Educational opportunities abound on rooftop garden

By Amy Weaver

The garden on the rooftop of the Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center does more than provide food and adornments for guests of its signature restaurant, 1856 – Culinary Residence, The Laurel Hotel & Spa and Ariccia Cucina Italiana.

In fact, the 4,400-square-foot garden on the Walt and Ginger Woltosz Rooftop Terrace, named through a generous gift from the couple, is a collaborative work space for the College of Human Sciences’ Horst Schulze School of Hospitality Management and the College of Agriculture’s Department of Horticulture, as well as Ithaka Hospitality Partners.

And that is likely just the beginning.

“We are always looking to collaborate with other programs on campus,” said Susan Hubbard, dean of the College of Human Sciences. “The College of Agriculture brings the expertise needed to support this aspect of the roof-to-table concept, elevating the academic experience for students in both horticulture and hospitality management. We see this as the beginning of integrating more programs within human sciences and across campus.”

Jack Maruna, a 2018 agriculture graduate and consulting project manager for horticulture, agrees that the garden poses a number of opportunities for future collaboration.

“We are already talking about mental health benefits of being in a garden and how to involve psychology,” he explained. “We have partners in entomology that can do research on the difference in pest pressure between traditional and urban agriculture. Our friends at the bee lab will be able to study the impact of a rooftop garden on our local pollinators. Biosystems engineering students that are employed and working on the rooftop can help with irrigation systems and future projects.

“There is a lot of potential moving forward.”

Desmond Layne, professor and head of the Department of Horticulture, only sees a bright future. He said land-grant universities like Auburn have been pioneers in testing and developing new concepts and providing research-based agricultural solutions for decades.

“Urban and rooftop ‘farming’ is a new frontier, and Auburn is on the forefront,” he said. “My hope is that we will write the first textbook, host the first national conference, and be the ‘go-to’ place for others to learn. This relationship with the College of Human Sciences is special, and one that we intend to grow in the future.”

Starting from seed

The initial collaboration between human sciences and agriculture started about a year ago when Paul Patterson, dean of the College of Agriculture, and Layne were invited to meet with Hubbard; Martin O’Neill, head of the Horst Schulze School of Hospitality Management; and Hans van der Reijden, founder and CEO of Ithaka Hospitality Partners, the hospitality management company behind The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center and the Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center.

“It was always our intention to engage with the College of Agriculture on this initiative, and we were delighted when the proposal was received as enthusiastically as it was. Dean Patterson and Dr. Layne saw the potential immediately and responded in excellent fashion,” said O’Neill “Further, it represents a perfect multidisciplinary union between both educational units on the farm-to-table concept, a union that will benefit students and the community.”

The arrangement was for the two colleges to develop and manage a garden on the roof of the Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center, which, at the time, was under construction. The garden’s produce would be used six floors below in the cutting-edge culinary laboratories and in 1856 – Culinary Residence, the center’s teaching restaurant.

“How many aspiring chefs at other schools are going to know that experience, are going to know about the growing process?” asked O’Neill. “There are few schools that have that type of engagement, let alone a rooftop garden that serves an entire building. It’s inspiring to me, to be honest.”

Van der Reijden said the restaurant itself is a first-of-its-kind facility anywhere in the world because of its concept: An a la carte menu for lunch and a tasting menu for dinner, which is seven to nine courses.

The menu is currently controlled by Chef Tyler Lyne, co-owner of Tasting TBL in Birmingham and the center’s first chef-in-residence. Lyne said the chef-in-residence program puts “real-world professionals in a teaching environment,” which doesn’t happen elsewhere.

“Consider what we’re doing in this kitchen: providing students the opportunity to interact with Michelin-trained or James Beard-nominated chefs that are nationally and internationally known. That’s the kind of high-impact learning experiences that we offer,” said O’Neill.

Van der Reijden called the rooftop garden an asset because it gives new meaning to “locally sourced.” As farm-to-table or farm-to-fork concepts are popular across the country, Auburn has created a “rooftop-to-fork” concept, and “it’s only an elevator ride away.”

Being able to literally pick food at its height, at its freshest, and then ride an elevator down 120 feet, to provide the best flavor to guests of 1856 – Culinary Residence is truly unique. The teaching facility features 46 seats in the restaurant, a private dining room for 12 and six seats at the bar.

