This Caltech Dining Center’s Freshest Vegetables are Grown on its Roof

The first course prepared for the most recent “Dress Dinner” at Caltech wasn’t unusual for the fancy, end-of-term meal for students, but the source of the mixed greens, flowers and other vegetables in the dish is a point of pride for executive chef Zach Chambers.

Forget farm-to-table, everything on the plate was grown on the dining hall’s roof.

“The whole first course this term was a mixed salad from up here,” Chambers said, standing among rows and rows of Tower Gardens, aeroponics systems installed by L.A.Urban Farms on the Chandler Cafe‘s roof over the summer. The 48 towers, standing about 5 yo 6 feet tall, can each grow more than two dozens vegetables at once and they are easy enough for the cafe’s staff to harvest as needed.

“We literally have a roof-to-table program here,” said Jonathan Webster, senior director of Caltech’s dining services.

Today, the garden grows peppers, eggplants, heads of lettuce, kale, arugula, basil and other herbs.

Webster wanted to make use of the cafe’s large roof top, but he initially thought a traditional garden, with heavy soil, would weigh too much and require more attention than his staff could give. At a conference, he learned about the vertical Tower Gardens, which take up less than 3 square feet each. He found immediate support from his superiors because the students get better food, the dining center is more environmentally responsible and it might just save some money too.

The aeroponics system pumps water to the top of the tower and then drips it onto the roots of the plants for about 15 minutes every half an hour.

Eventually, most, if not all, of the water will come from condensation collected from the dining center’s air conditioning unit, Webster said. He also wants to have solar panels installed to generate the power needed for the pumps.

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