A 700-sq.ft. garden sitting on a side rooftop near the On the Oval dining court on the campus of North Carolina State University represents the school dining department’s latest move to provide the freshest and healthiest ingredients for its menus and to demonstrate its commitment to sustainability.
The garden, which was launched on Earth Day back in April, currently yields only a modicum of product for the four restaurants in the nearby On the Oval dining center. For example, the garden provided the jalapenos for a recently menued fish taco dish.
The garden grows a variety of crops, from tomatoes and peppers to various lettuces, broccoli, beets and herbs. The North Carolina weather allows an extended growing season.
“We can get two cycles of tomatoes and pepper,” says Keith Smith, director of board operations and sustainability. “We can also start our root vegetables earlier so we can get things like sweet potatoes by December.”
“We started it as a way to get our cooks more involved in supporting local product,” says Adam Smith (no relation), a chef with the On the Oval restaurants. “It gives them a better appreciation for the food they are preparing. It also helps in team building and overall morale, something to get the day started.”
The culinary staff takes turns tending the garden. Expert advice is not far away, with NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences department close at hand. The dining department has worked closely with Dr. Jeana Myers of that department who is an expert horticulturist. Also available to give advice are area farmers from whom NC State Dining purchases a growing proportion of its ingredients.
That’s all part of a larger sustainability emphasis that has also seen NC State Dining compost all its waste food products through an outside contractor that is owned by a pair of graduates. Last year 372 tons of compost were produced through this partnership, with some of it returned to campus to be used in landscaping and on the fields operated by the Ag/Life Sciences Dept.
That compost isn’t currently used in the rooftop garden due to local health codes, but the space is still ecologically pristine. The containers in which the plants grow are old bus tubs and buckets, and the watering technique uses a sophisticated semi-hydroponic system that requires 70% less water than traditional systems, in part by recycling rain water.
The space where the garden now sits was an unused patio area conveniently located from On the Oval. Also adjacent are some student residences whose occupants are given access to the garden. In fact, they are free to pick vegetables for their own use if they wish.
The current garden is only a beginning, says Keith Smith. Future plans call for the purchase of a larger space that can grow more crops and be used to teach sustainable farming techniques.