Experiential learning

At the core of this collaboration is an experiential learning opportunity for Auburn students.

Maruna put it simply: “This rooftop gives us the opportunity to show our students all that it takes to get food from the ground to someone’s plate.”

He and two horticulture master’s students visit the garden a couple of times a day, seven days a week. The graduate students conduct their own research on the roof and supervise undergraduate students, who help maintain the garden.

Mackenzie Pennington is one of the master’s students under Daniel Wells, associate professor of horticulture. Her thesis is on the rooftop garden, trialing different fertilizer methods.

An environmental scientist at heart, Pennington was attracted to the project because it combined her interest in agriculture and sustainable food production.

“With the collaboration, I hope I will be able to understand the needs of chefs and accommodate them more accurately to eliminate so much food waste,” she explained.

Maggie Mayfield, a senior in the hospitality management program with a focus on culinary science, is in the Food and Beverage Management course, which includes working different roles in 1856 – Culinary Residence. She said they are purposely taught that certain ingredients came from the rooftop garden.

This experience has not only enhanced her education, but she’s been able to share her knowledge with guests of 1856 – Culinary Residence. A mutually beneficial relationship between horticulture and hospitality can only get better from here.

“As a culinary student, I believe it would be highly beneficial to interact with the horticulture students and spend time in the gardens, learning about seed to table,” she said. “A well-rounded understanding of the foods being grown on the rooftop and how they are used on the various dishes in the restaurant will expand our knowledge and enhance our guests’ experience.

“Knowing the differences between mustard frills and the kale used from the rooftop will help our guests be fully immersed in the experience. There are very few restaurants that use fresh, locally grown produce and who take the time to share where ingredients came from and the enhancement of the food’s nutrients due to the growing process.”

Wells sees the collaboration as ideal since both horticulture and culinary sciences are hands-on disciplines. He called it a “world-class experience” for horticulture students to work in the rooftop garden.

“Their daily experiences range from ‘pure’ horticulture like planting, pruning, staking, fertilizing, watering, scouting, et cetera, to other critically important experiences, like developing communication and teamwork skills and troubleshooting unique problems,” he said.

Wells, who teaches vertical farming and is leading operations for vertical farms on campus, said one of his favorite aspects of this project is “the uniqueness of gardening on top of the tallest building in Auburn. Our students are learning that unique challenges require unique solutions and adaptations.

“We, as faculty and staff, are learning alongside our students, and that is also impactful. This project is less of a top-down, designed curriculum and more of a mutual learning experience for faculty and students.”

There is potential for cross-training of disciplines in the future, but for now, Wells and Pennington said the horticulture students learn about the culinary sciences when hospitality management classes visit the roof.

“I show them how to harvest certain plants and tell them what we have available,” said Pennington. “There have been a few times where we discussed their lab assignment, and I was able to assist them on items we had for plate presentations. They are very creative.

“There are often herbs and items we have grown that I have never heard of, but I get to see how they use it and learn how to grow something new. It is a unique collaboration in many ways because chefs and farmers do not typically have interaction. I am able to accommodate them more, and they are able to teach me what they are looking for in a specific plant.”

Horticulture students learn about culinary arts when they visit a kitchen on the first floor and see how the plants are prepared. The collaboration opportunities seem endless.

“I would love to learn more about the flavors of vegetables and herbs,” admitted Pennington. “What makes vegetables taste better on our end of the production? What parts have the most flavor? Could I do something to enhance the flavor?”

Guests of 1856 – Culinary Residence are specifically told certain ingredients in their dinner were harvested from the roof. Wells said it is just as important for the horticulture students to know their products are being used in Auburn kitchens, “to see the entire local food system from seed to plate.”

“This is an opportunity for horticulture students to take what they have learned in the classroom and apply it in a high-visibility, challenging environment in a one-of-a-kind experience,” said Layne.

Maruna, who admitted he had difficulty learning in a classroom setting, appreciated the garden as a practical application of classroom knowledge.

“Obviously, learning in the classroom setting is important, but there is something very special about giving our students the opportunity to have hands-on experiences on the rooftop,” he said. “Underneath the umbrella of urban agriculture, our students participate in irrigation, pest management, garden design, nutrient management and greenhouse-growing practices.

