"What we hope to do is to plant a seed in the minds of the students, that supporting local farmers and local food is also good for the local economy."
URBANA — The smooth, dark purple eggplants are ready to be picked and made into eggplant parmesan or baba ghanoush. Bunches of basil have been clipped for pesto, and Janet Knesek is thinking the salsa and jalapeno peppers would be good stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon. She's got Sam Cooke turned up on the radio singing "Chain Gang."
It's a sunny and breezy day on the rooftop garden located between the two towers of Hendrick House in Urbana.
Unlike the traditional backyard vegetable garden, there are no rabbits nibbling on plants here. But there's the wind to contend with.
Green roofs, which have been installed mostly in the last decade atop skyscrapers in Chicago and Shanghai and locally at the iHotel and University of Illinois Business Instructional Facility, tend to feature sun-loving sedums, hardy ground cover in place of gravel or black tar roofs. The plants take in rainwater, helping to reduce runoff and keep buildings cool.
Initially, that was the vision for the inclusion of a green roof in a 2009 addition to the Hendrick House.
But while enjoying a salad in mid-July a few years ago, Diane McNattin, assistant manager of food service and catering director, and food service manager Sue Dawson looked down at the pink tomatoes and contrasted them with the red, bursting-with-flavor ones grown locally. That led them to connect with local farmers whom they recruited to grow tomatoes for the Hendrick House. The residence and dining hall not only feeds hundreds of UI students, but it also caters to university fraternities and sororities, several other private residence halls and some local companies.
The discussion — and dreams — grew from there.
Along with a half-acre plot on the South Farms, staff developed the third-floor-level rooftop garden.
There's plenty of sedum still growing on the surface and in boxes. But now there are garden beds (some made from recycled plastic, others with wood) in the roughly 300- to 400-square-foot space.
The boxes contain about six inches of topsoil, sphagnum moss, perlite and compost from Ewe Poo, the local purveyor of organic matter produced from sheep.
"It's not easy," said Knesek, the rooftop gardener for the house. She estimates they hauled about 1,200 to 2,000 pounds of compost to the third floor. (It's replenished annually.)
"It's definitely worth it," said McNattin. The house's focus on sustainability fits in with the Hendrick family's aim to reduce the building's impact on the environment. (The 2009 addition earned LEED gold certification.) "What we hope to do is to plant a seed in the minds of the students, that supporting local farmers and local food is also good for the local economy."
Knesek spends her morning cooking breakfast in the dining hall, then takes the elevator up to the third floor around 11:30 a.m. She'll work until around 1 p.m. trellising or trimming plants and harvesting herbs and vegetables after touching base with the kitchen staff.
The herbs include regular basil, spicy globe basil, marjoram and chocolate mint (used for tea).
"It's wonderful to be able to put on the menu 'pesto made from rooftop herbs.' You can't get any more local than that," McNattin said.
Produce includes bush cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes and lots of peppers, which love the sun and warmth. Knesek grows Biker Billy jalapenos, big dipper bell peppers, savina peppers, pinot peppers (which, as the name implies, are purple) and others. On display throughout the garden are "for show" flowers and plants such as sunflowers, colorful celosia and zebra grass.
Cherry tomato plants have done well in recent years, but this is the first year they're growing bigger tomatoes, such as beefsteaks, on the rooftop. They're slow-going this summer because of the cool nights and the challenges that come with growing the tall plants on the windy rooftop.
As the tomato plants grew, Knesek coached them along first with little stakes to help the small plants, then sturdier stakes. Now she has wire cages helping them stay upright. Under constant exposure to wind, tomato plants use their energy to keep upright, so they do not put as many blossoms and you can end up with leggy, leafy plants, McNattin said.
Any rainwater that drains from the beds and makes its way through the sedum and porous rubber tiles, is collected in the basement of the building in a cistern. It is then pumped back up to the garden and reused to water the plants.
During hot and dry summers, they have to water twice a day — once in the morning and again in the evening. During especially dry spell spells, staff can supplement with city water.
"It drains wonderfully. The plants love it, the flowers love it. The eggplants especially love growing in raised beds," Knesek said.