Rooftop Transformation - G.R.O.W. Grows Veggies, Community & Collaboration

November 9, 2016

By Kati Moore, MEM '16

The hardy, maintenance-free plants that dominated the original beds in 2014 had become a weedy, overgrown jungle until the student group, GROW (Green Roof and Orchard Workforce), began transforming the space. Today the rooftop is an organized garden: students, faculty and staff can be seen working the soil and picking tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and basil, while bees and a hummingbird move among the bee balm and sunflowers.

It all started a year ago after Alex Klonick MEM’17 and Elissa Tikalsky MEM’17 met with Nicolette Cagle, lecturer in the Environmental Science and Policy Division, student leaders of the Duke University Greening Initiative (DUGI), and John Robinson, assistant dean for information services, to determine the future of the rooftop garden.

Out of this meeting came GROW, the first student group to take full responsibility for maintaining the rooftop garden and the fruit trees in the courtyard between Environment Hall and the Levine Science Research Center. In that process of “maintaining,” they’ve done much more: they’ve fostered community and pride in the building and the school.

Almost 60 students, faculty and staff attended GROW’s first event, a “weeding party” in September 2015.

“The plan at that time,” Tikalsky says, “was to kill all these weeds, and put some really cool stuff in there.”

Following the advice of the Duke staff at the Research Greenhouses, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, and Duke Campus Farm, the group tore out the weeds to make room for pollinator plants and winter vegetables such as chard, garlic and onions.

Then one thing led to another: a spring pruning workshop in the courtyard orchard area; a mushroom inoculation workshop, in which participants were guided through oyster mushroom bag and shitake mushroom log inoculations; and summer pesto-making and salsamaking parties in which the attendees carried home edible creations made with garden ingredients.

A new initiative this past spring—offering personal garden plots to faculty, staff and students—turned out to be both community building and food producing.

In a shared plot, Peter Magner MEM’17 and Chris Sanders MEM’17 successfully grew and harvested beets, turnips, radishes, lettuce, tomatoes, bird’s eye chili peppers, zucchini, sage, cucumbers, carrots, and chard. Magner says as an added bonus, they benefited from the rooftop herbs such as basil, chives, and rosemary.

“Chris and I both have gardens at home, too, so between all three gardens, we were able to produce most of our fresh vegetables needed for the summer,” Magner says.

Staff member Nancy Kelly, director of conference and special events, tended a plot with Jeanne Ryan, human resources manager. They grew lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, zucchini, squash, cucumbers, and sunflowers, among others.

“My gardening efforts have been thwarted by deer for years,” Kelly says. “Our rooftop garden plot gave me a renewed sense of the joy in planting veggies in the dirt and watching them grow, and an opportunity to work with others in the school.”

A large part of GROW’s success stems from the commitment and enthusiasm of their leadership. In addition to Klonick and Tikalsky, the GROW team includes Laura Marie Davis MEM’17, who manages the finances, Eleanor Johnstone MEM’17, who organizes events, and Spenser Cotê MEM’17, who leads management of the orchard.

This leadership team, Klonick says, was “vital to making GROW grow.”

Partnerships with other groups and organizations at Duke also was key. Duke Forest provided freshly cut logs for the mushroom inoculation event last spring, and Rytas Vilgalys and Khalid Hameed from the Vilgalys mycology lab provided expertise and training. In the spring, GROW partnered with Eno Magazine for a rooftop release party for their fifth annual issue, and collaborated with Duke Digital Initiative to create a 360-degree video of the garden at the end of the summer.

Support has even come from outside Duke. John Washburn, co-founder of Bold Rock Hard Cider, based in Nellysford, Va., has provided beverages free of charge at numerous GROW events.

“I see GROW as an experiment in collective action,” Davis says. “I enjoy contributing to this community of individuals who come together to create something bigger than themselves.”

Moving forward, GROW intends to continue expanding its programs and its reach. Because the original leaders will graduate next spring, they will start training the next generation of GROW leaders to ensure that the rooftop garden and the orchard continue to offer unique opportunities for collaboration and community.

“I think GROW has captured the imagination of many people at the school,” Kelly says. “There is a lot for the community to gain when people are working and gardening side by side.”


Kati Moore MEM’16 served as the Nicholas School’s student communications assistant until she graduated.