2010-11 projects at the American Academy in Rome

Location: American Academy in Rome, Italy
USDA plant hardiness zone: 9b
Established: Fall 2010
Garden exposure: Southeast
Size of garden: 55 x 60 feet

A garden of fruits, herbs, and vegetables is planted on the rooftop terrace at the American Academy in Rome using the trash and empty containers from the residents. Empty plastic bottles, paper cartons, wood fruit crates, burlap sacks, cardboard boxes, and plastic containers are used for starting seeds and creating small mobile planting beds. A compost worm bin turns kitchen scraps into fertile worm casting compost, and later elements of project may include bee and bat accommodations, rainwater catchment, laundry lines, and other modest homesteading strategies possible on any Roman terrace. The story of the garden is told through daily photos, a dedicated webpage, and posts on Wikidiary. In late June the garden will be permanently relocated to the grounds of a local Roman school. 

Title: Roma Mangia Roma
By: Fritz Haeg, with Lorenzo Gigotti
Publisher: Nero Publications
Release: expected September 2011
Photographic portraits: Gilda Aloisi

Roma Mangia Roma recounts the diverse personal stories of food in contemporary Rome, providing a snapshot of a city in a moment between a familiar but fading traditional past and a future increasingly tied to global networks and influences. Portraying the evolving ways that Romans organize their lives, homes and city around food may lead to a broader portrait of its shifting cultural, economic, environmental, and social circumstances. Opening stories by historians, writers, cooks, and activists will frame the book with views to the past, present and future—from ancient Roman eating customs to contemporary challenges, and possible future trajectories. The central content of the book will be approximately 30/35 portraits of Roman residents—through interviews and photographs of them in their kitchens and dining rooms—presenting the diverse intimate details of daily life in the city, and the way food customs are shifting among the nearly five generations to be portrayed. An appendix will provide a basic bibliography, a few recipes, a Roman food calendar and map, plus a glossary explaining particular terms and Romanisms referenced in the texts.

Roma mangia Roma raccoglie diverse storie personali legate al cibo e alla gastronomia romana contemporanea, fornendo un ritratto della città in un contesto temporale a cavallo tra un passato tradizionale, ancora familiare, che però sta scomparendo e un futuro sempre di più connesso a network e influssi globali. Il ritrarre l'evolversi dei modi con cui i Romani organizzano le loro vite, le loro abitazioni e la loro città intorno al cibo, mostrerà un più ampio ritratto di quelli che sono i cambiamenti culturali, economici, ambientali e sociali della città. Il libro, che aprirà con testi composti da storici, scrittori, cuochi e attivisti, è strutturato secondo diversi punti di vista, passati, presenti e futuri: dalle abitudine alimentari dell'antica Roma alle sfide della contemporaneità, fino all'individuazione di possibili traiettorie future. Il contenuto centrale del libro è costituito da circa 30 ritratti di cittadini romani—realizzati attraverso interviste, fotografie di questi nelle loro cucine e nelle loro sale da pranzo—in modo da presentare i diversi intimi dettagli della vita cittadina e di come le abitudine gastronomiche di circa cinque diversi generazioni, ritratte nel libro, stanno cambiando. Un'appendice fornirà una bibliografia essenziale, qualche ricetta, un calendario e un mappa del cibo romano, più un glossario che spiegherà alcuni termini dialettali contenuti nei testi.

Presentation by Carolyn Steel - architect, lecturer, and author of 'Hungry City' - at the American Academy in Rome on June 23rd, 2011



On February 21st, 2011, THE PEA REPORT…

the first peapods on the roof

…from the Roman Rooftop Homestead is very good indeed, with the happy plants beginning to climb up the pea-stake branches that were just installed for them, and today I notice the first peapods hiding in the bright green foliage, and then, as often happens when discovering some new hidden crop in the garden, you begin to realize that they are everywhere.

On February 2nd, 2011, THE LETTUCE REPORT…

winter insalata in make-shift planters on the roof

…from the Roman rooftop garden is good – and though some are still looking small and scrappy after months in the ground, growing very slowly with the cool temperatures and  little light available to them in the winter – others are looking more robust and ready to eat, and I am realizing that my extreme rooftop micro-climate does have some pluses in the winter which became apparent last month when a few nights of frost descended on the gardens out back, but not on the roof garden, probably the result of a high elevation  garden avoiding the sinking cold air? plus the bit of warmth absorbed by the stone pavers during the day and released at night? neato.

On January 26th, 2011, ORTICHE…

ortiche showing up in the pot of a small bare peach tree which is a bit Charlie Brown Christmas, so every bit of green is welcome these days

…or nettles, are to be found all over the streets of Rome, coming up from any unattended space between stones, they sting (a fact I am sure every Roman child learns early on with a warning from a parent – since it is the first thing that all of my Italian friends say about them: ‘pizzica!’), are known as a sort of peasant food, can be brewed as tea, or cooked with pasta, making a cameo appearance in Pasolini’s ‘Teorema” when the maid refuses to eat anything else – and I am letting them have their way in my garden as they pop up here and there – a pretty green in a winter garden – since they are such a quintessentially Roman street food.

