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Rooftop gardens prove more sustainable ways of “greening” campus

Plant expert Joan Zinn helped staffers start a rooftop garden at DU's Driscoll University Center.

The sun-baked concrete and brick picnic deck overlooking busy Evans Avenue off DU’s Driscoll University Center needed some greenery to cool things down. But staffers keen on sustainability in the Student Life office next door weren’t eager to add ornamental plants that demand water and produce little in return.

For Christy Cerrone, DU’s assistant director of housing and residential education, and her colleagues, the answer grew out of a project they helped jump start at residence halls last year. They brought in large pots filled with dirt and set out to grow greenery that also produces food.

This summer, with the help of plant expert Joan Zinn, a handful of staffers spend lunchtimes learning about what’s known as “container gardening,” tending more than 20 large pots of herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and more. While they have developed a lush landscape for the deck that absorbs the heat, they also are enjoying the fruits — and vegetables — of their labor.

“We wanted to see how we could make better use of the space and we wanted to do something sustainable,” Cerrone says. “We are beautifying the area, but we can also eat what we grow.”

Zinn, a gardening and healthy eating enthusiast who takes care of indoor plants all over campus, says she enjoys sharing the benefits of organically grown foods and herbs. She hosts regular “lunch and learn” sessions with the campus “farmers,” helping them tend their crops.

“It’s remarkable how healthy foods can be,” she tells the group on a hot July afternoon. “As you learn about all the varieties and how they benefit your body, you can have a lot of fun experimenting with new recipes.”

After helping campus gardeners support bulging tomato plants and trim greenery, Zinn helped pluck handfuls of basil and parsley and brought out a portable food processor. In minutes, the group was turning their harvest into fresh pesto, a versatile green sauce Zinn says is bursting with nutrients.

The idea of rooftop gardening — or growing food in unlikely locations around campus including roofs, courtyards and sun decks — came up last year when pilot projects took root at a couple of buildings. The sun deck at Driscoll is proving to be a convenient location because it’s adjacent to the Student Life office where Cerrone works.

The project isn’t the team’s only sustainability effort. Among their projects, the office spearheaded a residential hall endeavor called “When you move out, don’t throw it out.” That project encourages students departing for the summer to donate used items with useful life rather than tossing them in a dumpster.

In June, the effort filled 11 large vehicles with nearly eight tons of donated items. The donations were not only diverted from landfills, but also benefitted Goodwill Industries, Denver Children’s Advocacy Center, the Haven House, Third Way Center, the Family Tree, St. Francis Center, and Community Ministry Food Bank.


Joan Zinn’s Fresh Basil Pesto

1 cup firmly packed snipped fresh basil
½ cup snipped fresh parsley
½ cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (2 ounces)
¼ cup pine nuts, walnuts or almonds
1 or 2 cloves of garlic, quartered
¼ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup olive oil

Place basil, parsley, cheese, nuts, garlic and salt in a blender or food processor, cover and blend. Gradually add basil leaves as mixture blends into a paste, adding oil until the paste develops the consistency of soft butter. Pesto can be refrigerated for up to a month, or frozen until needed.

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