“The cool thing about the rooftop is that, although it is very different from traditional agriculture, our students will be able to take what they have learned up there and apply it to lots of different fields in the industry upon graduation.”

And if all that isn’t special enough, the collaboration could be the first of its kind of any land-grant university in the country.

“I am not aware of any other university doing exactly what we are doing,” said Layne. “Many universities or colleges have food-related programs, like a student-run farm. But we link several elements together intentionally, and the partnership with horticulture, Campus Dining, culinary sciences and hospitality is pretty comprehensive.”

Growing a garden

The plants in the rooftop garden came from Bonnie Plants LLC in Opelika, which made a generous donation to the project, were purchased from local nurseries, or were started from seeds in campus greenhouses and transplanted to the roof.

“The garden looks more developed this way, as opposed to simply planting seeds and waiting for them to germinate like in a home garden,” explained Layne.

The 4,400-square-foot garden is comprised of sections, and each section is a raised bed—much like the type used for home or community gardens—but these raised beds have sidewalls of concrete, rather than wooden planks.

Beds were filled about three feet deep with a rooftop growing media substrate, like soil, in which the plants can grow. Since the space is a rooftop—unlike other raised beds—the drainage system was designed to take water out and away from the building.

Horticulture faculty and staff made specific choices when it came to the ornamental and food plants featured in the garden. All fruits, vegetables and herbs are edible, while other plants have edible parts. While some flowers can be used in cooking, they are more likely to become fresh decorations on the tables in 1856 – Culinary Residence and Ariccia and in the guest rooms of The Laurel Hotel & Spa. They might even be a garnish for a cocktail.

Layne and Maruna said communication with Lyne and the kitchen staff in 1856 – Culinary Residence and Chef Leonardo Maurelli and the kitchen staff at Ariccia has been constant, as the chefs have made requests for certain plants.

“The regular communication helps to make sure that we know their needs in advance, and we keep them up to date on what is going to be ready so they can plan to use particular items on the menus,” said Layne.

Communication was crucial when the types of plants available changed from the summer crops to cool-season varieties. For example, zinnias have been replaced with pansies; peppers were replaced with kale and broccoli.

While a home garden would typically be turned over at this time of year and be replanted in the spring, the rooftop garden doesn’t have that option.

“One of our biggest challenges is the fact that the rooftop needs to be beautiful first and productive second,” said Maruna.

Many challenges

Standing higher than all buildings in Auburn, the view from the Rane Culinary Science Center rooftop is simply spectacular. The well-kept garden, with a variety of flowers and plants, adds so much to beautify the surroundings. And yet, the rooftop location continually poses a number of challenges, albeit learning opportunities for faculty and students.

Maruna admitted to being grateful they had a period to spend in the garden before the Rane Culinary Science Center officially opened in early fall. That time was spent in trial and error. Some plants flourished, and those that didn’t were replaced.

“We struggled through the summer with certain crops. Even varieties of tomatoes that were made to withstand heat didn’t thrive on the roof,” he said. “The combination of wind, sun and intense summer storms made it difficult to grow fruiting crops. We were very successful with bell peppers and certain varieties of squash.

“We now have a better idea of what we are going to do for next summer though.”

The time also allowed the horticulture team to trial four different irrigation systems before they found the right one. And yet, that didn’t solve everything. Maruna said not all plants needed to be irrigated the same amount, so some plants received hand watering, and others received more fertilizer than the rest.

The garden itself, or more specifically, the substrate and its three-foot depth, posed its own test.

“We were challenged to figure out how to water the plants, given the depth of the growing medium and how it holds water relative to normal soil,” explained Layne. “The substrate tends to drain faster and dry more quickly. We found we needed to use pine straw on top to reduce evaporative water loss and irrigate more frequently because it doesn’t hold the water really well.”

The weather alone was a major challenge. Alabama is notorious for having summer days of intense sunshine, high humidity and oppressive temperatures without much rainfall.

The lack of rainfall this summer was a challenge in of itself but getting water to a rooftop was an extra test.

“We’re 120 feet up in the air. We’re higher than all the water towers around here, so water had to be pumped up to us,” Maruna said.

