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Angela Y.Y. Kong, Cynthia Rosenzweig and Joshua Arky

Employing rooftops for the cultivation of crops in limited urban space has garnered interest in densely populated cities in the United States, where there is a growing demand for locally sourced vegetable products. Fertility management recommendations for rooftop farming, however, are scant. With insufficient research on nutrient cycling within rooftop farming systems, which tend to use soilless substrates with low organic matter content, the potential tradeoffs between the negative impacts (e.g., nutrient runoff) and the benefits (e.g., increased locally produced vegetables, stormwater retention, etc.) associated with rooftop farms are unclear. The objective of this study was to evaluate the effects of organic and inorganic nitrogen (N) inputs on the N dynamics within substrate typically used on rooftop farms. Substrate without added N inputs (control) was compared with substrates receiving N sources that are both realistic for and/or reflective of amendments currently applied on urban rooftop farms: a synthetic fertilizer (Osmocote® 14N–4.2P–11.6K), and three organic N inputs—composted poultry manure, municipal green waste (MGW) compost, and vermicompost. Aboveground crop biomass and yields of Beta vulgaris (swiss chard), along with inorganic N availability (ammonium: and nitrate: ), potentially mineralizable nitrogen (PMN), leachate-inorganic N concentrations, and pH and electrical conductivity (EC) levels were measured during an 8-week greenhouse experiment. Despite differences in carbon-to-nitrogen ratios (C:N), few differences in N cycling and yields were found among the treatments receiving organic N inputs. Crop yields from the synthetic fertilizer and MGW compost treatments were higher than the other organic N input treatments. Inorganic N levels in the synthetic fertilizer treatment decreased from 129 mg N/L at the start of the season to 113 mg N/L at the end of the season, while nearly 10-fold decreases of inorganic N concentrations in the substrate of the control and organic N input treatments from week 0 (79.5–117.8 mg N/L) to week 8 (12.8–16.6 mg N/L) were observed. Greater N availability at critical periods during the season may have promoted greater crop N uptake efficiency and, therefore, higher yields in the system receiving synthetic fertilizer. However, the greatest losses of and via leachate were also measured from this treatment. Our results show that the type of N input influenced plant-available N and yields and that the MGW compost treatment best achieved the balance between higher yields and reduced N losses to potential roof runoff. Furthermore, additional N inputs to these systems, particularly to the treatments receiving organic composts, will likely be necessary if a high N-demanding crop (such as swiss chard) is to be grown in the same substrates for more than 8 weeks. Rooftop farming is an emergent component of urban agriculture; regulations and guidelines for nutrient management of rooftop farms are necessary to optimize productivity and long-term benefits and to minimize negative environmental impacts.