The Secret Roof Garden

Growing organic tomatoes, learning to compost, with great views

By Edward A. Brown

In the slide show above, Chris Holden (CAS’10, GRS’11) offers proof that even as winter arrives, things grow.

Boston University offers full urban immersion, with theaters, restaurants, and a historic ballpark just minutes away. But what if you want to grow your own food here, or try your hand at worm composting?

You can. One of BU’s best-kept secrets, the rooftop greenhouse atop the Stone Science Building, has been standing since the building was erected in 1930, according to Alan Strahler, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of geography and environment.

“It is a bit old and decrepit, but it’s still useful,” says Strahler, whose department resides on the floor directly beneath the garden. “A greenhouse needs sun, and where else can you guarantee sun for a greenhouse when you’re surrounded by tall buildings?”

Strahler is one of several geography professors who have used the greenhouse for course work. He has students in his class on remote sensing of vegetation grow a variety of plants and study the properties of their leaves to understand how they appear on satellite images. At the end of the semester, the class sits down for a pesto dinner. “We grow a lot of basil,” says Strahler.

Colleague Nathan Phillips, an associate professor of geography and environment, is another fan of the garden. “It is a very efficient use of space,” he says. “Green roofs are a real opportunity as we move towards making our cities more sustainable.”

Phillips believes many buildings on campus could benefit from their own garden. It’s easy to find out whether a roof would be right for a greenhouse. The City of Boston’s Solar Potential Map can analyze the height of a building and those surrounding it and come up with the building’s suitability for a solar panel. Since plants are essentially solar panels themselves, this is the information needed.

The unlikely roof garden has become a symbol of green living for those who know about it. “There is obviously the carbon footprint benefit of growing locally,” says Phillips. “But the other huge advantage is that you know exactly what went into your food. This way you don’t have to place your trust in whoever grew the food and put it on the supermarket shelf for you.”

Chris Holden (CAS’10, GRS’11), a member of the Organic Gardening Club, is a greenhouse regular. His group is one of three that meets at the garden; BU Bikes and the Composting Club are the others. The greenhouse is open to everyone. Interested people can contact Elizabeth ‘Libby’ Glenn at

Edward A. Brown can be reached at

This article first ran in BU Today on December 10, 2009.

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