On January 21st, 2011, THE FLOWERING FAVA BEANS…

the promising winter flowers of my happy fava bean plants

…or Vicia faba, are keeping my rooftop garden spring-like in the middle of a Roman winter – and since I have never grown them before, it is all new to me – like the fact that they are often used as a cover crop, excel at fixing nitrogen in the soil, grow to become 2-6 feet tall, do great in cold weather, have those pretty wing-petaled white with black-spot-centered flowers, and here in Italy are typically planted on 2 November, All Souls Day, and harvested in time to be eaten with Pecorino for a traditional May Day picnic.

On January 5th, 2011, THE WORM REPORT…

a close up view of the Roman red worms getting busy - mostly eating, pooping, and reproducing

…is good, they are devouring my kitchen scraps (about 3 pounds a week), turning it into sweet smelling fertile black-gold worm casting compost, and reproducing like crazy (lots of little babies) – all from the comfort of their plastic bin which feels like the essential heart of the Roman Rooftop Homestead, the highlight of each garden tour when the cardboard cover is removed to introduce them to curious humans.

On December 30th, 2010, ROOFTOP POTATO HARVEST…

a modest bounty of rooftop baby potatoes

…is the surprising legacy of the potato plants that were cut down by the one night of frost up on the roof last week – and as I am back in the happy business of gardening in the sun, moving dirt, emptying the pots of ill-fated wild transplants, moving salad starts into bigger flats, transplanting eager artichokes into more spacious accommodations, and optimistically planting even more fava bean stalks knowing full well they may come to naught – I come across the hidden golden treasures ready for a minestrone of verdure, farro e lenticchie.

On December 20th, 2010, BACK TO THE ROOFTOP…

Roman Rooftop Homestead at dusk

…for the Roman Rooftop Homestead plants – returning from their warm holiday retreat in my makeshift window greenhouse – now that this city has returned to it’s Mediterranean-climate senses with night time temperatures back above freezing.

On December 18th, 2010, A WARM GARDEN BUBBLE…

plant refugees from my Roman rooftop garden huddle up against heater and East window in their new bubble greenhouse

…has been created in my East studio window this morning, providing a new winter retreat for my rooftop plant refugees as sub-freezing temperatures arrive in Rome  evidenced by the ice forming in the Academy fountain out in the courtyard below….and hey, it just started to snow (which is only supposed to happen every 20 years?), now googling “warm winter beach yoga retreats.”


bottle gardening, before (left), 'cold-cover' arrangement with cover to keep the plants warm on cool nights (middle), and 'water-catchment' arrangement with bottom on top to collect water in hot dry weather (right)

…is a simple little system I have going on the Roman rooftop garden (also known as Edible Estate #9: Rome, Italy) which involves collecting unwanted empty containers (from American Academy residents, who also happen to write their names on their bottles when they leave them in the communal kitchens, which adds a really cute personal kindergarten-like detail to the garden) – and then (a) they are cut in half (b) the cap is placed inside the bottom of the neck to keep the soil in place (c) the ‘top’ half is then filled with soil and planted with seeds (d) the ‘bottom’ is then either used as a cold-cover or base to catch water depending on the weather.


Roman rooftop garden rainbow

…this morning is a welcome punctuation to endless days of November Roman rain.

On November 5th, 2010, LETTUCE IN CARTONS…

lettuce in silver-lined milk and juice cartons

…is beginning to pop up – obviously enjoying the alternating sunny and rainy weather we have been having – and creating brilliant contrasts between the raw wood crates containing the colorful graphic wrapped cartons with their shiny silver interiors holding the bright spring green shoots.


potato sack potatos

…is the cute, rustic, and homespun exception to my otherwise ‘trashy’ (in the best sense) garden of exclusively found, salvaged, and recycled goods with all of the plants growing in the random empty containers I have gathered around the Academy – but those potatoes are really looking classy.

On November 3rd, 2010, WORM COMPOSTING…

my bin of Roman red worms making compost

…also known as ‘vermicoltura’ around here, is going well up on the Roman rooftop and the little red worms are reproducing quickly, eating their daily kitchen scraps, turning it into fertile worm castings, and all the while smelling just great – ‘che bel profumo!’ we say as we stick our noses in – and their luxury accommodations and deliciously local fresh organic meals have inspired some to identify the bin as the Worm Academy in Rome with hand-picked squirmy fellows in residence for the year.


Roman rooftop homestead arrangement 3.0

…is at version 3.0 with small revisions every day, and now my worm compost bin is outside too, so the worms can get a little fresh air.


my Roman rooftop as the sun sets over the current garden plan

…this evening as I continue to figure out what form this rooftop homestead should take, though I suspect it will continue to change, evolve, and mutate through the year.

On October 17th, 2010, A ROMAN ROOFTOP HOMESTEAD…

the beginning of my Roman rooftop garden

…is what I’ll be gradually making for myself this year, including a kitchen garden, bat and bee estates, worm compost bins, laundry lines, a garden of plants for textile dyes, etc. – but only with materials, containers, seeds, plants, dirt that are found or scavenged – and here is a little preview…

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