The rooftop is surrounded by waist-high glass walls, but it doesn’t stop the wind from blowing through, sometimes with much intensity. And pop-up storms may provide a short reprieve from the heat on the ground, but on the roof, they can wreak havoc.

“We get pop-up storms in Alabama within a few minutes, and it’s much more intense up here than it is on the ground,” Maruna said. “Multiple times we came up here after a pop-up storm and were disappointed by the damage that it did. But we always have to be ready with off-site plans so that if something like that happens, we’re able to replace it almost immediately.”

Maruna called it a balancing act between the full sun and wind of the summer and cooler, sometimes freezing temperatures in the winter. Luckily, Alabama winters tend to be mild.

Future growth

When dealing with a garden, growth is inevitable. Besides the obvious, growth in this rooftop garden means more collaboration.

The garden project solidified the College of Human Sciences’ role in Food U at Auburn, a concept Wells describes as a means to provide fresh produce from ongoing research and teaching projects, and to provide extension and outreach to the community.

Food U is best known on campus for its partnership with Campus Dining.

The collaboration started with the College of Agriculture using aquaponics to supply Campus Dining with fresh fish and greenhouse-grown vegetables, such as tomatoes and cucumbers. Last year, Campus Dining purchased two Freight Farms vertical farm shipping containers that horticulture is using to produce fresh greens for dining.

In the near future, a new 16-acre Transformation Garden will have a plot designated for Campus Dining. Two acres of the garden will be used to establish a Children’s Garden and Pollinator Garden, thanks to a $1.2 million gift from the Bonnie Plants Foundation.

The Transformation Garden, which is under construction between Lem Morrison Drive and Woodfield Drive, will serve as teaching and outreach space for the College of Agriculture. Students will be able to utilize the space to gain hands-on experience with the latest industry practices, and research faculty will be able to tackle key challenges.

In the meantime, the rooftop garden is a part of Food U, and Wells couldn’t be more pleased.

“It allows us to operate research and teaching trials at scales larger than typically possible, which helps us gain a better understanding of the local food system through more reliable data and provides hands-on learning opportunities for more students than typically possible,” he said. “Campus Dining and our Auburn community benefit from the incredibly fresh, healthful vegetables grown in these projects.”

Additionally, working with the College of Human Sciences and the staff in 1856 – Culinary Residence and The Laurel Hotel & Spa is a fruitful arrangement.

“By operating the rooftop garden, we provide our students in horticulture with an experience like no other, and our partners at the restaurant and hotel enjoy fresh produce and cut flowers from a hyper-local producer,” said Wells. “This is the first project under the Food U umbrella that has allowed a direct partnership with the private sector, which is exciting and a great learning opportunity for all of us.”

Wells only sees growth from here.

“While we have made great strides in understanding the production side of the local food system, especially from an urban horticulture perspective, we have much to learn about other areas,” he said. “Food insecurity, for one, is being addressed through various groups on campus like Campus Food Pantry and Campus Kitchens, and I’m hopeful that we can be more involved with that in the future.”

The College of Human Sciences is an ideal partner for such an endeavor. It has been fighting food insecurity at home and abroad since 2004 when the college joined the United Nations’ World Food Programme, or WFP, as its lead academic partner in a newly launched War on Hunger student campaign.

Although the campaign began in the College of Human Sciences, it quickly expanded to all parts of campus. In 2006, the WFP partnership led to the launch of Universities Fighting World Hunger, or UFWH, which currently boasts nearly 300 UFWH chapters at colleges and universities around the world.

In 2012, the college and the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station established the Hunger Solutions Institute. HSI operates UFWH, as well as End Child Hunger in Alabama, a movement to address child food insecurity in the state, and Presidents United to Solve Hunger, which holds higher education leadership to a commitment to promote hunger studies and activism on their campuses.

“In the College of Human Sciences, we know collaboration is key to our mission of improving quality of life and changing the world,” said Hubbard. “It starts with the basics, and that includes addressing food insecurity. The Hunger Solutions Institute has been on the front lines of the war on hunger for a decade. Through research and outreach, HSI has discovered hunger is a solvable problem when we work together to end it.

“The roof-to-table concept and the integrated lessons for both hospitality management and horticulture students is one more step in raising awareness of food insecurity and finding life-saving solutions.”

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