic basket to the top (the coconut coir is your wicking material).
  5. Assemble the container parts.
    • Stack the pails. Place the aquatic basket in the 3-inch hole (the lip of the basket should overlap the hole so that it’s suspended). Place the fill tube through the 1-inch hole in the upper pail with the angled end down (this is to prevent suction in the water reservoir).
  6. Fill the water reservoir.
    • Using a hose or a watering can with a downspout, pour water through the fill tube until you see water leaking out of the drainage hole on the lower pail. Your reservoir is full.
  7. Add growing medium.
    • Mix your growing medium ingredients, taking care not to compact them. Fill the upper pail with potting mix up to about 1” below the rim. You’re ready to plant!

Tips

  • Use safety precautions when handling power tools
  • Add mulch to your container to help further minimize water loss
  • Choose a dark coloured pail to maximize heat (e.g. for heat-loving plants like tomatoes)
  • Choose a light coloured pail to minimize heat (e.g. for cool season plants like lettuce)
  • Check out the Toronto Tool Library if you need to borrow tools

Background:

Seed Balls are an effective technique for sowing seeds in depleted or disturbed areas without needing to cultivate the land. It is part of a practice known as Guerrilla Gardening, which involves planting on abandoned or neglected sites, to both rejuvenate and beautify these spaces. Guerrilla Gardening is also used as a political tool to make a statement about land rights and land use and to provoke change through direct action. Seed balls have been used historically as a method of propagating plants from seeds without disturbing or cultivating the soil. Known as seed balls, or clay “dumplings” in Japan, this technique was made popular by Japanese natural farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka, author of “One Straw Revolution”. Central to his approach to natural farming, Fukuoka strived to minimize disruption of the soil and dependency on oil-based machines.

Continuing reading for instructions, or download the PDF.

 

How it works:

Seed balls are a mix of clay, compost and seeds, rolled into individual balls that can be thrown and broadcast in the area.

Instructions:

Mix together the following:

  • Clay – 5 parts
    A great source of clay for seed balls is “waste” clay from a pottery studio. If you crush it up into a powder, it makes a fantastic medium for seed balls. Most recipes call for red clay, but you can use anything (even clay from your garden or yard, but try to avoid including weed seeds in the mix).
  • Compost – 1 part
    Vermicompost (worm castings) is an excellent choice for seed balls because it is rich in microbial life that will inoculate the area. Compost is essential because it will provide nutrients for the growing plants. Microbe Hub, a social start-up out of Ryerson’s SocialVentures Zone, has provided the castings made from organic materials collected on campus!
  • Seeds – 1 part
    Appropriate seeds are native plants and wildflowers that support pollinators and beneficial insects and remediate the soil. Avoid choosing plants that could become noxious weeds.
  • Water – splash (as needed)
    Add a little water to bind all the ingredients together.

Once it's all mixed and the balls are formed, let them dry out for about 24 hours. Once they are dry, you are ready to launch your seed balls into the world!

Background

Vermicompost means composting organic food scraps with worms (“vermi” = “worm”). Worm castings (manure) are rich with nutrients and microbial life. Because worms do not have any digestive acids, they rely on bacteria that live in their stomachs to break down the food. Red Wiggler worms are used because they like to live in a nutrient rich environment (like composting food scraps), unlike common earthworms which prefer a mineral rich environment (like soil). Plus, red wigglers secrete a substance that kills pathogenic bacteria like E. coli.

Red wigglers can eat their own weight in 24 hours under ideal conditions. Their population increases rapidly and the new worms can be used to make new bins or fed to backyard chickens or fish (or used as fishing bait!).

Continuing reading for instructions, or download the PDF.

 

Equipment

  • 2 rubbermaid containers and a spacer
  • Power drill and small (1⁄4”) bit
  • 1/2 lb red wiggler worms
  • Bedding material (finely shredded newspaper, unbleached paper towels, cardboard, sawdust, coconut coir) Soft food scraps (avoid meat and dairy as well as oily/greasy/spicy/citrus foods)
  • Spray bottle with water

Instructions

Designate one container to be the bottom container and one to be the upper.

  1. Place some sort of spacer in the bottom container (a block, box, etc). This container will catch any

    leachate (liquid from the composting process) created in the upper container.

  2. Drill a few air holes on the sides of the upper container at the top of either end to create air flow for the worms. (They need oxygen!) Use a small drill bit size and don’t make too many holes, otherwise the bedding will dry out too quickly. Drill a few holes along the bottom of the sides to drain any leachate.

  3. Add enough bedding to fill about 3⁄4 of the bin, and mist it with the spray bottle so it’s just slightly damp (not dripping). Worms like it humid but not wet (they can drown). Put the lid on the upper container.

  4. Place the worms on the bedding -- they will migrate downwards away from the light. Allow them to settle overnight. The worms will eventually break down the bedding, so add more bedding as needed.

  5. Start adding food scraps for them (small pieces of soft food are easiest for them to ingest, e.g. avocado, mango, banana, apple, melon, coffee grounds, pasta, rice). Only add food when the earlier food is broken down. Ideally feed them once or twice a week, to help prevent fruit flies and to prevent the compost from overheating, which can kill the worms. Bury the food partly under the bedding and rotate where you put the food in the bin each time.

Harvesting

Castings should be harvested every 3-6 months as they can become toxic to the worms. One method is to place bedding to one side and feed only that side for a few weeks, encouraging the worms to migrate to that side (and then harvesting the other). Another method is to lay the castings/worms on newspaper in a well lit environment and they will huddle in a ball away from the light. Similarly, the castings can be placed on a screen that the worms can crawl through to escape the light.

Hints

  • Add finely crushed eggshells weekly to help keep the pH level balanced
  • If you notice mites on the worms, it means the soil is too acidic; add finely crushed eggshells and bedding in order to increase the pH
  • Use your vermicastings to create compost tea for your plants!

Listen or watch for more about RUF

  1. CBC: Canada's largest city is hiding hundreds of secret gardens, external link, opens in new window

    Watch the CBC's review of the Ryerson Urban Farm to learn how rooftop gardens and farms help to reduce city flooding. 

  2. The Ruminant Podcast, external link, opens in new window

    Hear from Arlene Throness, the Coordinator of RUF, to learn about the RUF's history and community-supported agriculter (CSA).

  3. Ryerson Alumni Podcast, opens in new window

    Amanda Cupido speaks with Professor Hitesh Doshi about his role in the creation of Toronto’s Green Roof Bylaw, and visits Ryerson’s Urban Farm to chat with farm manager Arlene Throness.

Special thanks to the following members of the RUF for creating and sharing the activities and resources below for Science Rendezvous!

  • Arlene Throness, Urban Farm Manager
  • Jayne Miles, Operations Coordinator
  • Cindy Pham, Engagement Coordinator
  • Sharene Shafie, Research Coordinator
  • Samantha Williams-Barrantes, Indigenous Engagement Coordinator
  • Nicole Austin, Black Food Sovereignty Engagement Coordinator
  • Jess Russell, Departmental Assistant
  • Ines Lacarne, Lead Field Assistant
  • Zahra Gulestani, Student Field Assistant
  • Sam Howden, Indigenous Field Assistant
  • Mir Asoh, Black Food Sovereignty Engagement Assistant

Connect with the RUF on Instagram @ruurbanfarm, external link, opens in new window or email them at urbanfarm@ryerson.ca, opens in new window.