#LifeatStewart / Duke’s Edible Roof Experiment

April 3rd / 2017

Duke's Edible Roof Experiment

By: Michael Batts, Manager of Landscape Architecture


The Global Food Economy

Did you know that the average American meal travels 1,500 miles before it lands on your dinner table? Do you ever stop to think about how far the green pepper you casually pick up from the grocery store has travelled to reach the produce basket? The amount of food that is transported by ship, plane, train and truck is astonishing. Not to mention the amount of environmental impacts the transportation systems have on our environment.

What if we stopped letting the idea of “farm to table” remain a niche, trendy construct? What if we each took a small role in reducing the amount of miles our food travels between farm and tables? What if we all took part in increasing the amount of localized food sources available to our communities?

The Garden in the Air

We were fortunate to be involved in a project at Duke University that tries to play a small role in localizing food sources. We worked closely with the faculty and staff of the Nicholas School of the Environment to develop an edible research roof. This roof was conceived as a scientific canvas for the students and faculty. Duke University’s only edible roof garden sits atop Environment Hall, the home of the Nicholas School of the Environment. We originally designed the green roof as a student-managed experimental garden. However, we visited the roof after 6 months of completing construction, and were shocked!!!

We found no one had taken ownership of actually managing the garden! Rampant weeds overwhelmed the garden and the future of the green roof was bleak. Luckily, two graduate students, Elissa Tikalsky and Alex Klonick, recognized the green roof as an opportunity to turn a student burden into a thriving asset. Recently we visited the garden to begin our post occupancy evaluation and we were blown away by what we found.

A Thriving Community

We found a community bursting with edibles, personal touches, and a palpable sense of care. Individual plots have been organized and personal touches resemble a curated backyard garden. The garden is a thriving community space bringing together graduate students, Ph.D students and faculty with one common goal. They are doing their part in localizing food production to reduce global environmental impacts of food transports, as evidenced by the carrots and peppers we plucked from the garden!

Communal Garden Management 

To manage the garden, the students have developed an organizational framework, GROW, to promote and foster a sense of teamwork for the on-going management of the garden. GROW stands for “GREEN ROOF AND ORCHARD WORKFORCE.” This grass-roots organization reminds me of a group of early pioneers laying stake to their land 60’ in the air.

They have created their own economy, with wooden coins called “Grow Dough.” Your time tending to the community garden earns you enough “Grow Dough” to purchase produce. They even created their own set of laws to manage their community, including those that dictate property ownership!

Thinking Towards the Future

The future of garden seems bright, and the purpose of the garden will eventually evolve. Students and faculty have discussed a research opportunity to learn more about how stormwater run-off from the PV panels affects soil composition and plant growth. As our farmland continues to give way to suburban growth pressures, we will need to continue investigating how to layer energy production above food production. Their research may give us new insights in moving this idea forward.

Our communities currently reside at a crossroads where population growth and reductions in agriculture lands are counter productive. We need to start asking ourselves if we are planning our new development growth to accommodate suburban and urban agriculture for our local populations. Or will we just wait until the lack of food sources becomes a crisis where our necessities MUST become our amenities? Are we ready for our golf course to turn into corn fields, or our roof tops to turn into gardens? Are we planning for this potential version of our future? We need to begin tackling these global issues at a local level and develop and understanding of how to integrate our necessities into our existing and future communities.

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