The penthouse patio on the eighth floor of McCormick Hall’s east tower has one of the best views of the Boston skyline on campus, but until last year it was a drab, underused deck. Now, it’s part farm, part high-altitude oasis thanks to two of the community’s Graduate Resident Tutors (GRT).
Bridget Wall began a garden on the McCormick rooftop last year, and this year she and fellow GRT Melinda Hale are inviting McCormick residents to enjoy the newly refreshed space. While the height of the growing season is during the summer when most residents are away, the pair welcomes McCormick students to enjoy and discuss the garden during school-year study breaks.
“We’ve talked about the choices we’ve made for the garden and asked students for suggestions,” says Wall, a doctoral student in biological engineering. During their last study session, Wall and Hale brought students to the rooftop garden for a social gathering featuring ice cream adorned with fresh syrup made from the garden’s herbs.
“During study breaks, we give GRTs free range to provide programs that support and educate students outside of the classroom,” says Donna Denoncourt, director of Residential Life Programs. “The garden gives students a chance to get their hands dirty — literally and figuratively. It really brings the community together.”
Today, 74 planter boxes filled with flowers, herbs and vegetables line the rooftop, but the outdoor space was not always a beautiful community space. Before Wall’s ambition and horticulture expertise reached the penthouse roof, the planter boxes were filled with rocks, dirt and weeds. “For years, the planter boxes were empty, and the rooftop looked sterile,” McCormick Housemaster Kathy Hess says.
In spring 2010, Wall, with permission from Hess, began rejuvenating the space. She planted a number of flowers and herbs — including geraniums, thyme, mint, rosemary and cilantro — but encountered some problems along the way.
“That first summer was tough because I was bringing water back-and-forth and back-and-forth,” Wall says. “It was so windy, dry and hot up there, and I was watering twice a day. It was a little backbreaking. I’m an engineer and I wanted to solve this problem.”
This past spring, Wall called on Hale, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering, to help her install an irrigation system for the rooftop garden. The pair placed two sprinkler heads in each planter box that can be adjusted to dispense different amounts of water based on the plants’ individual needs. “We tried to make the irrigation system as low maintenance as possible,” says Hale, adding that it is also permanent and simple to use.
Even with the new irrigation system, Wall and Hale still face some technical limitations. For example, seven-inch-deep planters are not an ideal home for carrots. However, the irrigation system has allowed them to expand the variety of plants in the garden. “This year, along with herbs, we’re growing cucumbers, beets, cabbage and peppers,” Wall says. “Lettuce has done particularly well.”
With their newly expanded variety of vegetables, Wall and Hale are currently working with McCormick Environmental Chair Katherine Silvestre, and MIT sophomore, to involve McCormick students even more in the garden.
“The garden could really help students become more aware of what can be produced locally,” Silvestre says. “If it’s something we can grow on the roof of McCormick, we can do it anywhere. I want to make the garden a part of McCormick culture.”