Tiny purple and white blooms on long, green stalks tower above the weeds in one enormous wooden container. A few feet away, there’s a six-story view of north campus, the Oread Hotel and Memorial Stadium.
Janna Traver bends over to touch the newly sprouted tarragon and chives. Traver, the executive chef for KU Dining Services, will start planting new herbs and produce on Monday in the rooftop garden outside the sixth floor of the Kansas Union.
Traver and the KU Dining catering chefs’ started the project in spring 2008 in hopes that they could save money, improve the quality of campus food and do something better for the environment. While they started with bigger produce, like beefsteak tomatoes, they chose to focus on herbs because it’s more effective and has a greater impact on campus as a whole.
“There are so many fresh herbs that I like to use in cooking and they’re very expensive through our purveyors, and you have to buy a larger quantity—some of them you have to buy a pound or a half-pound—and I wouldn’t necessarily need all of that for a recipe, so then the rest is going to waste,” she said. “I thought, you know, if I had my own little herbs growing upstairs, then I could go and pick and in the summer months especially when we don’t have as much traffic it would save us some money.”
(Listen to Traver talk about how her experience as a KU undergrad shaped her project.)
According to Traver, it costs $12 to $15 to buy a pound of basil, depending on the time of year. It costs about $4 for a small basil plant, which can produce at least four pounds of basil and is used to garnish food and make pesto for almost every dining outlet on campus. She estimates that producing just that one herb has saved the University around $3,000 over the course of five years.
“Part of it is about saving money but it’s also about saving our resources. It’s about having something that is fresh that is right here,” Traver said. “Dining services . . . the strides we have taken in the last five years for buying local and for buying local produce, buying products that are manufactured locally, it’s been a huge focus of ours.”
The garden has grown incrementally from three barrels and 10 buckets in 2008. In 2010, Traver installed about 10 “EarthBoxes,” which have increased the yield by more than 50 percent, according to the project expansion proposal.
This year, Traver said she hopes to add six more EarthBoxes and a hydroponic tower—a six-foot-tall tower with different areas to put plants in. In the tower, the plants grow with water—no dirt necessary.
Traver said she’s learned that Kansas weather can be unforgiving, and she’s expecting “craziness” this year.
“Just in the five years I’ve been doing this, how the weather affects the yields has just been amazing,” she said. “I’ve really gained a huge appreciation for gardeners and for farmers—folks that this is their livelihood. When you have that two weeks of 100-degree temperatures, that can kill your entire garden. We had a couple of years when we had those really big heat spells, and my yields were a half or a third of what they were the last year. It’s really weather-dependent.”
Generally, Traver works with her executive sous chef to plant in the spring, but it’s a chef apprentice who harvests, waters and tends to the garden every day in the summer.
“Really there isn’t a set individual who [has this] job. This is more of a bonus, and I look at it as a reward for those who have really been doing a whole bunch, who have gone above and beyond,” she said. “It’s a nice break from day-to-day routines in the kitchen, especially in the summer, things tend to get a little monotonous and you want to be outside.”
Traver said she hopes students take note of what comes from the garden.
“The garden is sort of a showcase, and it’s a visual impact of, ‘Hey, we are doing this,’” Traver said. “When you’re going to the salad bar, it doesn’t matter how much signage sometimes we have up, people just don’t realize that this is grown locally.”
It’s the little things like fresh, local pesto or tomatoes on a sandwich, or a dressing with fresh lemongrass that Kim Nixon, manager at Impromptu Café, said makes a difference for customers.
“It just makes sense,” she said. “That fresh tomato is going to taste so much better than something that was brought here on a truck from far away that was picked too early. It’s also better for you, you’re going to get more nutrition from that stuff.”
It doesn’t get more local than herbs from the rooftop, Nixon said.
“It’s just the right thing to do, really, to source as locally as possible. It’s something that KU Dining services is committed to, it’s something that we care about, and this gives us a neat way to represent it visually,” she said. “I think that that’s just important. I’d like to see it grow every year and it has, and I hope it continues.”