A New Trier High School student is hoping to change the way people get their food one rooftop at a time.
Maren Alexander started planting vegetables on the rooftop in Wilmette as part of a yearlong school project called Everything’s Connected.
“My action plan is to create a rooftop garden in Wilmette at the True Value Hardware store to encourage urban agriculture,” Alexander wrote on her blog.
Located on a small roof at 411 Linden Ave., Alexander hopes the environmentally friendly way of growing plants will educate the public about the possibilities of green roofs.
“Anybody can do it,” she said. “I’m 17 years old and I have four gardens, and I’m somehow doing it, so you can, too.”
This is the first time Alexander has tried growing plants on a rooftop. Her other gardens are located in traditional spaces like gardens and small plots of land at her family’s country house.
“There are so many roofs here in Wilmette. I drive down the street and I’m like ‘Wow, that would be a great space to have a rooftop garden and grow some vegetables,” she said.
Growing Food in Urban Environments
Jim Barkemeyer, owner of True Value Hardware, gave Alexander permission to grow vegetables on the roof because it was a unique idea and rare around Wilmette.
As a member of the Lake County Stormwater Management Commission, Barkemeyer says he had seen green roofs on buildings around Lake County but “this is smaller and different.”
“This is actual food as opposed to succulents that are there to absorb water,” Barkemeyer said.
Barkemeyer, Bannockburn Village President since 2007, says he especially appreciates that the New Trier student researched and carried out the project mostly by herself.
According to Alexander’s research, rooftop gardens help improve air quality, temperature and reduce agricultural runoff. What’s more rooftop gardens also reduces the miles food travels from its source.
There are 19 different vegetables growing on the rooftop garden, including onions, bell peppers, kale, cilantro, heirloom tomatoes, radishes and garlic.
Alexander started planting in early May and says each harvest provides enough vegetables that it could feed about two families. She plans to give some of the vegetables to Fuel, 1222 Washington Ct., where she currently works to support the restaurant’s goal of farm to table.
In 2011, Alexander says she was able to harvest the garden at her family’s country house about 25 times. Each harvest was able to provide meals for 12 people, she said.
“There’s something nice about getting real fresh grown tomatoes,” Barkemeyer said. “Nothing tastes like that when you buy at a grocery store and there’s something nice about going out into the yard and picking them. … It’s kind of nice because it connects you with the food.”
Challenges of a Rooftop Garden
The rooftop garden cost $300 to set up and the biggest challenge Alexander faced was learning how to build the planter boxes so they would be light enough for the roof.
She spent a week learning how to bolt the planter boxes so the wood would not split and then installed the three boxes in one night.
Each of the boxes is three-feet wide and four-feet long, with two of the boxes containing soil that’s two-feet deep so that carrots, tomatoes and onions could be grown.
The New Trier student had to carry everything up a ladder to install the planter boxes on the roof, and yes, that included carrying the soil and water.
At first, she left the buckets of water exposed in the sun and later learned to cover the buckets with plastic so water would not evaporate during the day.
Alexander says her current challenge is keeping the soil moist enough for the plants.
“I do have trouble holding water, that’s why I have to water every day,” Alexander said.
But watering daily is not necessarily a bad thing for her.
“One thing I really like about this place is the sense of community,” she said. “I see the same people everyday and I like that.”
Often people will drive by and ask Alexander what she’s working on and it gives her an opportunity to educate people on the benefits of rooftop gardening.
“In the long run if you are spending $150 at the grocery store because you want the organic vegetables or fruits, that’s half of a roof top garden right there so why not just pay it and you’ll have this for the whole summer,” she said.