This story is Part 3 of a seven-part series, U of T Engineering in the City, running throughout fall 2015.
Every Tuesday through the late summer and early fall, a team of volunteers ascends to the roof of the Galbraith Building on U of T’s St. George Campus. They are there to pick corn, beans, squash, peppers, collard greens, Swiss chard, broccoli, tomatoes and more, typically gathering more than 20 kg of food each week. Some of the food is taken home for dinner, but most of it is donated to places like the Scott Mission and the University of Toronto Student Union Food and Clothing Bank.
For the last five years, the University of Toronto’s civil engineering department has been home to the Sky Garden, which this year notched up its most productive harvest to date, generating more than 225 kilograms of vegetables for the surrounding community.
The garden had its genesis in 2009, when alumna Heather Wray (CivE PhD 1T4) and her school mates Sarah Wilson (CivE MASc 1T1) and Kyla Smith (CivE MASc 1T2) decided to take their interest in urban gardening to the next level. “The department and university were very supportive of the project,” says Wray. Their first garden was essentially a bunch of nursery pots placed on the roof. “The initial goal was really just to see how much food we could grow on an urban rooftop,” says Wray.
As it turns out, the conditions were ideal. Some plants — like tomatoes and peppers — benefit from the extra heat and sunshine found on an exposed rooftop. Additionally, insect predators may find it harder to get to plants that are so far from ground level. The results from that first growing season were strong enough to win a grant from the City of Toronto’s Livegreen Toronto program, which funded a shift from pots to a semi-hydroponic system.
“We have about 100 trough-style containers with an insert that holds vermiculite and a thin layer of soil over a water reservoir,” says Matt Stata, a PhD student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology who joined the team as an undergraduate in 2010. “All of the containers are connected to one another, so some if some plants use more water than others it will all balance out.” A drip irrigation system automatically adds fertilizer and adjusts for changes in temperature and sunlight.
Over the years, the team has grown practically any vegetable that the climate allows. One of Stata’s personal favourites is bhut jolokia, also known as the ghost pepper, which for a while held the record for the hottest variety of pepper in the world. “I like hot peppers, and some of the volunteers who were feeling brave wanted to try it out,” he says with a chuckle.
The Sky Garden also includes a beehive, which was set up by amateur apiarist Catherine Phillips-Smith (ChemE MASc 1T5). Colin Anderson, a communications and student programs coordinator with the Department of Civil Engineering, now looks after the bees. “Having pollinators like honeybees is essential to the health of the plant ecosystem of the garden,” says Anderson. “Without them, we couldn’t produce fruit or collect seeds from year to year.” That said, the volunteers do sometimes collect honey as the bees can spare it. Anderson says it’s not as scary as it sounds. “The colony we have right now is so gentle you usually don’t even need to smoke them before you open their hive box,” he says. “I’ve been beekeeping for a few years up there and still haven’t ever been stung by our hive.”
Today Stata and his colleague Ileea Larente are the Sky garden’s only two part-time employees, working about 10 hours a week each. Their time — along with costs for equipment, fertilizer, soil etc. — is paid through the Department of Civil Engineering, which in turn gets funding for the project from two pillar sponsors, TD Canada Trust and Manulife Financial. The rest of the work is done by a core team of about 8 volunteers.
In addition to providing a source of food and an outlet for the agricultural leaning of U of T students, the Sky Garden also serves as a model for other organizations that want to set up rooftop gardens of their own. “Heather and I set up a number of similar, smaller gardens,” says Stata. “We did one on a few private residences consisting of just a handful of containers, and another on a culinary school in Oakville.”
Wray, now working as an engineering consultant, is proud of how the Sky Garden has grown. “I’m really pleased that the department has taken over operation of the garden, with continued volunteer, work study, and sponsor support,” she says. “When we built the garden we were thinking more about environmental benefits associated with growing food, but the social benefits have been just as rewarding. Volunteers talk about how much they have learned in the garden or how fun or relaxing it is to be there.”
Stata agrees, but cites another benefit. “I just like being able to make dinner out of stuff that I grew and picked off the vine,” he says. “Just yesterday I picked a bucket of tomatoes and made a whole vat of pasta sauce. I really enjoy it!”