Given the long winter months and the grandeur of its architecture, St Petersburg doesn’t exactly make you think “roof garden territory”. But 60-year-old Alla Sokol has been growing tomatoes, carrots, beetroot, melons, cress, parsley and much more on the roof of the nine-storey building in which she lives in south-west St Petersburg since the early Nineties — way before urban roof gardens became de rigeur in either London or New York. “From the very beginning I just thought it was a very healthy idea,” says Sokol.
Over the years, the garden has provided sustenance for the building’s inhabitants, along with a space for botanical experiments and a place to gather and socialise. While many Russian city dwellers have dachas - second homes in the countryside with a plot of land to grow fruit and vegetables on - the roof garden offers up a space for those less privileged.
When I visit, the 450-square-metre roof is bordered by budding pine trees and dotted with circular containers of flowers, blackberries and gooseberry bushes. There are two greenhouses that supply salad leaves from April to September. Vermicomposting, the use of worms to turn decomposing waste food into nutrient-rich organic fertiliser, adds a further level of sustainability to the initiative.
Sokol set up her roof garden in 1993 with a little financial help from the now-defunct Centre for Citizen Initiatives, a US organisation which at the time was looking to teach people in the post-Soviet country how to live sustainably following decades of food shortages. “Once we had a visit from our American sponsors who came to see what we had done,” says Sokol. “There were two posh ladies with very businesslike husbands. ‘Would you be able to supply the whole block with salads?’ one of the men asked. ‘No, not in this climate,’ I said. ‘Not unless we had a good greenhouse.’ Later that day he sent a driver round with $600 in an envelope. After that the project really took off.”
The neighbourhood in which Sokol lives is typical of those built in St Petersburg in the Sixties. Once sparse, these areas are now dominated by shopping malls and supermarkets. Increasing urbanisation has also led to overcrowding. Against this backdrop, Sokol’s roof garden offers more than just food — it offers a haven from the hubbub of the city centre.
"Just think about it: if you have green roof instead of a black one, your house is producing something. It also means you have a hobby or an idea for a business"
Despite the obvious benefits, of the 287 families that live in the building only around half have signed up to receive produce from the garden, and only a handful help out. Things used to be worse. When Sokol first mooted the idea for the roof garden, residents were less than thrilled. Some suspected her of wanting to profit from the garden while others were concerned about the impact it would have on the roof. After a prolonged campaign, she finally managed to convince the housing committee for approval.
Before earning her green-fingered credentials, Sokol worked as an engineer specialising in shipbuilding until her retirement in 1992. She heard about the gardening initiative on the radio and jumped at the chance to get involved. In the 20 years that have followed, Sokol, some of her neighbours and their friends have set up an irrigation system, learnt the ins and out of sustainable gardening and experimented with new varieties of flowers, fruits and vegetables. Given the climate, that usually means hardy plants that thrive at low temperatures. Sokol though is always on the look out for new innovations about which types of soil to use or greenery to grow, looking towards cities beyond the Arctic Circle such as Norilsk and Murmansk for tips.
The success of Sokol’s roof garden resulted in further funding from the Centre for Citizen Initiatives for similar projects. Many of these have since foundered however. One was at the Ameliorative Institute for the Study of Hydrotechnics (now a cafe) and another was at Kresty Prison. For a brief period, inmates were permitted to grow vegetables and herbs until a change in management led to the garden’s closure. Today, Sokol’s garden is the only successful one still standing. The story is much the same in Moscow.
“It all depends on the leaders and whether they are ready to take responsibility,” says Sokol. “Sociologists say that if 10% of any social group are activists, then that’s enough to bring about change. Another 10% will follow and another 10% after that … Just think about it: if you have green roof instead of a black one, your house is producing something. It also means you have a hobby or an idea for a business. The main thing is for there to be someone who is ready to take things through to the end and deal with problems on a daily basis.”