By Taylor Edwards and Kristen Bowman
What do you get when you combine horticulture and artistry? Take a stroll through the 4,400-square-foot garden atop the Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center, and you have your answer.
Two particularly special minds are responsible for not only the physical success of the garden but the appeal as well. Artistic inspiration and science-based hard work are the dichotomy brought to the project by Beth Clendenen and Josh Weaver when approached to assist in the development of the rooftop garden.
“I’ve always been really interested in combining color and textures, adding herbaceous things and not just the woodies,” said Clendenen, who is an academic program administrator in the Department of Horticulture and described by coworkers as a “horticultural artist.”
“I love putting it all together and making it more visually appealing and more my style, which is that informal, cottage garden style that lends itself well to this garden,” she said.
Clendenen worked with Weaver, a lecturer in the department, on the original design of the garden. They were tasked with bringing to life the vision of Hans van der Reijden, founder and CEO of Ithaka Hospitality Partners, which manages the Rane Center and the nearby Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center.
“We were given the idea that Hans wanted it to be completely ornamental but also culinary, meaning everything up there had to be edible,” Clendenen said. “Besides the vegetables, we had to have herbs and herbaceous plant material as well as flowering plant material. We decided the big area would be for veggies, the area with direct sun would be the Mediterranean bed, the area around the gazebo looking over Samford is edible ornamentals, and between the buildings is the tea and cocktail bed where herbs are grown.”
The pair presented their plans to van der Reijden and his team in March 2022, according to Weaver.
“Then Beth started sourcing plants and seeds,” he said. “We would bounce ideas off one another about the layout of the plants once they arrived for planting.”
Working alongside Associate Professor Daniel Wells and Project Manager Jack Maruna, their vision came to life.
Clendenen got started in horticulture as an undergraduate at Auburn. She started as a psychology major but got a job with landscape services as a “flower girl.” At the time, there were more ornamental beds on campus, and the responsibilities of the girls were to design, plant and do upkeep on these beds.
The job gave her a creative outlet while pursuing her degree and allowed her to develop passions that continue to influence design choices in her work.
“I’ve always been kind of artistic, but I couldn’t draw or paint the way I wanted it to look,” Clendenen said. “When I got into flowers, I realized they already had the perfect colors and textures, and you can put it together in all different ways to create art.”
She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in horticulture and was invited to stay for her master’s. She started teaching labs, which allowed her to see others’ design abilities and help them build their craft with the same guidance she received as an undergraduate.
“When I was about to graduate with my masters, the lady who taught the herbaceous ornamentals took another job and I was the only one who knew the class and was one of the only ones in the department specializing in herbaceous ornamentals,” Clendenen said. “I had worked for a place in town called Village Arbors Rare Herbs and Perennials — it was awesome — and that’s when I got into herbs and all the different ones that aren’t as common. So, they hired me temporary to stay and teach labs and, eventually, I was hired departmentally.”
Meanwhile, Weaver’s background made him the perfect complement to Clendenen in planning the rooftop garden.
“My background is a mixed bag,” he quipped. “I was in the landscape design and lawn maintenance business for 10 years. While I was doing this, I was attending Columbus Technical College in Columbus, Georgia, in the associate degree Environmental Horticulture Program. In 2009, I went to work for Costa Farms as a territory manager.”
In 2011, Weaver moved to Georgia to work for the Department of Agriculture as an agriculture inspector, covering the southwest portion of Georgia. In this role he enforced seed, feed, fertilizer and pesticides laws.
“In 2013, I moved to South Carolina and went to work for the Clemson University Department of Pesticide Regulation,” said Weaver. “While I was at Clemson, I obtained my M.S. in plant and environmental sciences and my Ph.D. in plant and environmental science.”
It isn’t easy caring for plants on a rooftop, let alone plants you hope to keep attractive and food-grade year-round.
Clendenen turned to alumni of the college for help.
“Some of those things growing up there are heirloom or old-fashioned,” she explained. “We had to get things specially because you can’t just get what we envisioned regularly. Fortunately, we have the advantage of some really amazing alumni. The Potting Shed here in Auburn is run by Heath Davis, who is a former student of ours, so I work with him. He gets things from Wrights Growers; Davy Wright was a student of mine. Ball Seed sends us seeds and plugs, and our rep there is a former student.”
Weaver’s focus has been on proper harvesting of the produce on the rooftop.
“Stuff grown on the roof is harvested and used in the restaurant below, 1856, but we don’t want to over harvest the roof so that it always looks great,” he explained. “I teach HORT 4250, and this is a hands-on gardening class. So we have students plant and maintain the beds in the class, which was perfect for the students and for Rane.”
Maruna and his team had their work cut out for them, ensuring adequate irrigation would reach every bed on the roof, managing plants exposed completely to all elements, and keeping the garden looking well for visitors through fall and winter.
“It has had its challenges,” Weaver admitted, “but anything worthwhile should have its challenges.”
Weaver and Clendenen agreed the rooftop garden is a project unlike any other.
“I think the rooftop garden is one of the best things I have been a part of thus far in my career,” Weaver said. “It is the first time that any of us have worked on a rooftop, and it has been rewarding for me to see the student involvement. At the end of the day that’s what this is all about to me.
“Through our partnership with the Rane Culinary Science Center, Hans and his team, we have created a new classroom that allows our students, hospitality students and patrons to see the beauty that plants have. It is my hope that, as new buildings are built in the Auburn and surrounding areas, installing a rooftop garden will be considered and the one at Rane will be used as a model.”