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As Arlene Throness heads to work, she weaves her way through the crowd of students in the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre, eager to get to the stairwell to escape the chaos that surrounds her. She unlocks the door at the top of the stairs and enters her paradise: a 10,000 sq. ft. rooftop garden.
Throness is the coordinator of Rye’s HomeGrown (RHG), a group that promotes the benefits of urban agriculture (the process of growing and distributing food in cities). The team, consisting of Ryerson students, staff, and faculty, maintains six edible gardens on campus. Today, Throness and her crew will harvest the rooftop garden.
The October morning rain has dampened the soil and each step sinks deeper into the dirt. More than 50 different vegetables, fruits, and herbs have grown in the garden this year. There are 12 varieties of tomatoes, nine kinds of lettuces, and six types of carrots. Members methodically work their way down each plant aisle, picking, pulling and cutting various produce. Every so often, muted sounds from the traffic below remind the team that they’re still in the city.
The team usually sells their crop at the weekly farmers’ market on Gould Street, but for the first time ever, the harvest from the rooftop is being used by Ryerson Food Services. The Hub Café, the Pitman Hall cafeteria, and the International Living Centre are all taking advantage of the fresh fruits and veggies to feed their masses.
“This is a big deal,” Throness says as she carries a crate full of fresh lettuce to the storage area. “This space has become a sustainable source of food for the Ryerson community.”
The rooftop garden started in 2013 as a 1,000 sq. ft. pilot that adapted an existing flower bed of day lilies. The garden produced approximately 250 kilograms of food. The success from the pilot pushed RHG to extend the project to use the entire roof. The garden is on pace to produce approximately 2350 kg of food this year.
Ryerson’s Food Services and the president’s office funded the roof’s conversion. The project required more than 60 volunteers to put down the compost, lay sheet mulch and start planting seedlings from Ryerson’s greenhouse.
For Throness the rooftop garden is a hands-on way to teach Ryerson students about the sustainability of urban agriculture and how to grow food. She notes a general lack of opportunity in the city for people to learn about urban agriculture. “It’s hard to find resources on how to grow,” she says. “The roof is a learning ground.”
By noon, the skies are clear and it’s beginning to warm up. The team continues their harvest and many of the workers have shed their coats.
“I’m on cloud nine and I’m sitting in dirt,” says Sammy Tangir, a second-year environment and urban sustainability student. As she carries a crate of greens to be washed, Tangir gazes to the west and points out another greenhouse in the distance. “Who knows what they’re growing,” she wonders.
Tangir says that most students are clueless about Rye’s rooftop garden. “People think food comes from farms outside [Toronto]. Just look up.”