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Rooftop Garden Takes Urban Agriculture to Another Level

University, Mill City Grows Partner on Green Roof Garden at University Crossing

A student walks past the rooftop garden at University Crossing Photo by Ed Brennen
A student walks past the new Green Roof vegetable garden at University Crossing.

04/29/2019
By Ed Brennen

Of all the places on campus you’d expect to find a garden brimming with kale, Swiss chard and collard greens, the second floor of University Crossing probably isn’t one.

But thanks to a collaboration between the university and Lowell-based urban farming nonprofit Mill City Grows, there’s a new rooftop vegetable garden outside the windows of the busy second-floor landing at the student and administrative center.

“It’s such a wonderful use of this space. I love it,” said Senior Vice Chancellor for Finance, Operations and Strategic Planning Joanne Yestramski, admiring the freshly planted crops through the floor-to-ceiling windows during the university’s Earth Day celebration. “It shows our commitment to sustainability right here, front and center, in one of the busiest places on campus.”

The primary purpose of the rooftop garden, according to Director of Sustainability Ruairi O’Mahony, is to educate passersby about the university’s Urban Agriculture Program. A wall sign provides details about the “Green Roof” garden and other urban agriculture sites around campus. Producing fresh, leafy vegetables for the university community is an added bonus. 
Macayla Cote of Mill City Grows plants a crop at the rooftop garden Photo by Ed Brennen
Macayla Cote of Mill City Grows helps transfer vegetables to growing containers at the new Green Roof garden at University Crossing.

“It helps tell the story about our program and shows people what the campus is about,” says O’Mahony, who notes that the project highlights the important campus-community connection.

The Office of Sustainability and Mill City Grows, working in collaboration with the Student Government Association, designed the 500-square-foot space, which is tucked between a conference room and elevator bay on the south-facing side of the building, overlooking Salem Street.

The modular garden consists of about 180 plants growing in individual milk crates filled with nutrient-rich compost. The compost, which originated from the university’s dining halls, was developed and donated by Casella Organics. The garden is watered by an efficient, on-demand smart drip irrigation system that adjusts to local weather data.

“I’m excited to see how much yield we get in a small space,” says Mill City Grows co-founder and UML alum Lydia Sisson ’12, whose organization will oversee the day-to-day operations of the garden and harvest the produce several times a week. Most of the produce will be made available to the community through Mill City Grows’ Mobile Market.

Mill City Grows manages nearly a dozen community gardens and urban farms around the city, including two others in partnership with UML, the Urban Agriculture Greenhouse on East Campus and the community garden on Dane Street. This is their first rooftop garden.
Student Akbar Abduljalil helps plant the rooftop garden Photo by Ed Brennen
Student Society for Sustainability President Akbar Abduljalil helps transplant crops at the new Green Roof garden at University Crossing.

“We’ve visited a lot of rooftop farms, but this is our first rooftop experiment. It’s going to be fun,” says Sisson, who notes that there are several advantages to the elevated location. “You get the heat from below, which is good, and it will definitely get a lot of sunlight. There should also be a lot less pests. But we’ll have to be careful with the wind.”

The space is one of three green roofs originally installed on the second floor of University Crossing when the building opened in 2014 (the others still exist over the main entrance and on the Merrimack Street side of the building). Designed to mitigate stormwater runoff and provide a layer of insulation to enhance the building’s energy performance in summer months, the green roofs consist of a thick carpet of sedum, a hardy perennial that holds water well.

O’Mahony says the vegetable garden will make the space even more eye-catching. 

“They’re the type of crops that come up like a fountain,” he says. “It’s going to be a beautiful visual.”

Sean Cloran, who completed his biology degree last fall and is now doing an internship with the Office of Sustainability, helped O’Mahony prepare the area for the new garden.   

“Hopefully it inspires people to check out the greenhouse and community garden,” Cloran says. “I think it’s going to help break down the barrier between where food comes from and where people think food comes from.”