Since planting the rooftop garden at the Kansas Union at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, five years ago, Janna Traver, executive chef, says it’s kind of been a hidden gem on campus. Not anymore. The garden has been so successful that the department recently expanded the project, at a cost of about $600, to fill seven barrels, 14 irrigating earth boxes, 22 five-gallon buckets and three pots.
“Our customers are very impressed that we have herbs and tomatoes literally traveling only three floors,” Traver says. “The yields over the last few years have been restricted by the size of the garden and weather conditions, so overall savings from growing our own product have not been huge. The bigger impact was on our sustainability efforts like reducing waste.”
Traver says it was the sustainability aspect that first inspired creating the garden. She says many of the specialty herbs, Thai basil, for example, are available to the department only in small amounts or by special order, so having the ability to harvest only what the department needs for the day decreases waste. The garden also allows the department to secure herbs that it cannot source through certified local growers.
“By keeping our garden secure and limiting staff access, we can ensure that our product is wholesome,” Traver says. “We also avoid purchases from the big box stores.”
Ultimately, Traver says, the goal of the garden is to pay for itself. Since its first year, the department has spent about $800 in soil (900 pounds), containers, plants and equipment. “When we average the cost of herbs that we would buy from our prime vendor, our yearly savings are a bit over $450,” Traver says. “The current expansion cost us an additional $800, again in soil, containers and plants. This year we have already harvested close to seven pounds in herbs. We had some volunteer plants, chives primarily, that have established themselves enough to live through a Kansas winter. The additional plants also require trimming to maximize yield throughout the growing season. The sheer volume of basil pruning alone was more than two pounds.”
Traver says the department manages the needs of the garden with the rest of the department’s responsibilities by using a rotation of kitchen staff who water the garden on a daily basis.